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'I was always the strong one.' Man tells of cancer diagnosis and treatment including chemo, feeding tube and prayers
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Staff at Northeast Georgia Medical Center's infusion center dress in red and black to celebrate the last day of chemotherapy for Donald Cantrell, center, in September 2020. Photo courtesy Amanda Dunn
During his seven weeks of chemotherapy, 64-year-old Donald Cantrell made sure to wear the colors of his favorite football team — the Georgia Bulldogs. 

“I’m an avid Georgia Bulldog fan,” Cantrell, who lives in Suches, said. “You’ve probably never met a fan like me.” 

Cantrell said the staff at Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s infusion center in Gainesville would set him up for his treatment by a window with University of Georgia football stickers.  

“I was really afraid when it all started,” Cantrell, who was diagnosed in June with cancer of the esophagus and top of the stomach, said. “I had some really sick times when my wife and daughter took care of me. But I’ll tell you, the chemo team and radiation team at Northeast Georgia Medical Center are absolutely the best.” 

On his last day of chemotherapy, the nurses who cared for him prepared a special goodbye. All dressed in red and black, they surrounded Cantrell as he rang the bell in September, signifying his last day of treatment. This symbolic moment is a tradition at many infusion suites.  

“They were just amazing,” he said, choking up.  

Times Talks | With those diagnosed with cancer 

What: Local residents with cancer diagnoses, including Donald Cantrell, share their stories of how the disease changed them and their perspectives

When: 3 p.m. Oct. 19 

Where: Virtual event on Zoom 

Register: gainesvilletimes.com/virtualevents

Cantrell said he first noticed something was off about his body in early March 2020. He lost 10 pounds, which he thought was due to his new diabetes medicine. However, Cantrell said the weight kept coming off.  

After going on a camping trip and taking a large bite of steak, he said the food got stuck in his esophagus. He then made an appointment with his doctor to get a computerized tomography scan on June 18.  

The day after his visit, Cantrell said he got a call from his doctor who explained that a mass was found at the bottom of his chest and top of his stomach. He soon found out he had adenocarcinoma, cancer of the esophagus and top of the stomach. 

“The emotions were driving me crazy,” Cantrell recounted.  

Because the mass was blocking the top of his stomach, Cantrell said a feeding tube was surgically implanted in his body, which allows him to inject food directly into the stomach.  

For two months he didn’t eat with his mouth, instead using the tube.  

“It was pretty devastating to start with,” Cantrell said. “I didn’t know how to deal with the feeding tube. But after a couple of days it got to where I could do it and not make a mess.” 

Cantrell said he will never forget the day he ate his first real meal again in early August.  

“It was probably the best egg I had ever tasted,” he said. “My wife made me a scrambled egg and some homemade gravy poured over top.” 

Although he’s still on the feeding tube, Cantrell can eat one small meal a day.  

Since September, Cantrell has gone through seven weeks of chemotherapy and 28 treatments of radiation. He will soon receive another CT scan to examine the state of his cancer.  

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Cantrell said his family couldn’t spend time with him in the infusion suite, but that didn't stop his wife, Lora, and daughter, Amanda Dunn, from waiting in the car for hours.  

Before his retirement, Cantrell worked for 35 years in the Koyo Bearings USA plant in Dahlonega. He said his whole life has been dedicated to taking care of his family. During his journey with cancer, the tables turned.  

“I was always the strong one,” he said. "I learned that my kids and my family are a lot strong than I am. I never knew that until this happened.” 

Over the past months, Cantrell said his family and friends have continued to show their support. His old co-workers from the Koyo plant even started a GoFundMe page to help him pay for his medical bills.  

“All my friends and family, they kept me going,” he said. “It’s not the monetary donations, it’s the thought. When you can feel that somebody is praying for you, it makes a big difference.” 

On Nov. 5, he will undergo an 8-hour surgery at Emory St. Joseph's Hospital to remove the rest of his cancer. Cantrell encourages others diagnosed with cancer to “keep a positive attitude about everything.” 

During each treatment, Cantrell said he took a photo of his family to remind him of who he’s fighting for.  

“First and foremost, I thank my lord and savior Jesus Christ,” he said. “I thank my family and friends. You never know really how much you’re appreciated until something like this happens. And always remember — go Dawgs.” 

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