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"Look FOR THE RAINBOWS" ~ Donna Yeager

Donna Yeager began each day with reflection. Over morning coffee, she would plan her schedule, contemplate life and count her blessings.

For many people, these blessings could easily be overlooked. That’s because Donna overcame more adversity than most people see in three lifetimes. In her youth, she struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. Her husband of 20 years died in her arms of a stroke. And from 2003 to 2013, she battled breast cancer, cancer in her bones, and cancer in her liver and lungs, undergoing a combination of chemotherapy and radiation for all three, as well as a full mastectomy.

The temptation for most people would be to consider these things setbacks, the sheer weight amounting to more than many could bear. But for Donna, it was just part of life. And her secret to getting through it was acceptance, recognizing the inescapability of existence while drawing strength from her spiritual beliefs.

“Life is what is,” she would say. “Whatever it is, positive or negative, whatever happens… it just is. Wishing it away is not going to make it go away. So what I get to do is learn how I live through it.”

At a time in life when people are often tempted to withdraw and pull inward, Donna did the exact opposite. She reached out, drawing on what she considered one of her greatest assets: her friends.

“I am so fortunate with the friends in my life,” she said. “And I had prayers from Buddhists to atheists to agnostics to Christians. I had prayers from everywhere.”

Donna’s bright blue eyes, her quick, genuine laugh, and a finely-tuned sense of self-depreciating humor, containing equal parts honesty and realism, instantly endeared her to everyone she met. Her face was lined not by years, but a warm expressiveness that can only be the end result of frequent laughter. Yet with all that, the quality that overshadows all others was her unshakable determination and positive outlook, regardless of (and often in direct defiance of) her doctor’s prognosis.

“I’ve never questioned ‘why me,’” she said. “Why not me? I have good insurance. I have wonderful friend-support. So why not me?”

Adversity imbued Donna with resilience early on. She overcame alcohol and drug addiction, remaining actively involved in Alcoholics Anonymous for nearly three decades by regularly attending meetings and working with people currently struggling with alcohol and drug abuse. After dropping out of high school in her senior year, she went back to school years later where she earned an associate of arts degree, a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and began work on her PhD – all while working full-time. She was a proud mother and grandmother. And throughout the course of a 20-year career, she enjoyed an incredible sense of accomplishment as an addiction medicine therapist for Kaiser, guiding others toward sobriety with tools, counseling and an endless array of stories taken from her personal experience. 

“Not to pat myself on the back, but by the grace of God and a lot of tutors – and I had some really good tutors! – I’ve been able to give people tools to change their lives,” she said. “They changed their lives – I didn’t.”

“Sometimes people look at me like I’m a little odd… but I am,” she says with a laugh. “And that’s OK.”

Odd to some, certifiable to others, but irresistible none the less, Donna had an unbridled sense of enthusiasm that made her stand out in a crowd (not to mention the occasional green wig or temporary tattoo). Known for her wild, theme-inspired costumes and outfits, it was customary to find her in a lime-green wig and matching dress as she passed out candy from a shamrock basket on St. Patrick’s Day to friends, colleagues and the staff here at Longview Radiologists.

“I felt comfortable enough at Longview Radiologists that I could do that,” she said of the safety and support she felt after being received in her green wig with laughter and hugs. “Some of the other places where I’ve had tests done, I couldn’t do that.”

With Donna, life was never dull. Constantly looking for ways to outdo herself, she affixed a temporary zipper tattoo to her scalp after losing her hair during chemotherapy. She also dyed her hair hot pink in support of cancer research and Runway to Recovery, the fashion show and luncheon for breast cancer survivors where Donna modeled clothes at Macy’s alongside other breast cancer survivors. In the seemingly worst of circumstances, she continued to live, laugh and love, inspiring all those around her toward the same.

But living through cancer is never easy, especially when confronting the unknown for the first time.

“I was really scared,” she says of her first visit to Longview Radiologists. On her own and unsure of the people or what to expect, without a preconception of what was going to happen, uncertain what tests she was going to have or what the outcome was going to be, Donna suffered from a huge fear of the unknown. But it was fear that was short-lived.

“They were so welcoming and just put me at ease,” she says. “One of the things I really liked was that [the technician] held my hand, and that felt really good. It’s like, okay, I’m not in this alone.”

“The staff at Longview Radiologists has made this journey so much more pleasant,” Donna said. “They’re real caring – there’s not that plastic persona. Those gals, and guys, really cared about me as an individual. I felt like I was important… that I wasn’t just being cattle-raced through. When I had questions, they would answer and take as much time as I needed.”

When Donna went in for an MRI – a process she said that could be frightening – the techs at Longview Radiologists would tell her the exact details of each session and how long each step would last, relieving the stress and worry by walking her through each phase.

“And then, the thing that I really, really liked was every time I would come into Longview Radiologists after that, the gals called me by my first name,” she said. “That really meant a lot.”

Nothing in life is certain. But Donna was never one for the ‘woe is me’ approach. She remained constantly busy, passionately checking off the items on her bucket list, only to replace them with new (and often bigger) goals.

So it’s no surprise that when she was asked to describe herself, “energy” was one of the first words she would offer. And nothing could be closer to the truth: she had a seemingly endless supply of energy! While undergoing treatment, she remodeled her entire house (practically on her own) in less than three months. She was also known for the themed parties she would throw throughout the year – summer parties, Hawaiian parties, Mexican parties, each of which resulted in her house decked out with festive décor.

“The cancer really helped to reinforce the preciousness of every day,” she said. “I just didn’t have time to be sick.”

The human spirit can be defined as a combination of hope, faith, resilience, patience and other qualities that give an individual unique strength. Often illusive, it makes a lasting impression on those it touches, leaving them changed for the better in its wake.

If a teacher is someone who inspires us to be our best, Donna Yeager can be counted among the world’s greatest educators. For even in grief, she held to the importance of a positive outlook. After her husband died, people would say to her ‘that’s so awful.’ And she would reply, yes it is. But at the same time, she never lost sight of how lucky she was “to get to spend 20 years with such a great guy.”

As the interview comes to a close, the final question is asked: what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in life?

“Laugh, and love every moment of the day,” Donna said. “And look for the rainbows!”