A Lung Cancer Screening Saved Donna Valois’ Life

Donna Valois didn’t hurry when her primary care physician, Southcoast Health’s Dr. Felicia Barreto, urged her to be screened for lung cancer in 2019.

As a former longtime smoker who had quit a dozen years before, Donna was a good candidate for the screening, which can detect cancer early and give doctors the best chance of treating it.

Donna felt fine, however, and when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, getting care became more complicated. She finally scheduled the test in March 2021. Her annual checkup was coming up, and “I didn’t want Dr. Barreto to be upset with me,” she said.

The results came the next day, and they were shocking. Donna had a tumor the size of an orange in her left lung.

“I didn’t in my wildest dreams think I had anything wrong with me,” she said. “I had no symptoms.”

She was referred to Southcoast thoracic surgeon Dr. Tammy Gleeson and underwent surgery at St. Luke’s Hospital at the end of April. Dr. Gleeson removed about half of Donna’s lung in order to excise the tumor and some additional cancerous nodules she found.

“Dr. Gleeson told me if I’d waited six more months, she would have been telling me how long I had to live,” Donna said.

Donna spent a week in the hospital, with Dr. Gleeson checking on her every day. The attentive nurses made her stay as comfortable as possible, despite the fact that COVID-19 protocols severely restricted visits by Donna’s sister, daughter and her daughter’s fiancé.

Dr. Sophia Rizk, a medical oncologist who practices with Southcoast in Donna’s home city of Fall River, also made frequent visits to the hospital, even when she was not on call. And after Donna recuperated for a month, Dr. Rizk oversaw her chemotherapy, which was administered in the Southcoast Health Fall River Center for Cancer Care. There, Donna found “the kindest and best nurses ever.”

“Dr. Rizk was wonderful with me and very attentive,” Donna said. “She explained everything going on with me in a way a patient could understand. And she was always available.”

Even so, the three rounds of chemo were a challenge that sent her to the hospital twice, once with a fever and then a blood infection. At one point, she considered giving up, but her friends and family, especially Allyson, her then-21-year-old daughter, begged her to rally.

“My daughter said, ‘Mom, I need you to do this,’” Donna said. “I’d do anything for her.”

Now, at age 67, Donna says she is thrilled to be alive. She is still regaining her strength and is being treated for emphysema, but the self-described “fighter” insists on doing her own housework and regularly walks the Fall River waterfront with her sister. Over two years, she has extended the distance she can walk two miles, even if she periodically has to stop to catch her breath.

She resumed her work as a software tester and indulges her many loves — the beach, cooking, cruises, travel, theatre and concerts. She does crafts with her sister and daughter, visits Florida a few times a year, and looks forward to attending Allyson’s wedding.

Donna says Dr. Barreto saved her life by urging her to get screened, and now she extends that advice to friends and family.

“Early detection is everything,” she said “If I had gone for a screening earlier, the tumor might have been smaller. I do whatever my doctor tells me now, and I’m happy to tell my story if it saves one person. I feel absolutely wonderful.”

To learn More about Lung Cancer Screenings at Southcoast Health and our Thoracic Surgery Team, visit Lung Cancer Treatment MA & RI | Southcoast Health.