“My breast cancer had a surprising silver lining”

By Amy Capetta

After being diagnosed with breast cancer three times in eight years, Donna Deegan transformed her life from the inside out. Today, the former TV news anchor runs two charitable foundations, advocates for breast cancer awareness and has discovered the most precious gift of all—inner peace.

As a TV journalist on First Coast News in Jacksonville, FL, Donna Deegan reported to her female audience about the importance of self-breast exams. In 1999, at the age of 38, she followed her own advice—and discovered a tiny lump in her right breast, which was diagnosed as stage I, triple-negative breast cancer.  

“My oncologist ‘got’ me!”
“As a type A personality, I had this attitude that I was in control,” says Donna, who wanted to work through her treatment and keep her life as “normal” as possible. So when her doctor explained that lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation were best for her, they came up with a schedule that let her take off just two days at a time from the news desk between treatments. “My oncologist understood my personality, and what would make me feel my best through treatment.

“I looked for meaning”
Three years later, Donna’s oncologist told her the cancer had returned in a deep lymph node. As Donna went back for round two of treatments, she remained confident in her care, and she shared updates in an online journal. Then something unexpected happened: She started hearing from women whose limited health insurance put their treatment into question. Their plight inspired her to create The Donna Foundation, which raises funds for local underserved women living with breast cancer. “I became so impressed with the women I met,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine the kind of stress they were under—‘Am I going to buy my meds or put food on the table for my kids?’—yet they seemed much calmer than I was.”

“I won’t live the rest of my life in fear!”
While trying to raise money for her foundation, Donna, an avid runner, discovered there weren’t any races that donated all their proceeds to research. So along with her doctor from the Mayo Clinic, she created yet another non-profit called 26.2 with Donna. The inaugural race was scheduled to take place in February 2008, to coincide with Donna’s expected five-year “all-clear” exam.

But three months before the race, Donna was told her cancer had returned. Feeling numb, she took her husband Tim’s hand and sat in silence for five minutes until she said to him, “You’re going to have to help me learn how to live.”

“It was the beginning of a transformation of how I viewed life,” says Donna, adding “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life living in fear.” She began learning to still her mind by listening to positive affirmation CDs, visualizing herself healthy and being in the present moment. 

On the day of the inaugural race, Donna hoped to finish only part of   the marathon, but when she realized over 8,000 people from all over the world came to run that day, she crossed the finish line. “I was doped up on joy—it was the best thing ever!”

“I’m a very grateful and happy person”
In 2012, Donna left her job as a news anchor because reporting on negative events no longer resonated with her lifestyle. Instead, she wrote two books (her latest one is Through Rose Colored Glasses: A Marathon from Fear to Love) and became a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today, she is in optimum health: “We cannot underestimate the power of the mind,” she says. “I believe putting yourself in the present moment of gratitude goes a long way.”

Donna’s top 3 tips for calming your mind—and coping better with cancer

1. Practice meditation. Donna says the idea of meditating was a foreign concept. “The way I meditate is probably different from what most people are thinking,” she says. Since sitting in silence doesn’t work for her, Donna will listen to CDs, which guide her to practice breathing techniques and positive mantras. She’ll also stop herself throughout the day to take in the sights and sounds in her environment. “I try to spend some time bringing myself to a point where I’m more aware.”

2. Give up control. Donna credits the book Love is Letting Go of Fear for changing her life. “I call it a 12-step program for fear addicts,” she states. She learned that surrendering control of an outcome is the key to serenity. “Letting yourself relax doesn’t mean you’re giving up—it’s quite the opposite,” she says. “What it means is you’re good, you’re in a state of love, which is ultimately giving you a better chance of surviving.”

3. Live for today. Donna has tried to instill the lesson of living moment by moment to her two children, Danielle and Drew. “Don’t spend your energy on worry—it’s such a waste,” she says. “Instead, get up every day and say, ‘Today is going to be a great day.’ Put that intention into your head and let it unfold that way. No one knows how much time they have here, so make a decision to focus on living, not dying.”

Concerned about your own infection risk? Find out more about how you can identify and prevent infections that could slow or halt your cancer treatment with the Preventing Infections in Cancer Patients (PICP) program.

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