Donna’s story

Donna Rullo lives on a 120-acre fruit farm in Swan Hill, Victoria. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2001 and has been in remission for six years. Here's her story.


Donna at the beachBreast cancer isn't a single disease – but how many of us know that?

When I was diagnosed with early breast cancer in 2001, something my doctor said stood out: ‘Your cancer is HER2-positive.' I immediately started gathering information about ‘HER2', determined to find out what it meant for my outlook and treatment plan.

A diagnosis of HER2-positive breast cancer demands special and immediate attention because of its aggressive and fast-growing nature and the high risk for tumours to recur. To be told you have a disease so aggressive in comparison with other breast cancers is a shock that touches the lives of everyone around you.

I believe my tenacious determination to take control of this disease helped me into remission just 12 months after my diagnosis. When I heard about an Australian oncologist participating in one of the world's largest breast cancer trials ever carried out, I drove five hours to Melbourne to hear him speak at a lecture. After seeing his presentation, I committed myself to participating in the trial. I knew I had to fight this disease – for my 13-year-old son, for my husband, for myself. I was adamant that this disease would not disrupt our normal lives. I wanted my husband to be able to keep running the farm and for my son to enjoy his first year at secondary school.

Donna in hospitalI rang the oncologist who had made the presentation every week for months for an update on the trial, and I didn't stop (I couldn't stop) until he rang me with incredible news – I was going to be the first patient in the world to participate in the landmark clinical trial which eventually enrolled nearly 5,100 patients from 39 countries worldwide. Me – Donna Rullo from regional Victoria! 

I faced many obstacles during my treatment but nothing compares to the distance of travel. Every 21 days for the next 12 months, I drove a 10-hour round trip to take part in the study. It was an arduous drive and it inspired me to set up a support group in Swan Hill to help women access some of the resources that are available to them, closer to their homes. Our latest achievement has been the full-time employment of a breast cancer nurse at the local hospital.

When you're first diagnosed with breast cancer, it's hard to imagine that the experience can turn out to be positive. I can remember the early days when I was losing my hair from chemotherapy – my mother, who has Alzheimer's, would ask me why I had such a silly haircut and why was I taking it easy lying down while my sisters were cooking for me and cleaning my house. I never thought I'd laugh at that, but I can now. For the last six years I've lived my life by a different set of criteria, and it's made me a happier, healthier person. It's helped my family too.

My advice to other women diagnosed with breast cancer: be informed, stay positive, work closely with your clinician to make decisions about the best treatment for you, listen to advice but remember you are an individual.

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Updated: 26 Jun, 2013