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Community rallies behind single mother with cancer: O'Donnell has newfound faith after diagnosis

Joni O'Donnell and her children - Logan, 12, and Brynn, 7 - have received community support after the single mother was diagnosed with colon cancer in September. Sumbitted photo

"When somebody says 'cancer,' in the beginning you think horrible thoughts," Pequot Lakes resident Joni O'Donnell said.

That word - cancer - drastically changed O'Donnell's life in a matter of months.


O'Donnell benefit

What: Benefit dinner and silent auction for Joni O'Donnell, Pequot Lakes.

When: 4-8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3.

Where: Pelican Lakes Conservation Club, Breezy Point.

Cost: Advance tickets are $10 at Pelican Square, Moonlite Square, Billy's in Breezy Point and Crosslake Lutheran Church. Tickets at the door are $12 for adults, $5 for children 12 and under.

To donate: Visit the Joni O'Donnell Benefit Dinner and Silent Auction Facebook page.

A GoFundMe website in O'Donnell's name is available.


On Sept. 12, she was diagnosed with colon cancer after going to the doctor for what she thought was an extreme case of the flu. Instead, she learned she had cancer that had already spread from her colon to her liver and lymph nodes.

With three rounds of chemotherapy under her belt and one more to come the day after Thanksgiving, O'Donnell's next step is uncertain. Ultimately she needs to undergo surgery, but her body's response to the chemotherapy is crucial before then.

"They say it (the cancer) needs to aggressively respond or have substantial response for me to be surgically ready at this point in time," O'Donnell said. "Odds are there will be further chemo to get to that point."

The most difficult part for O'Donnell so far was breaking the news of her diagnosis to her children.

"Telling them is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do," she said.

But as a single mother to 12-year-old Logan and 7-year-old Brynn, she also feels fortunate that she has the kids to keep her going.

"It's really wonderful in a way. It's very helpful because I can't stop. I can't sit on the couch; I can't curl up in a ball; I can't wallow. I'm not typically the kind to do that anyway," O'Donnell said, "but I've got to get them up for school, got to get them off to school, got to get clothes washed, got to get lunches made."

Knowing her kids depend on her daily has helped O'Donnell to keep her life as normal as possible. Though the chemotherapy has heightened her body's sensitivity to cold, she's grateful that the side effects have been minimal.

"Do I feel fabulous? No. Can I do everything I want to? No. But I'm not curled up on the bathroom floor for hours on end," she said.

Her children have been a source of comfort throughout her journey so far.

"I think they're doing remarkably well. Brynn's my little prayer girl. She prays, and I think she's got a direct line because there's times that it's miraculous," O'Donnell said, adding that she was floored by the results of telling her kids to pray one night when the power was out and the driveway was snowed-in.

Within half an hour of Brynn saying a prayer, O'Donnell said the power was back on and one of her son's former teachers had plowed the driveway.

That newfound faith in God has kept this mother going.

"I had quite a process of awakening in the sense of realizing I had kind of turned God out of my life," O'Donnell said. "I was doing a lot of the 'How could God do this to me?' And God didn't do this to me. God's right there with me."

O'Donnell said she's seen God's work through the tremendous amount of community support she's received since her diagnosis, though accepting it hasn't necessarily been easy.

"I'm a proud Irish girl," she said. "Accepting help from the community has been a battle and also a blessing for me. This community is amazing, and the things that have already been done for me and helped with is absolutely fabulous."

Besides getting her driveway plowed free of charge, another great act of kindness O'Donnell experienced was the gift of a van. As her old vehicle needed costly repairs and would be unfit to drive in the winter, her search for an affordable, dependable vehicle was fruitless until a friend stepped in to help. After finding an online listing for a van that looked to be in decent shape, O'Donnell's friend called the owners and found that they were willing to give the vehicle away free of charge.

"They just felt moved by God to give me the van," O'Donnell said. "No connection whatsoever and they end up giving me a van nicer than I can afford by far. I call them my angels."

Not only did O'Donnell receive a van, but the owners also packed it with vegetables from their garden and pumpkins for her kids before they gave it away.

Crosslake Veterinary Hospital helped with a costly procedure for O'Donnell's beloved family dog, and Crosslake Dental Center made sure she received necessary dental work before starting chemotherapy without worrying about the cost.

And perhaps the biggest help she and her family have received is the upcoming benefit spearheaded by her boyfriend and friends. With a dinner and a silent auction planned, O'Donnell is once again stunned by the amount of love and support in the community.

"It's amazing, the kindness involved here," she said. "They all have very busy lives, and yet they're carving out some time to make this a great event."

"I'm not typically an emotional person, but this has been an emotional journey of faith on my part," she said.

Part of that faith has been letting go of things she can't control and trusting God to be with her.

"I can't control what the chemo's doing to my body. I can't control where this journey's going to go or how it's going to go," O'Donnell said. "I can't control the inner workings of my body beyond being positive."

Though she aims to remain positive, having her kids travel down this path with her is still difficult.

"They have to walk the journey with me. And to do that to your kids when they're that age, that's rough," O'Donnell said. "I don't get the choice of not taking them on this journey."

But again, she knows God is continually watching over her.

"Sometimes you let it go and God takes care of it. And he's got a whole better plan than we do. I firmly, firmly believe that," O'Donnell said. "I don't know what this journey is going to bring me in the future, but today is today and I'm making the most of it."

Because of the chemotherapy, O'Donnell is unable to work, so the fundraiser and all donations are greatly appreciated.

"Financially things are tight and getting tighter. But we have a roof over our heads; we now have a nice vehicle to drive because I have angels," O'Donnell said. "So the benefit will be a huge help in that regard."