Faith over fear, five-time cancer survivor shares story

Vagney Bradley
June 30, 2020
A woman holding a child while in a golf cart.
Donna Rosa enjoys spending quality time with all of her family and grandchildren, including her youngest grandchild, Cam. Photo provided 

Donna Rosa likes to recall boating in the Lowcountry with her grandsons and traveling to Italy with her husband and making tasty tiramisu. She treasures the moments, even more than most, because she thought she might not live to see it, especially given the fact that she’s been diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer five times. 

This year, the American Cancer Society estimates that more than 100,000 melanoma skin cancers will be diagnosed across the country. Dermatologist Joni Mazza-McCrann, M.D., with MUSC Health, encourages others to pay attention to any skin irregularities, as it is vital to diagnose melanoma skin cancer early.

“The rates of melanoma have been on the rise over the past few decades, which is certainly alarming, but the good news is that when detected early, melanoma can be treated,” Mazza-McCrann said. “This is why it is so important to monitor your skin for new or changing moles and follow up with a dermatologist.”

As a melanoma survivor, that certainly is what Rosa wants everyone to know. She enjoys telling others her story to give them hope, but the years leading to this point weren’t without struggle. She credits her faith as being a guiding light through some dark days she endured.

“My faith never wavered. I was just so grateful to be alive,” Rosa said. “I never thought about giving up, and it had to be God that gave me the strength to not give up.”

Rosa’s more than two-decade cancer journey started in the summer of 1996, 24 years ago, with a bothersome mole on her back. Doctors had been “watching” the mole for years. Once the mole started to itch more often, Rosa, a mother of two young boys at the time, insisted it be tested for cancer.

She had recently read a story about a young mother with two sons, just like herself, who was diagnosed with melanoma and was dead six months later.

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that develops when melanocytes — the cells that give the skin its tan or brown color — start to grow out of control. Cells in nearly any part of the body can become cancerous and can then spread to other areas of the body.

Her self-advocacy may have saved her life, as she ended up being diagnosed with melanoma. Rosa was not a patient of the Hollings Cancer Center at the time and was treated by non-MUSC doctors. The specialists removed the mole, but the cancer returned only a year later.

Mazza-McCrann explained melanoma is considered a more dangerous type of skin cancer because it is more likely to spread to other parts of the body if not caught and treated early. “Melanoma is less common than basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas but more dangerous because of its ability to spread to other organs if not diagnosed and treated early.”

The second time the cancer returned, it showed up in Rosa’s lymph nodes under one of her arms. She was referred to MUSC Hollings Cancer Center and was seen by oncologists who recommended chemotherapy as part of her treatment. She met oncologist Edward McClay, M.D., and immediately became grateful for his positive attitude and medical advice.

Rosa knew dealing with cancer was not going to be an easy feat, but she was thankful for the doctors at the cancer center. "MUSC truly was the place that saved my life," Rosa said.

At the time, Rosa’s husband was in the U.S. Air Force and stationed in Hawaii; she stayed back home, so that her son wouldn't have to change schools. It proved difficult undergoing cancer treatment and helping to raise a family at the same time, but Rosa was thankful she always felt love and support. She relied on her positive attitude, even during tough times, and her faith and wanting to see her two sons grow up.

“I originally just prayed to see my kids grow up and graduate from high school. Then, I questioned if I was going to see them go to college or get married,” Rosa said. “When I would hit those milestones, I felt like I was so blessed that I couldn’t get angry, and I’m an upbeat, optimistic person.”

Two grandparents stand with two of their grandsons in the living room at home.  
Donna Rosa is joined by her husband, Lt. Gen. John W. Rosa, Jr., USAF (retired) and her grandsons, Matt and Mikey. Photo provided

Two years after the cancer was removed from Rosa’s lymph nodes, melanoma was found in her lungs. At this time, she was living at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama and was preparing to move to Valdosta, Georgia. With this cancer diagnosis, doctors told Rosa she might only have nine months to live, if she did not receive the proper medical treatment. Though the news was scary for her, she was determined not to live on the side of fear. Instead, she chose faith. 

