Dawn Lenhardt’s life changed when she was diagnosed with cancer. But, she learned a type of treatment without losing her hair was available, allowing her to stay in charge of who knew about her health journey.
In April 2014, Dawn felt great. She worked out daily and had abundant energy to match that of her precocious 3-year-old son, Cole. Life was good. Except …
Dawn had soreness in her chest — a torn muscle from boxing and lifting weights perhaps, but nothing too concerning in her mind until she visited her primary care provider, Michael J. Bryan, M.D., of Mayo Clinic.
When he saw the lump in her breast, he immediately ordered a mammogram. “I was scared for me and my family,” Dawn confesses.
The mammogram confirmed those fears: Dawn had breast cancer.
A Change of Plans
After diagnosis, Dawn and her husband, David, met with oncologist Donald W. Northfelt, M.D., and surgeon Richard J. Gray, M.D.
“After my meeting, I believed I was going to be just fine,” Dawn says. “I knew I could do this, and we had Mayo Clinic on our side.”
Dawn was scheduled to begin chemotherapy when Dr. Northfelt called to explain the findings from the Cancer Center’s tumor board. “The nature of her breast cancer was such that we didn’t think that chemotherapy would create much of an advantage for her, but meanwhile we had a research option that was considerably more fitting to her situation,” Dr. Northfelt says. The trial would involve a drug taken as a pill that would shrink the tumor by stopping the growth of tumor cells through blocking the enzymes that feed the tumor. Combined with an estrogen-blocking shot, the study drug began working.
“I was relieved to not have to do chemotherapy,” Dawn says. “It seems vain to be worried about losing your hair, but it’s much bigger than vanity. I looked fine, and not losing my hair gave me the control of who knew I was sick and who didn’t.”
Genetic testing further showed Dawn didn’t carry the BRCA gene known for increasing one’s risk of breast cancer, nor did she have a family history. Like many women, Dawn elected to have a preventive mastectomy with reconstruction instead of a lumpectomy.
But, the details of Dawn’s cancer were secondary to her positivity, which burned bright.
She was grateful that her son, Cole, was only 3 years old, so he wasn’t old enough to realize what was going on. At her appointments, Dawn reached out to several other people with breast cancer to share experiences and lend a comforting ear, and she actively stays available for anyone going through a cancer journey. “I was always chatting and seeing if I could help hold open a door, get a wheelchair or even push the patient to the next appointment at the breast clinic,” Dawn says.
After seven months of treatment, David recalls when they received the news.
“Dr. Northfelt came out to the waiting room and I thought, ‘Oh no, this is either really bad or good.’ He then just gave Dawn a hug and said, ‘Today’s a great day. You’re cancer-free and you’re done.’ We both cried,” says David.
Looking back, David and Dawn’s story began at a popular Tex-Mex restaurant in Phoenix. Both new to the area, Dawn says, “He got my number and here we are today 15 years later.”
Dawn’s father was in the military. She was used to making friends quickly and often from repeated relocations. When her father retired from the military and became the chancellor at Embry– Riddle Aeronautical University, the family settled in Prescott, Arizona. Her social skills translated well into her career in sales, managing a division at a staffing agency.
David grew up in Chicago and went to college and business school out East. He began working in New York as an analyst in the investment banking division of Merrill Lynch, and then he moved to Dallas to work for a global management consulting firm.
In 2000, David added PetSmart to his management portfolio. It was that introduction to the company that led him to Phoenix as the senior vice president of PetSmart when he eventually met Dawn.
“I’ve always been willing to take on different roles and experiences,” he says. “I actually worked in the stores for a year and a half. This helped me learn more about business and retail and, I think, allowed me to continue to move up until I was CEO.”
David was CEO from 2013 until PetSmart’s buyout in 2015. These days he’s enjoying his family time and is on the board of directors for a local children’s hospital and a North American dog day care company.
Today the couple shares a love of travel, sports and contemporary art.
Helping Others Heal
The same enthusiasm, passion and drive that David and Dawn live by is mirrored in their philanthropy. The Lenhardts knew they wanted to do more after Dawn’s cancer experience. They credit their parents for instilling the value of doing more for others and giving back, and they wanted to teach Cole that same value.
Interested in making a difference in cancer research and patient care, the Lenhardts set up a fund to address the greatest needs for the Mayo Clinic breast cancer program and are recognized as Distinguished Benefactors. They are also members of Mayo Clinic’s Leadership Council in Arizona.
After discussions with Dawn’s physicians, David and Dawn learned about a system of cooling caps that help patients keep some of their hair during chemotherapy treatment.
The cap’s effectiveness is based on the theory that when the scalp is cooled to 37 degrees Fahrenheit during chemotherapy, the blood vessels constrict and reduce blood flow in that area, so less of the chemotherapy drug reaches the hair cells.
Loss of hair due to chemotherapy and the stigma attached to baldness is described by women as one of the most challenging aspects of chemotherapy. Moreover, some patients refuse chemotherapy or request nonstandard chemotherapy because of the expected hair loss.
Thanks to the Lenhardts’ generosity, Mayo Clinic’s Arizona campus has three scalp cooling machines.
As Dawn experienced, hair can provide a sense of normalcy in a time when life is anything but normal. “For me, people knowing I was sick made it worse,” Dawn says. “Being able to control this one aspect really was a key part of my healing.”
fuels the mission of Mayo Clinic. Visionary benefactors are the vital catalysts
behind our pioneering patient care, breakthrough medical research and
world-class educational programs.
We are solving the world’s most serious and complex medical challenges – one patient at a time. Support Mayo Clinic's efforts today.