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Originally published June 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 27, 2009 at 5:59 PM

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Steve Kelley

TV anchor Donna Deegan keeps running ahead of cancer

Convinced that running has helped her through three recurrences of breast cancer, Florida woman competes in the Rock 'n' Roll Seattle Marathon on Saturday.

Seattle Times staff columnist

The plan was for Donna Deegan to run the half-marathon two years ago in the inaugural 26.2 with Donna National Marathon to Fight Breast Cancer race in Jacksonville, Fla.

Her good friend and running hero, Joan Benoit Samuelson, had counseled against running the full marathon, afraid it would compromise Deegan's immune system.

The plan for Deegan, a news anchor with the NBC affiliate in Jacksonville, was to run to the race's turnaround, nearly seven miles away, then meet up with the members of her TV anchor team, who were going to run a relay to the finish line, acting as Deegan's pacesetters over the final miles.

But after all of her struggles, this was her race. And even though she still was taking chemo and had undergone surgery two months earlier, Deegan stood at the start line with her doctor, Edith Perez, a renowned oncologist from the Mayo Medical Center and runner, ready to run forever.

"I was so stoked, I couldn't wipe this goofy grin off my face," Deegan said Friday morning, sitting with her husband, Tim, in the cafe of a downtown Seattle hotel.

Just before the start of that race, a light veil of cirrus clouds dispersed the sunlight and turned the sky a metaphorical soft pink. It seemed, at that moment, as if anything were possible for Deegan.

Perez put an arm around her friend and patient and said, "Look around you. Look at all these people. There is so much love and energy in the air today, I can't think of anything better for your immune system than to be out here running."

Deegan called an audible.

Her cancer. Her rules.

Just five months earlier a lesion had been found on her lower left lung. Previously she had twice been diagnosed with breast cancer. On this lovely February morning, running a half marathon sounded sensible, but as the race began, Deegan changed her mind.

Instead of turning around at the halfway point of the half marathon, she continued running the marathon course.

"Guys, I love you," she told her colleagues, "enjoy the run, but I'm going forward."

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Her marathon. Her rules.

In February 2008, several months removed from her third cancer surgery, after she had 15 percent of one side of her lung removed, Deegan ran a marathon, stopping often to hug people who had lined the course and were celebrating her every step.

It was the slowest marathon Deegan had ever run. And the best.

"I don't think my feet ever touched the ground," she said.

Deegan, who along with her husband is running in today's Rock 'n' Roll Seattle Marathon, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999 just days after she had completed the Boston Marathon. She had surgery and chemo. A little more than two years later she had a recurrence of the cancer.

Still, she continued to run. She continued to work, sometimes vomiting into a trash can on the set. She continued to fight, never believing the cancer could beat her. She continued to live.

"I was so afraid that if I sat on the couch and did not get up, I would never get up, so for me, it was helpful to go to work every day," Deegan said.

And when her body told her it wanted to run, Deegan ran. She ran because she believed her running could beat her disease.

"I felt, on some level, if I continued to run, the cancer could not catch me," she said. "But now what I'd say is that I just love to run and I always tell people you have to continue to live and do what you love. I mean, life is a terminal situation and we're living right this minute. What we have is right now so you've got to do what you love.

"You can't sit there and say, 'I can't do this. I have cancer.' You've got to continue to do what makes you feel alive. I believe running changes your life. It empowers you in a way you can't get anywhere else in your life."

Now, 10 years after Deegan, 47, was first diagnosed, Perez tells her, "You can look for all these reasons why you've gone through all these hardships, but you know what? It's been 10 years and you're still here, and running's one of the big reasons why."

Deegan's could be the face of recovery and the 26.2 with Donna Marathon, which she founded with the help of Perez and running guru Jeff Galloway, is her way of giving back.

"I was very Type A, very me, me, me," Deegan said. "Now this has opened a completely new door for me that I would never have opened on my own. When I found out there was no marathon for breast cancer, I wanted to create one. I've always been a runner, and now I have an avenue to use that to raise money."

Asked now what her prognosis is, Deegan's answer fits her incandescent personality.

"My prognosis is excellent. Period," she said.

Makes you want to go out and run a marathon today.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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