Woman Who Went Blind After Having Breast Cancer at 19 Finds Strength as a Mom of Two: 'You Need to Be Resilient'
"Whatever life throws at you, you can absolutely overcome it if you have the right attitude," Holly Bonner tells PEOPLE
When Holly Bonner was diagnosed with breast cancer at just 19 years old, she thought it would be the toughest fight of her life. But she had no idea how many more times she would be tested.
After being in and out of remission throughout her twenties, she was told at 26 years old that she had Paget’s disease of the breast, a rare type of cancer involving the skin of the nipple. The medication she used to treat the disease had a less than 2 percent chance of impacting her eyesight. But two years later, she began experiencing vision loss.
“It started with depth perception issues where I wasn’t really able to see curves, and then I noticed it was becoming more difficult to see at night,” Bonner, now 37, tells PEOPLE. “It was a slow decline, but I was losing my eyesight.”
With no cure for her vision loss, Bonner, who lives on Staten Island in N.Y.C., found the strength to move forward. And as her vision worsened, she went on to receive her masters in social work at Columbia University.
Then on Jan. 3, 2012, after waking up from a nap, she couldn’t see anything.
“It was so sudden,” she recalls. “I woke up and thought I had died. The only reason I knew I was alive was because I had dogs and I could hear them barking.”
Bonner screamed and her husband Joseph — whom she had met just six months prior to her second breast cancer diagnosis — ran up the stairs, scooped her up, put her in the car and took her to the doctor, who declared her legally blind.
“I felt very bad for my husband,” she says. “He went through cancer with me and now this journey. I didn’t think it was fair and I became very depressed.”
Bonner says she hit her lowest point after she went blind and remembers having “a very angry conversation with God.”
“I said, ‘Haven’t I had enough? You give me cancer and now I’m blind. Is there anything else? I need you to give me a sign. I need you to let me know that you’re here,’ ” she recalls.
Bonner says she soon became violently ill. Worried that her cancer had come back, she went to the doctor, who gave her surprising news.
“I was pregnant,” she says. “You make plans and [God] laughs. It was the push I needed to stay alive because I’ve got to get this baby here.”
As she adjusted to her vision loss, Bonner set out to find other women in her situation.
“There was no one on any mommy blog or parenting website who had acquired blindness later on in life who was expecting a baby,” she recalls. “I felt really isolated, so I just threw myself into this and I became very prepared.”
She became motivated to figure out how to make a bottle and how to change a diaper without her eyesight, so she got a doll she could practice on. By the time her daughter, Nuala, was born on Feb. 6, 2013, she was well prepared.
She was so prepared, that just a year later, she became pregnant with her second daughter, Aoife, now 2.
As Bonner became more confident, she began to think that there must be other moms like her out there who need guidance. So she started blogging about her day-to-day life. That blog turned into Blind Motherhood, an online community that has since become a resource for individuals and their families who have been impacted by vision loss across 162 countries. Bonner says she talks to 8 to 10 families a week who need advice or simply want to vent.
“The biggest thing is advocacy and helping people understand that they need to self-advocate,” she says.
Bonner has learned to do everything for her daughters over the years, from getting them ready to school to putting them to bed. She also began to volunteer for City Access New York to bring awareness to the blind in the community. She is also helping to arrange a blind easter egg hunt with the organization this spring.
This Friday, Bonner will attend the group’s “Reach for the Stars Achievement Dinner and Auction Gala” to raise money for individuals with developmental and sensory disabilities and the visually impaired.
Last month, Bonner also launched her Visually Impaired Education Program in Staten Island, where she travels to schools with her guide dog, Frances, explaining to children how they can interact with the visually impaired and how to greet a service dog.
Bonner says that her devoted husband Joseph, who has been a police detective in New York City for 23 years, has never once left her side.
“He’s my biggest supporter and my best friend,” she says.
Her husband and her two children have taught her that “you need to be resilient to survive in this world,” she says.
“Whatever life throws at you, you can absolutely overcome it if you have the right attitude,” she adds. “Don’t harden your heart because if you do you’ll have a very miserable existence.”