Austin Owens / Lantern photographer
The three words can be devastating: “You have cancer.” For Donald MacDonald Jr., they were a challenge he accepted.
“At that moment, your life changes,” said the man known by many as Mac. “And it’s all about what you do with it as to how you then continue to take your walk.”
As he waits to be declared cancer-free, Mac is sharing his fighting spirit and motivation with others who have cancer — as a patient coach.
Three years ago, Mac, his wife, Marina, and his daughter, Sophia, lived in Dallas, and Mac had a persistent sore throat. Doctors noted the soreness and redness but didn’t raise any red flags.
After moving to Columbus, Mac visited the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute when his symptoms hadn’t improved in almost a year.
As a former alcohol and tobacco user, he had a hunch that the sore throat could mean something more.
“I knew with my poor decisions when I was in high school and college, I knew that I was playing Russian roulette and I was probably not going to get the roll of the dice my way,” Mac said.
A long line of cancer history in his family increased his suspicion. His mother died of lung cancer, his grandfather died of throat cancer, his uncle died of brain cancer and his father was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
At the James, doctors removed one of Mac’s tonsils, but the biopsy came back negative for cancer, he said.
When the pain came back, doctors removed his other tonsil. That time, they found cancer at the base of his tongue.
Mac dealt with radiation to kill the cancer and underwent surgery to remove a tumor. Doctors removed all they could at the base of his tongue without altering his appearance.
Now, Mac’s five-year clock has started. During that time, if he shows no more symptoms of the disease, doctors will declare him cancer-free.
Until then, every sore throat will be a potential nightmare.
“That’s the mental elephant or gorilla that I have to carry around,” Mac said. “Every time, if I get a sore throat, it scares you. You think to yourself, ‘I hope this isn’t coming back.’ Your mortality hangs in the balance.”
At age 49, Mac said he is grateful for the cancer because it gave him purpose.
“God’s opening this door for me, and I’m just trying to walk through it,” he said.
Working with Dr. Ted Teknos, director of head and neck surgery at the James and Mac’s surgeon, Mac has earned a special position as a patient coach, specializing in head and neck cancer.
A stay-at-home dad, Mac volunteers 17 hours per week at the hospital. He said it gives him the chance to be a “gladiator for those that can’t fight for themselves.”
“The most fulfilling part of being a patient coach is when someone looks into my eyes after they see and feel and hear my spirit, they start crying and they put their arms around me and they want me to hug them,” Mac said.
His duties include counseling during treatment, comforting families during surgery, directing patients and families to the doctors and nurses who can help them, and most importantly, providing a patient’s perspective.
Mac “has been there, he’s been that scared patient on the other side of the chair that none of us have been,” said Kristi Frenken, primary nurse for Teknos. “He can relate to these people on levels that we can’t, and the patients can see that right away.”
Teknos, along with Mac, encourages students to stay conscious about their habits during college.
Alcohol and tobacco use, and even sexual decisions, can lead to cancer in the future, Teknos said.
Mac’s goal is to spread the word about cancer, how it can be prevented and how it can be fought.
“I think if I touch you, if I change your mind about something and I help you live a better life and a healthier life,” he said, “then I’ve done something special.”