Cancer Survivor Completes DONNA Half Marathon in a Walking Boot

Melissa O'NeilMelissa O’Neil on Ponte Vedra Beach during the half marathon portion of her Booby Trap Challenge.

The 10th running of the DONNA Marathon and Half Marathon to Finish Breast Cancer took place on Feb. 12. This year it raised more than $5 million and inspired more than 10,000 runners to participate in the various events, with individuals flocking from all 50 states and setting a new standard as the largest single DONNA Marathon weekend field. And, even more impressive, this year more breast cancer survivors than ever participated.

Donna Deegan, the founder of the DONNA Marathon, is a three-time breast cancer survivor, having served as the local newscaster for Jacksonville, Fla., for decades. More importantly, she is the catalyst for what is now a tremendous movement that raises funding for The DONNA Foundation, an organization that supports groundbreaking breast cancer research at the Mayo Clinic and also generously provides financial assistance to those living with breast cancer.

“There were so many milestones and so much love on the course. I am beyond grateful and, with this much joy surrounding us, I know we will just continue to build toward a world without breast cancer, ” said Deegan of this year’s event.

On the Friday preceding race weekend, a group of runners clad in pink (a prelude to the weekend’s color of choice) took part in the shakeout run on part of the marathon route along Neptune Beach. One of the runners, Melissa O’Neil, was wearing a walking boot, but nevertheless dressed to run.

Despite a broken bone in her foot, O’Neil was determined to complete the Booby Trap Challenge, which entails running a 10K and then a 5K on Saturday, and either the full or half marathon on Sunday. This was her seventh DONNA weekend and, as a two-time breast cancer survivor, the race is near and dear to her, her husband and her two children. She delayed foot surgery for the DONNA Marathon and told her surgeon that, as a survivor, she needed running as her outlet.

Melissa O'Neil 2Melissa approaches the half marathon finish line with her husband and son as proud escorts.

O’Neil, 49, who is a nurse and lifelong athlete, was first diagnosed at the age of 30 when she was elbowed in the chest playing basketball—a blessing in disguise—and found a lump. After a mastectomy and reconstruction in 1997, she threw herself back into life. However, five years later, she found another lump in her armpit. The cancer had returned. She was given a 30 percent chance to live, and had surgery, chemo and radiation.

“During all of my treatments, I ran. It was God, me, and the road. At first, to me, running represented running away from cancer and my fears. I would run to clear my head. I would pray and sometimes cry,” O’Neil explained. Her first race was a 5K, the 2003 Seattle Race for the Cure, when she was still undergoing treatment. She said that when she was approaching the finish she heard her kids yell, “Go, Mommy, Go!” “Every emotion hit me and I realized I wasn’t running away from cancer, but I was running toward life.”

Having completed her 10K at 8 a.m. and the 5K at 10 a.m. on Saturday through downtown Jacksonville, O’Neil was set for Sunday’s half marathon, inspired by a fundraiser dinner at the Mayo Clinic, where doctors work hard in the labs to come up with a cure and, in some cases, have succeeded.

O’Neil finished the Booby Trap Challenge, as her husband, son and other family friends joined in the final miles of the run and became part of the parade to the finish.

Ahead of O’Neil, Joan Benoit-Samuelson, the first women’s Olympic Gold Marathon winner in 1984, claimed the top Booby Trap Challenge time(2:32:44) for the women’s half marathon. Meaghan Neuberger won the marathon (3:06:53), as did Matthew Barresi (2:30:23). A local high school student, Terrance Sessoms, who attends Sandalwood High, won the half in 1:18:22 while another local, Julie Stackhouse, took the half marathon win in 1:19:02.

RELATED: Cancer Survivor Carol Dellinger Completes 300th Marathon in Honolulu

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