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City of Hope Orange County cancer patients plant seeds of hope

Donna McNutt, center, of Laguna Beach, speaks during an event for the new healing garden at City of Hope on Wednesday.
Donna McNutt, center, of Laguna Beach, speaks during an event for the new healing garden at City of Hope’s $1-billion cancer campus on Wednesday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Laguna Beach resident Donna McNutt has three sisters.

It was no secret growing up which sister was the one to fuss over her outfits.

“They were all studying, going and becoming professionals and I was worrying about my shoes,” McNutt said. “It’s always been a part of who I am.”

After being diagnosed with Stage 4 multiple myeloma cancer in 2015, though, McNutt said she took it very hard. Simple things became important.

“The one thing I do every day is to get dressed,” McNutt said. “I knew I had to do that in order to survive.”

Seven years later, McNutt has developed a following as the Cancer Fashionista on Instagram. More importantly, she is off treatment as of last October, and in remission.

Dozens participate in planting trees at the new healing garden at City of Hope's $1-billion cancer campus on Wednesday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Another milestone came Wednesday. McNutt spoke to more than 100 cancer survivors and family members at the opening of the City of Hope Orange County healing garden in Irvine.

Those impacted by cancer were invited to plant in the garden adjacent to the $1-billion Lennar Foundation Cancer Center campus, scheduled to open this year. The garden was made possible through a $1-million donation from Lowe’s, and the company’s Red Vest associate volunteers were on site to help with the horticulture.

“Seeds of hope” has a new meaning for McNutt, who planted a plant with her hematology/oncology specialist at the City of Hope Newport Beach, Dr. Amrita Krishnan. All of the plants, shrubs and perennials — yarrow, blue flame, blue grama grass, small cape rush, California poppies, showy island snapdragons, common rush and sapphire tower — were purposely chosen, some selected based on their medicinal value.

McNutt knelt in the dirt, an apron over her dress.

“I have literally been fighting cancer for seven years, one outfit at a time,” she said. “I want other patients to hold onto something too, that you don’t let cancer take from you. Whatever it is, you have something in your life that you decide, I’m not letting go of this.”

The healing garden is intended to create a calming space for patients and their families during their cancer journeys.

Patient Donna McNutt, right, and Dr. Amrita Krishnan, left, pose for photos.
Patient Donna McNutt, right, and Dr. Amrita Krishnan, left, pose for photos in the new healing garden at City of Hope’s Irvine campus.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Lowe’s executive vice president and chief brand and marketing officer Marisa Thalberg said she came up with the idea over lunch with City of Hope Orange County President Annette Walker.

It’s an issue near to Thalberg’s heart as well, as she said her mother passed away in 2013 after battling non-Hodgkins lymphoma and uterine cancer. According to City of Hope, one of three Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.

“It’s really special,” Thalberg said. “Planting is so symbolic, this idea of putting something in the earth and then letting it flourish again and find life.”

Guests at Wednesday’s ceremony also hung tags, featuring messages of hope, onto a wishing tree in front of the facility.

Costa Mesa resident Diane Miller was brought to tears when describing her journey. Miller was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer in January 2021. Her daughter, Josie, a women’s water polo player at nearby Concordia University, was unable to come home and help mom deal due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Miller also was grateful to be with her “people” on Wednesday.

“The anticipation of this place opening has been so big for people in my position,” Miller said. “To finally be here and see it, see the garden in and be around everyone else — survivors, doctors? It is moving. To say that it gives me a sense of hope is kind of an understatement. It makes me feel like my community is here now.”

Jennifer Chi adds a wish for her friend, Cynthia Petty, a pastor at Saddleback Church, to the first tree planted.
Jennifer Chi adds a wish for her friend, Cynthia Petty, a pastor at Saddleback Church, to the first tree planted in the new healing garden at City of Hope on Wednesday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

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