Photos by Mike Bloom

Personal Battle

September 2007, Donna Henke had just turned 50 when she found a lump in her breast.  Within days she was examined, tested and told, “You have cancer.”

Henke remembers, “I was so convinced it was just a cyst. I had just had a big birthday and thought, ‘Well, your body just changes.’ But, I had the biopsy on a Wednesday and was called the next day and asked to come to the office on Friday.  My husband, Bernie, said he wanted to go with me and I still thought they were calling me in that quickly to tell me I was fine.”

Before the news had really sunk in, Henke was advised, “You have two options; you can have a mastectomy followed by chemo or you can have chemotherapy followed by a mastectomy,” and she was given the weekend to think it over.

Simultaneously, she was processing the news, her feelings and had to share this information with family and those closest to her.

“I remember the hardest call was to my oldest son, Donal, who was away at college.  He told me he was going to quit school to come home and take care of me.  He did come home to visit, but I was able to convince him to stay in school.  I also ended up going to Albany for a second opinion, and while I didn’t know it then, I went to a surgeon and plastic surgeon in Albany so Donal was able to see me.”

A treatment plan was made to include eight rounds of chemotherapy followed by a mastectomy.  “I was told to expect my hair to fall out after the first treatment,” shared Henke, “and a friend told me about her own experience including losing her hair while out to dinner at a restaurant.  I decided to shave my head and as my doctor said, ‘She is going to control this and not let the cancer control her.’ I would offer that same advice to anyone going through treatment, do not let the cancer get you, take control whenever you can.”

By having the mastectomy surgery following chemo, Henke was told the advantage was to be able to test the tumors and determine if in fact the treatment had worked.

“I had the surgery on a Friday in Albany, with my whole family in attendance, and I received the results the following Wednesday. I was told, ‘I am happy to tell you, you are NED.’ I had to ask and was told NED means No Evidence of Disease.  No radiation was needed.”

Following reconstructive surgery, Henke’s entire breast cancer journey spanned from September 2007 to July 2008.

Relay for Life

“The Relay for Life was around for a few years and Crispell had a team in the Port Jervis Relay and I joined.  The event was all night then and when Bernie and I drove home, we were exhausted, but we really enjoyed the experience.  Then we went to Newburgh before Sue and Mike Swensen and I brought the relay to Pine Bush in 2004.”

Henke has been involved in varying roles throughout the 13-year history of the Pine Bush Relay for Life.  While this year it seemed a bit quieter, and a bit smaller, Henke says, “There are so many Relay’s now.  Maybe it is time for a change in the format? Or maybe consolidate the locations.  We are looking at a few options for the future.”

Garden of Hope

Asked to talk a bit about the Garden of Hope located in the Town of Crawford Park at the site of the Pine Bush Relay for Life, also known as the Tess Chessari Memorial Field.  Henke immediately said, “God, I love the Garden,” before explaining,  “The Garden of Hope started out as a place for community members to sit and reflect and remember those lost to cancer or cancer survivors.  At this time, I’d like to encourage the community to use this space for anyone impacted by any disease.  We are down there all the time and add new tiles twice a year in the fall and just before the Relay.  Tiles are available online.

Henke also mentioned a number of volunteers including; Glen Larson for his help and drawing the design of the Garden, Mike Grass for install the new tiles, Alex Goudreau who plans on installing a new paving stone walkway on the other side of the wall, and the many other volunteers and private as well as business donors for their contributions to the project.


“Now, I see an oncologist every six months while I take a cancer preventative drug.  I am almost done and expect to be removed from the medicine and change to yearly visits. In 2009, I was able to take my younger son, Stephen, to college and yes, I was crying,” although Henke’s reasons were not like other parents who may be shedding tears about their empty nest or their child reaching a wonderful milestone.  “I cried because I wasn’t always sure I would see this moment.  I was able to see my son Donal get married and those very important moments, when they come, you do see things quite differently.  We have made so many strides and now people who have been diagnosed with cancer can lead happy, productive lives and absolutely celebrate more birthdays.  Having cancer does not have to be a death sentence.”

Next year’s Pine Bush Relay for Life is scheduled for June 2, 2018.  If you are interested in becoming a committee member or volunteer in any form, please call Donna at (845) 744 – 8017.

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