Don Gonville, cancer survivor, advocate and friend: ‘When you’re down they lift you up’

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Lucy and Don Gonville.

MANCHESTER, NHAs Don Gonville recalls it, his “medical journey” began with a mass on the bottom of his tongue and difficulty swallowing.  “I was pretty sick,” he says. “I had trouble swallowing and couldn’t eat very much. I knew something was wrong.”  

Don shared his thoughts at a recent event heralding the upcoming opening of the new Elliot Regional Cancer Center – Solinsky Center for Cancer Care. Set to open on the campus of Elliot Hospital this August, the new center will revolutionize the detection and treatment of cancer in the community.  We’ll take a deep dive into the center and what it means for cancer care in our next Medical Matters column.      

Back to Don.

The retired clothing wholesaler went to his doctor for an initial diagnosis which led to several weeks of tests with a variety of physicians and specialty care providers between Manchester and Lebanon.  After a period — about eight weeks in all — Don was told that the mass was cancerous, and he was at stage four of the disease.

“That news would knock anyone for a loop,” Don says.  “And I was no different.” He and his wife of 20 years, Lucy (more about her later) were referred to see a cancer surgeon at Dartmouth Medical Center in Lebanon.  “The thinking was that the mass needed to be removed surgically and then I was to have radiation treatments,” said Don. He said the surgeon he talked with said that while an effective way to remove the growth, there were possible risks of the surgery, which were significant.

“At the end of the day, the surgeon’s advice was against the surgery due to the risks and I was sent to Manchester for non-surgical treatment,” he says.  “I am so grateful to that doctor for his recommendation. I wound up in the right place.”

Over the next year, the right place for Don was under the care of New Hampshire Oncology Hematology, Radiation Oncology Associates and staff at Elliot Hospital. He underwent both chemotherapy and radiation therapy.  Due to the treatment and location of the tumor, Don had to receive nutrition through a feeding tube. Lucy, who Don referred to as “my rock and full-time caregiver,” kept careful track of all of Don’s medicines, therapies and appointments in a large binder. “She was literally with me every step of the way,” Don says.  “I could not have done this without her.” 

Don was also effusive about the care and caring he received during treatment.  “All of these people do their jobs with a deeper purpose. From the person you see at the front desk, to the technicians, nurses and providers, you feel as though they are in the fight with you,” he said.  “When you’re down, they lift you up.”  

Don Gonville speaking about his nearly two-year journey from cancer diagnosis to recovery – and a new lease on life. Photo/Chris Dugan.

Once declared cancer free, Don had another health care hill to climb.  He explained that during the treatment and time spent receiving nourishment through a feeding tube, the muscles in and around one’s tongue and esophagus become atrophied, requiring specialized physical therapy.  While arduous, the 76-year-old attacked the therapy and assigned exercises — all tracked by Lucy in her binder —  with zeal. “These are muscles and like any other muscle, when you don’t use it, it gets weak,” Don said. 

Once Don’s nearly two-year journey was complete, he found he wanted to give back. “I was so grateful and happy to be better, I wanted to see if I could help others.”

In addition to speaking to group’s about Elliot’s new endeavor, Don and Lucy attend cancer support groups and meet with cancer patients and their families to talk and share their own experiences.  “Everyone is different in terms on how they got there, but we all have a common bond through cancer. Hopefully, my perspective and experiences can help others.” He says he lets each conversation take its own course, adding “sometimes I just listen.  Whatever people want to talk about is fine with me.”

He also is clearly a believer in humor as a form of healing.  (columnist’s note – if you run into Don, ask him to tell you his cat scan joke).

Today, Don and Lucy are enjoying their retirement — and newfound friends.  The couple enjoys walking in their Hooksett neighborhood and had nodding acquaintances with several neighbors they passed.  When Don became sick, many of their neighbors were very supportive and made short visits to their house to see how both Don and Lucy were doing.  In fact, Don now often has breakfast with “two of the guys” to catch up. “Lucy and I consider ourselves very lucky to have such great neighborly support,” he said.

When speaking to Don, you can’t help but be struck not only by his warmth and kindness but also his resolve to help others. This is clearly someone who has been through something and come out the other side stronger and with a new perspective. And those who meet him are better for the experience.

In my next column, you’ll read more about the new cancer center and meet some of the many responsible for bringing this vision to Manchester.


Contact Chris Dugan at chrisdugan@manchesterinklink.com