As Mona Pinnington endures chemotherapy, she refuses to allow cancer to control her life



Mona Pinnington, 38, tries not to grimace as her 11-year-old daughter, Alexandria, chops at her hair with a pair of scissors.

"I'm going to give you a mohawk," Alexandria says gleefully.

"Please don't," her mother pleads.

The aftermath of her first chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer has already hit Pinnington, and hit her hard. But she is determined to head off the anguish of watching her hair fall out in clumps by shaving her head now. Her sister, Justeen Oess, along with Oess' husband, Matt, has come down from Atlanta for moral support, bringing with them their wire-haired vizsla puppy, nicknamed Josey.

As the pile of hair grows on the deck outside Pinnington's home, Josey digs in, coming out with a big wad that she carries in her mouth around the deck area.

"Oh no," Pinnington cries and laughs as Oess chases the little imp around her chair. Alexandria had wanted to save the hair but Pinnington tells her, "This hair has been fried, dyed and laid to the side."

"Time for it to go," Oess says.

The hair is just the latest victim of the chemotherapy. Pinnington was hit by pain and fatigue Monday and Tuesday after getting her chemotherapy the previous Thursday. That Wednesday night turned bad, too. She went upstairs to use the bathroom and never made it back down.

"I just laid on the bed," Pinnington said. Despite taking medication for nausea, it still felt like acid reflux, she said.

"It's almost like indigestion, but I didn't even eat," she said. In fact, every time she ate anything solid her stomach started to hurt a few minutes later.

"I'm on a liquid diet" of protein shakes, Pinnington said.

Her legs felt restless and irritable, what her husband, Cameron, called "wiggly legs."

The next day, however, her mother, Donna Arnold, answered the door and said, "Today's a good day."

Except for Pinnington's hair. Alexandria wields the scissors with just a little too much enthusiasm.

"Careful," Pinnington says.

"Yeah, don't cut her ears, honey," Arnold says.

Pinnington has been worried about how Alexandria would take all of this. Alexandria has asked a lot of questions, such as whether her mother's eyebrows would fall out, too. She wants to write a book for children of breast cancer patients.

Try as Pinnington might to keep her condition from affecting her daughter's life, Alexandria says that all anyone now asks her is, "How's your mother? How's your mother?"

Oess' life has changed, too. She started Team Mona to help the family deal with the out-of-pocket medical expenses and also to raise funds for her sister to help other breast cancer patients. The group plans to walk in University Hospital's Miracle Mile Walk on Oct. 16, and Oess and a dozen others -- including Pinnington's husband -- are planning to run a half-marathon on Thanksgiving in Atlanta.

Oess has been there for Pinnington throughout her treatment.

"It is so cute," she tells her sister as the hair piles up on the deck. "It's like a pixie cut."

"I could open a salon for breast cancer patients," Alexandria jokes.

"No training needed," Matt Oess quips.

The extra fundraising is prompted in part by how little Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia has been covering for treatment so far. As the self-employed owner of CoCo's Cabana tanning salons, a small business, Pinnington's co-pay is 30 percent with a $3,500 deductible.

"I've never met my deductible in my life," she says. "I didn't know how expensive it was to get sick."

The hospital bill for her surgery alone -- without physician fees or anesthesia -- was $36,000.

Pinnington notices that the cancer is causing a shift in perception about her. She is used to being seen as a wife, or a mother, or a businesswoman who has been self-employed since she was 18 years old and has built eight businesses from scratch.

"Now I'm a breast cancer patient, which is fine," she says. "I've come to grips with it."

Pinnington is letting her husband run those businesses for now and trying to work half-days. She missed her first employee meeting in 20 years but realizes that is OK.

"I've had circumstances out of my control in the past but not of this magnitude," she says. Still, she does not complain, she does not dwell on it. She made her decisions and rarely second- guesses herself. She is receiving six cycles of chemotherapy, one every three weeks. If she stays on schedule, she will get the last one Dec. 23.

"I'm not going to have the best Christmas," Pinnington says. She will continue taking the Herceptin for a full year, but its side effects are nowhere near as bad as the other drugs. Pinnington wants that part over with, and her life back.

"There is an end in sight," she says.

Raising money

Mona Pinngton's sister, Justeen Oess, has created a Web site to help raise money to meet her sister's medical bills and also allow her to help other breast cancer patients. To donate, go to


Pinnington wants to help out with a newly formed breast cancer support group for younger patients. The group, targeting patients in their 20s and 30s, will meet for the first time at 12:30 p.m. Oct. 15 in the University Hospital Breast Health Center. For more information, call the center at (706) 774-4141.

We think pink

As part of a monthlong effort to help raise awareness about breast cancer, The Augusta Chronicle will feature a series of survivor portraits and articles during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The Chronicle will profile 15 breast cancer survivors Fridays through Sundays this month.