Donna McNutt uses her love of fashion to find confidence and motivation — and shares it with others — after a myeloma diagnosis.
Donna McNutt knew something was wrong when she woke up Easter morning 2015 and couldn’t do the one thing she always does, no matter what: get dressed.
This was extremely unlike the woman known by friends, family and now more than 5,000 Instagram followers as “the cancer fashionista.” In an interview with CURE®, McNutt shared how she uses her Instagram account as a way to find confidence and motivation, and connect with other people going through similar cancer journeys.
RECEIVING HER DIAGNOSIS
In 2015, McNutt was living in a small cottage in Laguna Beach, California, with her husband, Jack. Her three children were grown, leaving her and her husband in an empty nest — something they were excited about.
“My life was really full, going into those really fun years of when your responsibility for your family is slowed down. And then, cancer,” she said.
For three months she had not been feeling great. She had been experiencing bad rib pain, which she thought was from dancing on Friday nights at a local bar with her husband. But that Easter morning she told him to rush her to the emergency room. She would be there for two weeks and later received a diagnosis of multiple myeloma.
Hearing those words was easier to absorb in that moment than it would have been sitting in an office, she said. She felt she had just finally let go of everything she had been holding in for the past three months.
“For me, I didn’t even care (whether) they told me I had an alien living inside me. It was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, please take care of me,’” she said.
After leaving the hospital, she felt like a mere shell of her previous self. Her kidneys were failing, and she couldn’t even fit into her underwear anymore.
PASSION FOR FASHION
When she returned home and started going to treatment appointments, she felt unattractive and wondered what she could do to make herself feel better. She was always worried that her cancer would strip away what she loved most: fashion. So she started putting in the effort and getting dressed up for chemotherapy and doctors’ appointments.
“It wasn’t really a conscious decision of, ‘Oh I’m going to look like this in chemo or going to the doctor’s office,’” she explained. “That’s who I am. And I’m not going to let cancer take that from me.”
However, it was a slow process. Many of her clothes didn’t fit right, so she got rid of all the clothes that fit her old life but not her new one.
So, it started with a pretty pashmina scarf she would wear during her six months of chemotherapy while preparing for a stem cell transplant.
And then every day she felt good, she would take a photo of herself leaving the doctor’s office or going to chemotherapy and send them to her family to keep them updated.
“Not only am I someone’s wife, someone’s mom, I’m someone’s daughter, I’m someone’s sister going through cancer,” she said. “I started snapping pictures and sending them to my family. ‘Look at me today. Look at me.’ That was my message to them. What better way for them to believe that I was fighting and I was getting better than getting dressed. And it just started from there.”
And so, McNutt became the cancer fashionista.
THE CANCER FASHIONISTA
When she entered into City of Hope in Duarte, California, for her treatments, scans and appoinments, she felt she was taking cancer on as she walked down the hallway.
Soon, McNutt said, she became known as the woman about whom everyone asked, “Oooo, what does she have on today?”
And she transferred that energy to Instagram with her profile bio, “Fighting Cancer One Outfit at a Time!” Here she shares her outfits of the day and what she’s up to — whether it’s getting a bone marrow biopsy or just enjoying the California weather. It’s all done with the help of her husband, who takes the photos.
“I didn’t really know much about Instagram, but I just knew I have to share (and) that you have to keep your ‘thing.’ I kept my thing,” she explained.
Patients with cancer already have a lot of pressure on them and McNutt wanted to be sure that her Instagram didn’t add any more pressure on anyone to feel they have to look put together and have the best outfit for treatments.
She just wants them to know that they should continue doing what they love, just as she is. “You’re so into blaming yourself that I wouldn’t want the pressure to be, ‘Look at that woman, I’m never going to be her.’ I want them to really, truly, authentically understand that,” she said. “I love this and this is me fighting cancer one outfit at a time — find what you want to fight cancer with one something at a time.”
McNutt added that she is not an influencer. Although she has had opportunities, she does not have sponsored posts. It doesn’t matter to her how many followers she has. She wants them to follow her to see something different and authentic.
“I feel so blessed because my followers have helped me, too. Because there are plenty of days I really don’t want to get dressed. I want to give up. Now I have kind of a responsibility,” she said.
FINDING CONFIDENCE WITH CANCER
Many patients can lose their confidence after having cancer or as they are going through treatment. McNutt said patients with cancer should find what made them feel confident before receiving a cancer diagnosis and tap into that.
“You are the person you were the day before cancer,” she tells other patients.
She recalled how she experienced body image issues.
“I think that has to come with an acceptance of everything (in) your scenario. I am much better at that today than I was six years ago,” she said.
McNutt has found her motivation and energy every day through getting dressed and making sure she has something to do. McNutt found she had a lot of time at home, especially after her stem cell treatment and chimen antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy. She is currently letting her new CAR-T cells do their job and is praying for a long remission while she looks for things to do around the house that keep her going — whether it’s writing to a pen pal or cleaning out her closet or crafting.
She tells others that whatever they are doing that day to put all their heart into it.
“I just don’t want to languish here in a pair of sweatpants,” she said.
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