Piano therapy aids Magnan cancer fight

Delano resident Donna Magnan considers her piano student Blake Koehler to be part of her “music family.” Her real family, her students and their parents have supported her through her encounter with eye cancer. Despite her ordeal, she teaches 70 piano students per week during the school year. (Photo by Susan Van Cleaf).

Delano resident Donna Magnan considers her piano student Blake Koehler to be part of her “music family.” Her real family, her students and their parents have supported her through her encounter with eye cancer. Despite her ordeal, she teaches 70 piano students per week during the school year. (Photo by Susan Van Cleaf).

Donna Magnan went to a counselor for support after she learned that she had eye cancer. After she talked for an hour about her faith, family and friends, the counselor said she didn’t need him.

“People like you do just fine,” he said.

Almost two years later, Magnan said, “I am totally at peace with this.” She sees herself as being amongst the 20 percent of people who survive a bout with a large Class 2 ocular melanoma. This is the most aggressive form of ocular melanoma that often spreads to the liver.

Magnan is Honorary Survivor for this year’s Delano Relay for Life, which will begin at 4:30 p.m. Friday, July 27, at Delano Central Park. Honorary Caregivers are Lori Elsen and Tim Nus. They are mother and husband to Betsy (Elsen) Nus, last year’s Honorary Survivor. They all will speak at the 6:30 p.m. opening ceremonies.

The public is invited to hear the honorary speakers, participate in the Relay, enjoy food and entertainment, support the fight against cancer and witness lighting of luminary bags honoring cancer survivors and people lost to cancer.

“Cancer can take you down but it’s your choice,” Magnan said as she got ready to write her Relay speech.

She credits her two families with helping her get through her eye cancer ordeal and look towards the future. One is her real family and the other is her music family. She said both families have been “so supportive. They have taken such good care of me. I love them dearly.”

With the arrival of six grandchildren, her real family has expanded to 14 members. Recently, she and her husband Milo celebrated their 43rd wedding anniversary. They have three married children Cindy (Mike) Jensen, Chad (April) Magnan, and Christie (Jason) Eckstrom.

Her music family consists of her piano students and “their wonderful parents and siblings.” During the school year, she teaches 70 piano students per week. Within days of each of her cancer treatments, she found herself receiving “music therapy” as she met students at the keyboard.

Many students start with her in first grade and continue through high school. She loves September, when students come back and she can see how much they have grown over the summer.

In September 2010, Magnan had just experienced the joy of seeing returning students with two eyes. Later that month, she discovered something was wrong. She saw flashing pinpoints of light in her right eye and decided to test her peripheral vision. She did not see her finger until it was directly in front of her right eye. Her first thought was that she had a detached retinal.

Driven by fear, Magnan prayed that doctors would see her immediately. They did every step of the way, from her first visit with an eye doctor through her visit with the Mayo Clinic doctors who eventually treated her cancer. Each doctor told her the same thing, “It’s a malignant melanoma, and it’s large.”

The tumor measured at .73 inches by .47 inches.

First Magnan tried plaque radiation therapy in hopes of saving some of her vision. Mayo Clinic doctors placed a gold cap over the tumor. Inside the cap were radioactive seeds. The cap was designed to protect surrounding tissues from radiation. Mayo doctors used the largest gold cap available for this treatment on Oct. 25, 2010. Five days later they removed the gold cap and the radioactive seeds.

As Magnan waited to undergo the therapy, she watched television and thought, “This might be the last time I can watch TV with two eyes.” And she was right.

On June 2, 2011, eye surgeons attempted to reattach her retina to enable her to regain some of her vision. The surgery didn’t work. Magnan’s eye began to shrivel.

“This was painful,” she said. She wondered whether she might have had too much radiation for the eye to deal with.

Finally, on Dec. 7, 2011, surgeons removed her eye. “At that point I was ready to part with it,” she said.

Magnan watched a man make a new, hand-painted prosthetic eye for her on Dec. 28. “I love it,” she said. “When he put it in, I cried. I finally looked normal. I appreciated the care her took to make my new eye look like the other one. He was an incredible man.”

She finds her new eye comfortable to wear and most people can’t tell that it’s not real.

During her entire cancer journey she has experienced one answered prayer after another. A favorite Bible verse of hers is, “Be still and know that I am God.” She has learned, “We have to let go and be silent and let God be in control. We are his children and he loves us and he is going to do what’s best for us. I love God.”

“Fear saps your strength,” Magnan said. “I’m going to enjoy each day and not worry about what might happen.”

Magnan wants people to know that 2,500 people are diagnosed with ocular melanoma in the United States. She urges everyone to get eye check-ups each year. The year she missed her check-up is the year she was diagnosed with cancer.

She listed warning signs for eye cancer. They include flashing pinpoints of light, a growing dark spot on the iris, blurry vision in one eye, loss of peripheral vision in the affected eye and spots or squiggles drifting into the field of vision. A person with ocular cancer might not experience all of these symptoms.

If a person notices symptoms, he should go to an eye doctor right away. “It happened so gradually with me,” Magnan said. “I didn’t know I had it.”

“It’s important to support cancer research and to support one another,” she said. “They are always coming up with something new.”

She mentioned American Cancer Society (ACS) efforts to fund cancer research and assist cancer victims and their families. Money raised through the Relay for Life supports ACS.

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