“I’m an optimist, so unless you are going to prove to me that I’m not going to make it, then I am going to go on believing I am going to survive,” Rosa said. “It is important to believe in yourself and just take it one day at time, but it’s hard. It’s a long journey.”

Rosa and her family moved to Valdosta two weeks after her diagnosis, and she had surgery five days later. The cancerous nodule was removed at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. Her oncologist in Valdosta was working with the oncologist at Emory during this treatment process. After the surgery, Rosa began chemotherapy in Valdosta.

She admits that this time in her life was grueling, but the treatment is what she believes kept her alive. She wanted to do anything she could to survive. Thankfully, Rosa lived past the nine months and survived the cancer that was found in her lungs.

Three years later, the cancer returned in her hip, and it was surgically removed. During this time, doctors in Washington, D.C., decided Rosa could be a candidate for granulocyte-macrophage colony stimulating factor (GM CSF). This immunotherapy treatment stimulates the production of blood cells and promotes their ability to function.

“GM CSF was relatively new and was given in shot form,” Rosa said. “I received shots for a little over two years until I began having bad reactions to the drug, so I had to discontinue.”

To keep the faith and hope of seeing healthier days, Rosa forced herself to look in the mirror daily and smile. Even though she didn’t always feel like smiling, she knew that if she could form a smile, she could keep going and defeat the cancer.

“Cancer can feel like it’s taking over your body, but I was determined that it wasn’t going to take over my mind,” Rosa said.

After immunotherapy, Rosa no longer had the cancer in her hip. Just as she hit the 10-year mark without cancer, she noticed, in the summer of 2011, what looked like a splinter in her toe.

Erring on the side of safety, Rosa told her doctors at MUSC Health about it, and tests revealed new melanoma on her toe. Thankfully, the cancer, her fifth diagnosis, was found early and removed without Rosa having to go through chemotherapy.

Rosa is now in remission and visits Joel Cook, M.D., an MUSC Health dermatologist and surgeon, every six months for routine checkups.

Having experienced cancer five times, Rosa believes that she has a duty to try to help others who might have melanoma. Once, while at a tailgate party at a Citadel football game, she saw a young girl with a mole that looked similar to the cancerous one she had had on her back.

Respectfully, Rosa gently told the young girl’s mother she might want to get the mole checked out by doctors. A month later, the mother wrote to Rosa, thanking her because doctors felt the need to remove her daughter’s mole.

Instances like those help Rosa, who is also an advocate for others to seek second opinions if they feel something is not right with their bodies. It leads her to believe there is a reason she has lived to tell her story of surviving cancer.

“If I can help one person, then it’s worth it,” Rosa said.

Rosa’s advice for anyone going through cancer treatment or who has been recently diagnosed is to always keep hope alive. She believes it is possible to defeat cancer and live a life without fearing the disease. Even when times seem difficult, she urges others to keep fighting.

These days, Rosa enjoys retirement with her husband, who is the former president of The Citadel. Now, a grandmother of three, Rosa does not take life for granted, especially precious moments with her family. Her faith has proved to be greater than her fear of cancer.

"Cancer is just a statistic,” Rosa said. “Statistics are meant to be broken." 

Skin cancer safety and prevention tips

  • Avoidance of UV light is critical to decreasing your risk of skin cancer.
  • Apply broad spectrum sunscreen, SPF 30 or greater, to sun-exposed areas when outdoors. Don’t forget to reapply.
  • Wear sun protective hats and clothing.
  • Avoid peak sunlight hours between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
  • Avoid tanning beds.
  • The risk for developing melanoma doubles if a person has had five or more sunburns.

Skin check: Remember A.B.C.D.E.

  • Moles with Asymmetry.
  • Irregular Borders.
  • Multiple Colors.
  • Diameter larger than a pencil eraser.
  • Evolving/changing moles should be evaluated.