Denfeld News

November 22, 2012
Duluth News Tribune

Donahue family celebrates more than the average Thanksgiving
By Rick Lubbers

Expressions of thanks will be piled high at the Donahue family table today.

Only three months ago, Jon Donahue and his family and friends didn’t know whether he’d live long enough to see the leaves change color, let alone celebrate Thanksgiving at their Piedmont Heights home.

Donahue’s summer was shattered by a cancer diagnosis and a stroke that left his left side temporarily paralyzed.

After weeks receiving radiation and chemotherapy treatments, as well as physical therapy to help him recover from the stroke, Donahue’s remarkable progress and positive outlook give him many reasons to be thankful despite cancer punching a hole in his life.

“I’m making great strides; I’m just excited for the future,” said the 47-year-old Donahue, who has co-hosted “The Average Guys” sports talk show on Duluth’s public access TV channels with Kenny Kalligher for the past 14 years. “So much good has come out of this that I refuse to be negative. Every morning when I wake up, it seems like a new adventure.”

Cancer has cast a shadow over the Donahue home for several years now. Jon’s wife, Lisa, battled breast cancer nearly six years ago and has been in remission for five. Barely a month past that five-year mark, cancer again turned their world upside-down.

When Donahue awoke on Aug. 15, there was no indication of what was in store. By the end of the day, doctors were telling him the odds were against him awaking to see Aug. 16.

Ailing from a severe headache, Donahue went to Essentia for treatment. Tests revealed a tumor: He had gliosarcoma, a cancer of the brain. Emergency surgery was scheduled, and doctors gave him 15 minutes to talk with Lisa and contact his three children before undergoing a procedure that could possibly result in death.

“I go from having a headache to all of a sudden being told that I’ve only got minutes to live,” he said. “It just reshaped my whole life.”

He made it through the six-hour surgery, during which doctors removed a softball-sized tumor from the right side of his brain, but Donahue suffered a stroke during the procedure that paralyzed the left side of his body.

A daunting challenge

Anyone meeting Jon Donahue for the first time is likely to be pulled in by his engaging personality. Bring up sports, music, politics or family and expect a lively, lengthy and often humorous discussion.

Initially weighed down emotionally by the enormity of the diagnosis and the long trek to recovery from the stroke, Donahue began fighting the cancer and working to regain mobility. He takes that challenge with the same vigor he displays in talking about the Minnesota Twins, the hard rock group Rush, politics or his love for Lisa and their children — Alyssa, 15, Jacob, 12, and Tyler, 10.

“Knowing I had three kids at home just gave me the strength and perseverance to get home to see them again,” he said. “I’m just blessed to have the wife I have … With the stress of her having breast cancer, going on six years now, I don’t know if a lot of marriages could have survived.”

He also cited a rekindling of his Christian faith as providing spiritual firepower to endure radiation and chemotherapy (after taking a month off, his chemotherapy resumes in early December), physical rehabilitation and the anxiety of waiting for an MRI scheduled for early January that will measure how effective those treatments have been.

“I asked God to come into my life. That’s when everything started changing,” Donahue said. “I was either going to let the cancer control me or I was going to take control of the situation. I was not going to live in fear, I was just going to make the most of the time I have — however long that may be — and just enjoy every moment.”

One of those joys has been broadcasting “The Average Guys” on Duluth’s PACT-TV, where he worked. A staple of Duluth cable, the show debuted on Christmas Eve 1998 and has never strayed too far from its premise — two regular guys chatting about sports.

Donahue and Kalligher taped their 567th episode just before Donahue’s illness and the show has been on hiatus since. But Donahue hopes to get No. 568 on the air soon, even if it means recording it at home.

“It’s been my pride and joy,” he said. “After almost 600 shows, you sort of take things for granted. Now, this is something I’ll never take for granted.”

Bolstered by a strong marriage

Many spouses struggle with remembering their wedding anniversaries, but Donahue can’t forget his: Oct. 21, 1995.

“Game 1 of the 1995 World Series,” he says unhesitatingly. “(Atlanta’s) Greg Maddux pitched a two-hitter.”

Seventeen years later, Jon and Lisa, 42, have forged a strong marital bond. Jon threw a party for Lisa on July 8 to mark the five-year anniversary of her remission two days before. She initially resisted, not wanting to jinx her good fortune. But Lisa’s battles with cancer help inspire him toward winning his own.

“Her experience helps me navigate through the process of dealing with realities,” he said. “Her experiences help calm my nerves.”

It also helps with practical considerations, Lisa says, such as being “able to ask the doctors familiar questions and kind of prepare him for what to expect or not to expect.”

One continuing concern is the effect on their children, who have spent a large portion of their young lives dealing with a parent battling cancer.

“They are having a hard time,” said Lisa, who added that counseling helps guide them. “All they know is Mom being sick and now Dad being sick. They have their ups and downs.”

An outpouring of support

The Donahues say the support of their Piedmont neighbors and the greater Twin Ports community has given them many reasons to be thankful: for the skill and compassion of their doctors to the generosity of companies such as Shelton Excavating and Adolphson Construction, who built them a driveway and a wheelchair ramp, to countless folks who have dropped off family meals.

“The outpouring of support from businesses and individuals in the community takes you aback,” he said. “It’s a blessing to be able to tell your kids about the good in this world instead of always the bad.”

A group of friends has also been planning a benefit for the Donahues to help defray medical bills. Slated for Dec. 1 at Mr. D’s Bar & Grill, the event includes a spaghetti dinner from 4-6 p.m., live music, a silent auction, games and prizes.

Hosted by radio talk show personality Neill Atkins and former Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson (Mayor Don Ness will be on hand, too), the event boasts myriad auction items, including: a signed hockey jersey from Minnesota Duluth Hobey Baker winner Jack Connolly, an autographed photo of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, signed baseballs from Pete Rose and Harmon Killebrew, a mitt autographed by Yogi Berra, a Minnesota Timberwolves gift pack, a Cirrus scenic flight for three people, a 32-inch TV and a one-night stay at the Hampton Inn.

“So much good has come out of this from the Piedmont community to people from all around the country donating items for the auction, it’s hard to be negative when so many people have poured their hearts out to me and Lisa,” Donahue said. “If all neighborhoods could be like ours, this world would be a better place.”

A new mission

Donahue knows that despite making noteworthy improvement since his cancer diagnosis and stroke, he still has a lot of hard work ahead of him to fight his illness and regain mobility. Even though he still uses a wheelchair, he is gradually regaining the use of his legs and hopes to be walking by the end of next summer.

But he also has a new goal: a way to give back when so many people have given freely to him. A way to say thanks by helping give hope to other couples fighting cancer.

“I think the Lord’s purpose for me is to get me off my duff and educate and inform people along the way of our journey,” he said. “I think that’s what my main mission is supposed to be in life.”