Donna McNutt, The Cancer Fashionista

By NANCY CARPENTER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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Jack and Donna McNutt relaxing at their home

Two challenges when planning to interview Donna McNutt, a fashion maven diagnosed with cancer. First, where to start. The medical angle seemed logical. A diagnosis of any serious illness is one of those before-and-after events that changes our trajectory, our identity, our decisions. But jumping into the very private matters of health isn’t always easy.

The bigger concern: She’s a fashionista. What do I wear?

“Cancer” and “fashionista” seem opposing forces, the necessary “hook.” Brought together, might this be a pioneering medical clothing line with a fashion sensibility, yet suited to the business of accommodating the aftermath of an illness? A mash-up of form and function? Wrong, or at least not entirely right, which still left me in that quandary, where to begin. And what to wear.

Within five minutes of meeting McNutt, problem solved. Sitting on my sofa with her bottled water, she wanted to talk about the role of fashion throughout her life. “Back in the ‘60s my family moved from New Jersey to California. I was 6, and everything and everyone in California, all of it was strange. My older sister was a big reader and got her bearings, reinvented who she was through books. My path was different. Even then I loved getting dressed up.”

Her path was through the one pair of sandals she owned. There isn’t a girl out there who hasn’t felt awkward, hasn’t experienced the sting of “being outside.” During those awkward early years, we often believed how we looked, how we dressed, that’s the ticket. Childhood into teen years, a balancing act of fitting in while establishing our own unique voices. This made sense to me: Once dressed and out the door, minus a mirror, all that we can see is our feet. Shoes quite literally ground us.

Not that she turned her passion for fashion into a career. She fell in love with Jack McNutt, they married, raised three children (two sons Corbin and Hunter, followed by a daughter Tatum). A familiar path, both ordinary and extraordinary. I didn’t ask but am certain every parent/child, mother/daughter, Sunday barbecue, beach outing, holiday dance, she was smartly turned out. Not in a designer label way, though a label or two works, the salt on caramel ice cream.

And then…

McNutt is elegantly tall to my five feet. She walks with purpose. In equal parts she owns her space and lets others in. She doesn’t demur. And so, when not quite feeling physically right in early 2015, she gives those apprehensive thoughts some sort of inner test, a timeline. “This will go away, this has nothing to do with me, because I am busy.”

Except the pain didn’t go away, she did have something wrong. Her family insisted on Easter Sunday in 2015, that she go to an emergency room. She didn’t have enough stamina to challenge them. She needed more than sandals to guide her.

She had four broken ribs. No wonder the basic act of breathing was compromised. But a fall was not the cause. Lab tests revealed her kidneys were functioning at 20% capacity, and if possible, something far more serious was coursing through her body: multiple myeloma, one of the most severe forms of cancer with a show-stopping prognosis, not that anything is gained when ranking disease.

Multiple myeloma attacks bone marrow, thus compromising their strength until they break, often the first sign. The insides, the spongy plasma cells that make antibodies to fight infections also matters. Surgery to remove a tumor is not the answer; there is nothing to remove. Nor is remission the goal. Multiple myeloma is a chronic disease treated, in McNutt’s case, with a stem cell transplant with the usual risks of rejection followed by a maintenance program. This means radiation and chemotherapy and lots of infusions, lots of needles, lab tests and drugs and more drugs.

It took six months to medically prep her for the transplant. When she left the hospital in a wheelchair, she had changed so much she didn’t know how to connect with others, she couldn’t look at people. She didn’t want to be seen.

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Donna and Jack McNutt worked as a team during those early months

Once home, she discovered none of her clothes fit, not knit tops meant to forgive, not skirts with elastic waistbands. Nothing. Not even her shoes.

“I hated the cancer that was in me.” A legitimate reaction, but she also knew anger on its own wasn’t going to get her through this.

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She asked herself, “What will this look like on the other side?” The more pressing question: “What if I’m the biggest heartache in my kids’ lives?”

For her, that wasn’t acceptable. “I knew I had to protect my children. That’s what mothers do. How do I prove to my family I am going to find that other side?”

She took a sip of water and continued. “How I look on the outside reflects how I am on the inside. Dressing has always been an expression of who I am.”

Hospital attire, intended to conveniently accommodate the battery of tests and procedures, simple in construction for a wide range of shapes and sizes, mostly gender neutral, wasn’t inspiring, wasn’t going to cut it. “I fully respect the medical staff at City of Hope. They have life-saving jobs to do, and they do them well. But hospital attire wasn’t my style. I could dress simply and fashionably without compromising the incredible care I received.”

We all recognize attitude plays a big role in recovery, complements the business of medical protocols. Patients are encouraged to bring a favorite pillow, a stuffed toy, talismans to rub, books to read, earbuds connected to favorite soundtracks. Make plans to celebrate successes, no matter how small they might be. Dressing to balance the discomfort of procedures makes sense.

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McNutt’s sense of style is not limited to fashion, as evidenced by her pink kitchen cabinets!

