When First Coast News anchor Donna Deegan was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, she didn’t hesitate to share the experience with viewers.
In 1999, after her initial diagnosis, and again in 2002 and 2007, when the disease reoccurred, she disclosed what it was like to go through chemotherapy, radiation and lose her hair.
But she also kept viewers informed of her triumphs in the face of the disease.
It led her to embrace a healthier lifestyle, which included running long distances and eating mostly organic and gluten- and dairy-free foods.
She started a charity called The Donna Foundation to aid women struggling financially as a result of the disease. And she launched the 26.2 With Donna Marathon to Finish Breast Cancer to raise money for breast cancer research at Mayo Clinic Jacksonville.
That annual race, held the second Sunday in February, will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year. Registrations already are up 30 percent over last year.
Deegan no longer spends her days and nights in the newsroom.
She left First Coast News in 2012, after nearly 30 years in broadcast journalism, to devote more time to her charity and its race. Her career is now devoted to being president and CEO of The Donna Foundation, headquartered at 11762 Marco Beach Drive in Jacksonville.
But she doesn’t spend much time in the office. She is out in the community as the face of her philanthropic endeavors. And she travels the country giving inspirational speeches about breast cancer research and the importance of living a healthy lifestyle.
In Deegan’s case, CEO stands for Chief Eternal Optimist. It’s a title she is proud to have earned, because she said she used to be a cynic.
“I learned how to be an optimist,” she said. “With cancer you have a choice. You can turn inward and become a fear addict, or you can turn outward and become an optimist. I had to learn to see the world in a different way or I would have been petrified.”
The book “Love is Letting Go of Fear,” by Gerald Jampolsky, changed Deegan's life.
She wrote two books about her breast cancer experience, “The Good Fight,” and “Through Rose Colored Glasses, A Marathon from Fear to Love,” the latter of which was inspired by Jampolsky’s.
Deegan is thrilled the best-selling author, now 93, will be coming to Jacksonville in February to give the keynote speech at a fundraising dinner at Mayo Clinic the night before the marathon.
She also is excited that money raised by a decade of marathons has led to important breast cancer breakthroughs. She says more are on the horizon.
“We’ve made a great deal of progress here in Jacksonville and I think we will cure it in Jacksonville,” she said, true to her “CEO” title. “I think we have the minds here to cure it.”
Proceeds from the race are split between The Donna Foundation and the Translational Genomics research program at Mayo Clinic Jacksonville, a project the foundation created to help researchers unravel the genes that cause breast cancer.
Led by Deegan’s oncologist, Edith Perez, who helped her create the marathon, researchers have been able to type every mutation of the breast cancer gene and have been able to find gene combinations they didn’t know existed.
In addition, Deegan said they have discovered some commonalities between genes that cause breast cancer and other types of cancers, meaning the research may be able to impact those cancers as well, a finding she said is “really exciting.”
Mayo researchers are awaiting the final paperwork to begin a vaccine study that will hopefully help women with a “triple negative” type of aggressive and difficult to treat breast cancer that typically strikes women in their 30s.
About 15 percent of all breast cancer patients have that type, including Deegan. She was 38 when first diagnosed.
It was while undergoing treatments that she met many women who were struggling to pay their mortgages and electric bills, spurring her to create the foundation that has helped about 10,000 women.
The marathon proved successful from its launch in 2008, when 8,000 runners participated, “an almost unheard of number for an inaugural race,” said Amanda Napolitano, executive race director.
To date, she said, “We have dispensed nearly $5 million for our missions of caring for women and supporting research.”
Deegan, who also has a health and wellness products business, does not take a salary from the foundation and the royalties from her books support the foundation.
She and her husband Tim Deegan, First Coast News chief meteorologist, have run every marathon, as has Perez, and they plan to run again Feb. 12.
The full and half marathon event, which begins in Ponte Vedra Beach and ends at Mayo, has expanded through the years to a three-day weekend of activities, including shorter races.
New this year: a Booby Trap Challenge, where runners can compete in back-to-back 5K and 10K races on Feb. 11 at the race expo at the Prime Osborn Center, followed by either the half or full marathon the next day.
They can earn four medals for that, Deegan said, including the Booby Trap one, which features a sparkling pink bikini.
Deegan runs 35 to 40 miles a week to train and stay in shape and said she feels fortunate to be cancer-free since 2007.
“I feel like I’ve lived a really magical life,” she said. “My whole focus has been to get healthier and get other people healthier. I live one moment at a time. It’s important to live in the moment.”