Donna Hopkins has bravely overcome more in her life than most of us will hopefully ever have to face. This lifelong athlete and West Virginia native is not only a two-time breast cancer survivor, but she also survived a medical catastrophe that took her left leg and nearly took her life. Donna has channeled the lessons she’s learned throughout her life into a breast cancer nonprofit and, now, a new book called Getting To The Other Side of Victory, which chronicles her incredible life and shares how she continues to thrive on sports, faith and a winning attitude. Get to know this amazing FACE, Donna Hopkins!
Can you tell me about your upbringing and how that impacted the way you dealt with struggles later in life?
As a child I got into everything I possibly could, and all those childhood woes and things I got into were building stamina and strength. I now know that was setting everything up for what I’m dealing with now. I also talk in the book about my mom and dad and their strength in what they went through. One of the most devastating things of all was my brother getting killed in car accident when he was 16. So I watched how my parents dealt with that and we never saw them break. They hid what they were feeling to help us get through it, and we never talked about it much as a family — we only dealt with it in our own ways to get through it. So I saw strength in them there. Then I saw the strength in them when they were going through their own illnesses. My mom seemed sick quite a bit. Nothing unto death, but she was always going to the hospital. During college, my dad ended up having a heart problem that made him have to quit work. Whether they knew it or not, I was looking at how they dealt with things and not even realizing what that was building in me.
Your book talks a lot about how sports have been really important in your life. How did you get back into being an athlete after your amputation, and why was that so important to you?
I talk about sports being the medicine that has always propelled me to go through anything I have gone through. I used to play flag football and basketball with my brothers, and I now realize why I loved it so much. Of course I enjoyed it, but I really liked the competition. So that was the key thing that has always propelled me through life — I enjoy the competition. When I was back in college and was preparing for the basketball season and getting into shape, that’s what I looked at when I went through some of life’s challenges. Those things that it took be a good athlete and to build a winning team and have a winning attitude. I used that mentality of I’m not going to lose in life because of what I’ve gone through.
How did you balance maintaining your career during all of your struggles?
I tell people the key thing is I don’t like to lose in life or in anything, and I used that attitude in balancing everything between work and sports and doctors appointments. I wasn’t overwhelmed with any of them because I needed to keep busy. But there came a time when I had to slow down some. I tell people that you can’t put a Band-Aid over a wound. You have to let it heal completely because if you don’t, it will come back and constantly pull at you until you’re healed emotionally, spiritually and physically. I was healed in some pieces because I jumped right back into sports, which was my saving grace and I needed that. But I also had to become whole again dealing with the amputation. And I think people cheat themselves because they allow people to push them into healing too quickly, and healing doesn’t come overnight. It’s not like you get out of the hospital and you’re done because you lived through the most crucial part. There are other stages, and you have to take time going through it.
In such an emotional and stressful time, did you have any self-care methods or practices that were helpful to you?
Any time that I’ve gone through anything in life, I assess what could be done differently or ask “Am I cheating myself?” So I went back, and what I realized that what mattered at this stage of my life was doing the things that really make me happy. I made it a point to never be around negative people, and I said to myself that it is good to learn how to laugh. What I had to do also was that I hated going in front of mirror at one point because it was devastating as an athlete and person that my leg was missing. But I got to the point where I looked in the mirror and told myself “You are alright.” Because when you get older, your body will fade, and whether you’ve lost a leg or whatever has happened, you are still the same person that you were on the inside, and the inside person is more important than anything on the outside.
Can you tell me about founding Hopkins Breast Cancer, Inc.?
The exciting thing about everything I’ve gone through is that it wasn’t just for me to go through for nothing, but for me to reach back and help other people come through. My mantra these days is that sometimes it’s not about winning ourselves but slowing down to help others who can’t win for themselves. So going through breast cancer that first and second time, I knew I was supposed to do something with that because I can relate to what patients are struggling with. I’m also happy about what I’m doing in the amputee community and helping people who have just lost a limb. I’ve gone to hospitals and rehab hospitals and been there for them to help them through the process of knowing steps to take to get the prosthetic and giving them information that I didn’t have.
So is that what inspired you to write your book?
Yes. It was for my healing first because when you jot down things and write out your feelings, it’s healing for you. So healing had to come to me first before I could reach out. But I wanted to write the book for people who are going through difficult things in life and they can’t get to the other side of what they’ve gone through. They get stuck and stop living because of what they’ve gone through. But what I want people to know is that it’s not the end. You can get to the other side of victory, and you can be better than what you were before. It’s up to you to tap into the things that get you to the other side. Whether you’ve gone through what I’ve gone through, all of us go through something. But I wanted to write this book also to open up people’s eyes to make them stop cheating themselves out of living life to the fullest.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
A friend of mine told me something like “We only get to live this life one time, and we can’t go back and change anything about what has happened. We can only move forward.” So I think the best advice I’ve heard from somebody is don’t waste time because you only have one life to live. And I believe that totally, and I don’t want people to go through what I’ve gone through to realize that. I was already doing that, but now I’m really digging into living everyday as if it will be my last day.
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Traveling. I love to travel. But my faith and relationship with God is what I really can’t live without. Because I think that makes me who I am as a person. And relationships are so key because one thing I did learn in going through this is that we get so busy with life and we’re pulled in all these different directions, and one thing that I’ve done after going through this is truly cultivate those important relationships even more. Because whatever things you have or do in life, it’s the relationships that are the lasting things.
Thank you Donna for sharing your life experience and wisdom with us today. All photography provided by Donna Hopkins. To learn more about Donna and her new book, Getting To The Other Side of Victory, click HERE.
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