McNutt has four sisters: the older one the reader (and now writer) and two younger sisters, all married, all with families. Her parents returned to New Jersey years ago. Her family is a huge support system. She shared pictures taken when she was having this blood draw or that infusion, sporting cropped pants, chic tops and coordinated shawls to keep warm. One sister observed: “You are the cancer fashionista.”

That hit a cord. McNutt started with a blog, a new venture. “Cancer forces you into doing things you didn’t think you could do,” she said. “I have never been that person who is active on social media. I didn’t gravitate to support groups. Not that these options aren’t valid. I believe in support groups. You can find your community.”

“But that’s not the route you took.”

“I would have been a poser if I’d taken those paths. But I did want to make something positive out of this diagnosis.” You might say, she created a community through Instagram.

“What about making bucket lists?” I asked.

“People, not unkindly, suggest bucket lists, which can be great. But if it involves pressure to do things on some arbitrary list…I’m not so sure.”

On the same note she added, “Despite what we are told, people can’t always handle everything they are given.” Clearly, McNutt does not gravitate to adages. She has seen people struggle, and not for lack of trying. All kinds of people with all kinds of cancers. “Cancer can crush,” she admitted.

That said, her message for many: “You will get to do what you want to do. It might be as simple as this: If you’re craving a batch of cookies, and you love making them, then make them. And eat them.”

It becomes a fine balance with a medical community imposing standards for safety and well-being. Neither she nor I advocate ignoring their wisdom or suggestions. But, still, we have choices.

I thought about my own experience after my husband had a stroke. We were advised to get a hospital bed, put that bed in the dining room, install stair lifts (or better yet, move to a single-floor home), and buy a couple of cases of grab bars to corral every hallway and room. All with good intentions and worth considering, every person and every situation unique. Home health professionals provide lifelines, many which we embraced. Our approach: Let’s see how we do, let’s see how far we can stretch ourselves and get as close as possible to our before-stroke life.

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That’s Kurt in the bird cage – part of the McNutt Animal Family

Not that McNutt hasn’t had setbacks. The pandemic didn’t help, and 2023 was not an easy year. She had pneumonia, sepsis and a tumor. For the first time, she found herself in ICU. “Regardless of the setbacks, I am still going forward. I still have that choice.”

It’s been nearly a decade since her diagnosis, and therapies have changed. She now receives what is called CAR-T, a blessedly shorter label for chimeric antigen receptor T cells. These cells are genetically engineered or changed in laboratories to create a new receptor that binds to and kills cancer cells. The process is made-to-order depending on the cancer, but this still means infusions and labs and probing and prodding and tests and more tests. The day after our interview she was scheduled for chemo plus the chemo pill she takes every other day. The following day, a PET scan.

“Once a month a nurse calls me to review information about taking and managing this chemo,” she said. “It’s a regulation that I be informed.” By now McNutt has memorized the warnings and disclaimers.

I visited McNutt’s Instagram account. I’m a bit of a novice, but she’s made it easy to navigate. She shares short videos of intimate moments of therapy, her attire smart and comfortable. “I have finally purchased a sweat suit,” she said in one, holding up a chic pale blue cashmere cardigan and pants. She opens her closet and explains clothes management. I got a few tips on making those seasonal shifts, something altogether too familiar for anyone who grew up in places where temperatures fluctuate in the extreme. Her dedicated followers are not required to share her passion. No advice, only encouragement and permission to follow your own path. “From the beginning I knew I didn’t have to be anything greater than I already was.”

McNutt gives her clothes and shoes a second life through donations, an excuse to then haunt vintage clothing stores.

She speaks on behalf of City of Hope, and continues to volunteer at Casa Theresa, teaching arts and crafts. “When I first started, I thought it was about what I could give these young women facing their own challenges with little if any support. I didn’t expect to get anything in return. How wrong I was. They’ve taught me the art of receiving.”

Travel has also played a role in her recovery. She promised her family that once she completed the initial rounds of treatment, they would go to Bali. Even for the robust, travel is not without a few surprises. While Bali didn’t happen, Tulum did. Then a wedding in Lake Como where she wore a smart black dress printed with contrasting flowers in bloom at the waist. More trips to Mexico. Arranging this interview and photos was a challenge, catching her between a trip to Austin where her daughter lives (She admitted with affection, “She’s everything I wasn’t at her age.”) and a trip to New York with friends. She also fits in a weekly date with her husband, a tradition throughout their marriage.

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They maintain the tradition of a date night once a week

When first meeting McNutt, hard to ignore her cropped, near-white hair. Not an easy style for many, but so perfect for her I had to ask, was that her original color? Chemo has a way of messing with hair: first the loss, then straight hair morphs to curly. Light hair darkens. In her case, her natural soft red no longer worked as well as platinum blonde. Easy to wonder, is she really dealing with a chronic condition?

I have a very large Royal standard poodle who was a big part of my husband’s life after his stroke. Dogs are notoriously sensitive to distress, thus often employed as part of comfort therapy. Abby is a gentle giant who wants to make friends but can overwhelm. She’d been sequestered. Eventually I brought her into the living room; her first inclination was to put her head in McNutt’s lap. I’ve never seen her warm up to a stranger with such ease.

To follow Donna McNutt on Instagram, go to

@thecancerfashionista.


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