Donna Deegan is an author, breast cancer awareness advocate and former television anchor. You may have heard of her little race down in Florida: 26.2 with Donna. It’s the only marathon dedicated completely to breast cancer awareness. We were lucky enough to chat with Donna and learn a bit more about her race, her battle with cancer and the amazing Foundation that she established. She is truly one of the most inspiring, uplifting people you will ever meet. We would run 26.2 with Donna any day.
Our Interview with Donna:
How did you get started with the Donna Foundation?
I started the Foundation after my second of three diagnosis with breast cancer. I was on television and I had already gone through the whole thing (lose your hair, eyebrows) once with the viewers. I told my News Director that I didn’t want to talk about this on the news anymore. He told me to start a blog. So, I did. I figured anyone who wanted to ask me questions or talk to me about breast cancer could do so through the blog.
Well, I started hearing from women who were having trouble making ends meet. They would tell me how happy they were for me and told me they’d pray for me but that I should know how lucky I was. I had a good job, insurance and a great family structure which these women didn’t have. So, I decided to use that broadcast megaphone to do something good.
The Donna Foundation was formed to help women and men who are going through breast cancer treatment but cannot afford it. We partner with a social service organization and when someone is going through treatment and isn’t able to work, or they’ve lost an income or whatever the case may be, we step in to help. In each case, they’re vetted by the organization and we cut a check to the doctor, mortgage company or whoever is owed the money. That’s how it all got started. That was back in 2003.
How many people have you helped since then?
We’ve helped almost 8,000 people.
What does that equate to in dollars?
It equates to a couple million dollars.
This all happened before the race?
Yes, this was before we even started the race. The race came about when I became good friends with my doctor, Dr. Edith Perez. She is considered one of the top breast cancer researchers in the world. We started running together and we’re both huge marathon fans. I decided to do some research and realized there is not one marathon dedicated to breast cancer. Plenty of races, but not a single marathon. So I said to her, what if we start our own marathon? She said let’s do it! Fortunately, I had also become good friends with Jeff Galloway so the three of us embarked on this whole idea. It took us 2 years to get everything together and we launched in 2008: 26.2 with Donna, the National Marathon to finish breast cancer.
We had almost 7,000 participants our very first year. Now we see between 10,000 – 12,000 every year from every state and about 22 countries. We’ve raised over $4M with the race. That’s split. 70% goes to research through Mayo Clinic, which is Dr. Perez’s research, and 30% goes to the Foundation to help underserved women.
Did you expect it to become such a popular event?
Of course! No, I really did. When it started I remember going to the city council asking them for seed money and I said to them “Think New York, Boston…” That’s what I want it to be. I want this race to be a mecca for those who want to solve breast cancer. I wish it was bigger. I look forward to watching it grow.
From your experience with this race, have you met anyone who has been an idol or inspiration that is now involved with the race (like a Jeff Galloway)?
Joan Benoit Samuelson. I met her through Keith Brantly who manages our elite athletes and was in the Olympics the same year as Joan. She was the first female winner of the marathon in Los Angeles. She and I just clicked and she has been such a steadfast friend. She has opened doors for us and she even came down and ran the marathon last year, right in the middle of training for Boston. She said she was just going to use it as a training run. She ran in 3 hours and 5 minutes.
Since the race is such a success, what sort of ripple effect have you seen for the foundation?
Nine years ago, I asked Dr. Perez: where do you want the money to go? She told me she wanted focus on something called a Translational Genomics program (I know… what!?), or gene research. She wanted to unravel all the mutations that cause breast cancer. And now, because of the seed research we funded, they were able to come up with a vaccine for one of the most difficult types of breast cancer, called triple negative. In fact, it’s the type that I had. It’s very deadly, very aggressive and we never knew what caused it. Now there’s a vaccine that’s about to start clinical trials. I get chills just thinking about it.
Tell us an important story from your experience. Something that will make you smile or cry.
Our very first year, our inaugural year, I was diagnosed with my third vet of breast cancer. Three months before the race. I learned that the cancer had spread to my left lung. I thought, how crazy and ironic, as a marathoner. I had to go through surgery before the race; they had to cut through one of my ribs (because I’m built like a 2 year old) and then remove a portion of my lung, followed by chemotherapy. I had told my team I was going to try and run the half marathon anyway. I hadn’t even trained up to half marathon distance but I wanted to run so badly. As the National Anthem started to play, I looked up at my doctor, Edith, who never shows any emotion whatsoever. She was crying her eyes out. So I started crying my eyes out. I look at her and I say, Edith… I’m thinking about running the whole marathon. What do you think? She said, I think you should do it.
At mile 6 and a half you have to decide if you’re going to turn around or go the whole way. I got to mile 6.5, where my whole relay team was set up. I looked at them and said – I think I’m going to go the whole way. Do you know… I did not feel the ground under my feet the whole 26 miles. I literally finished that race and was on cloud 9. It was a hot year, I was in the middle of chemo, I had raw feet from the treatment, I had just undergone surgery and I swear, it was just amazing.
Our whole thing is love over fear. We don’t acknowledge the power of the disease. We all have today; nobody knows if they have another day. We’re going to do as much as we can for each other and other people while we’re here living. We want to focus on getting up and living each day. When people come to our race, they see that. Our crowds, our whole mentality, it’s all positive and I think that’s what draws people to us.
To learn more about the Donna Foundation or 26.2, please visit their site.