Photo Credit: Courtesy of the National Marathon to Finish Breast Cancer
In celebration of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, we've spoken to some strong survivors whose lives have changed tremendously for the better after having won their battle. Donna Deegan, an inspired marathon runner who survived breast cancer three times, and the founder and creator of 26.2 with Donna, The National Marathon to Fight Breast Cancer, tells us her story.
NeverSayDiet: How does it feel to have survived breast cancer three times?
Donna Deegan: Well, any day that I’m living and breathing is a good one, that’s for sure. It certainly has given me a much greater appreciation for life. Each time I’ve gone through it, it moved me forward in a way. It’s one of those things that when you start out, you’re in such a fearful place, but the more you go along you realize you have to look it in the eye and accept and embrace it. Then you can let it go, and once you do that you can enjoy life. For me, that’s really what it’s helped me to do. It's helped me to live in the "now" a whole lot more than before. I’m so type A—I used to live my life waiting for the next thing to happen and there’s really not much to be gained by that.
NSD: How has running influenced your life?
DD: I’ve always loved running. I think a marathon is a great metaphor for any sort of struggle in life. There are at least a couple of times in a marathon that you just don't want to go any further, but if you get through that and you get to the finish line there’s a whole lot of joy in life. It’s in stepping through it that you really gain strength and a lot of joy once you get yourself there—the more you can try to focus on that, the better. Running also helps me focus. There are many studies that show the more you exercise, the more focused you'll be; it helps to clear the mind cobwebs.
NSD: When did you start running, and how did having breast cancer effect your passion for running?
DD: I started running after my second child was born. It was time for me to go back to work and none of my clothes fit. I thought "I’m really going to hate this!" But instead, I just fell in love with it—it quickly became a passion of mine. Once I was diagnosed, I started a foundation for under-served women who couldn’t afford to pay bills while they were going through treatment. That’s really how the two are connected. I started asking people to run with me, and it escalated into a national marathon. It's called 26.2 with Donna, The National Marathon to Fight Breast Cancer. People join us every year in February to raise money for breast cancer research. It’s hard to find that breast cancer has been a negative for me when I’ve had so many wonderful things happen to me. It’s provided a lot of positive things in my life.
NSD: After having survived breast cancer, did you feel weaker or stronger?
DD: I am certainly mentally stronger. It takes a while to come back physically. I’m not as fast as I used to be. However, I am able to really appreciate every single step that I take. It’s such a great way to live life—as opposed to living in fear of your past or anticipation of your future.
NSD: Did your passion for running intensify after your battle?
DD: I couldn’t run during my first two treatments. During my third treatment, I was diagnosed right before a marathon and I was able to run the marathon through my treatment and chemo, which was a wonderful gift. My passion for everything increased. I thought, “Okay, I’m going to love every second of this.” I love to run and I love to introduce other people to running. We train thousands of people every year to run also, and it’s so cool to see someone get off the couch -- having never done anything like this -- and see them run a marathon.
NSD: Why did you decide to combine running and cancer?
DD: I thought it was a great way to raise money and a great way to introduce people to fitness who had never been there. Study after study says running and exercise are such good cancer preventatives. You should find whatever it is that prevents cancer and do those things. Exercise is really a big part of that. It was a wonderful natural connection—I got to do something I loved to do, I helped raise money, and I got to show people that this is a healthy lifestyle and to get involved. A great win.
NSD: What successes have you witnessed with The Donna Foundation?
DD: I think if we had only helped one woman, I would have considered that success. We’ve helped more than 2,000 women in our five-year life span. We help with things from medicine to mortgages to child care. When I get a letter or an email from one of these women who is now doing well—the fact that we have been able to alleviate some stress in her life is huge. I’ve gotten hundreds of emails from these women saying I’ve relieved their stress. I strongly believe stress is a cause for cancer, and I am not alone in that. I've seen women who have gone through some major stressful periods in their lives, and then six months later they are diagnosed. I believe the more stress we can take out of our lives the better off we’re going to be.
NSD: What would you tell women who are suffering from cancer?
DD: I would first of all say, don’t look at yourself as "suffering." Look at this as a stepping stone into a better life, a way to make yourself stronger and healthier. Look at it as a clue from your body that you need to do something different. I always tell people to picture themselves in perfect health. As a cancer patient, we’re conditioned to put ourselves in this battle mode, which causes us to be worn out. I didn't look at it as being in a fight, I looked at it as my body just gave me a little wake-up call that I need to be healthier. I lived an extremely stressful life, and one that had no balance whatsoever. I was a type A stressball, and I’ve learned ways to balance my life through not only exercise, but through meditation, diet and other different things. I have a new book coming out called Through Rose Colored Glasses in which I share my whole journey after that third diagnoses.
NSD: What would you tell women who have survived a cancer battle and don’t know what to do next?
DD: I would say what you do next is focus on finding what it is that creates joy in your life and really milk it. I think that’s how you create a body that is hummin' along, as opposed to one that is constantly stressed out. You can take five minutes every day and try to spill your mind a little and think of something that makes you happy. I have made a lot of dietary changes—I took gluten and dairy out of my diet. It has increased my energy tremendously and helped me feel better. If there is anything that a cancer patient gets, it's that you realize a lot earlier than most people do that life is a terminal situation. You have to make the most of what you have. Live in the "now." Grab onto where you are and make that a great experience.