When it comes to life’s challenges, Spokane resident Carol Dellinger approaches them like a marathon, with optimism, determination and strength.
Known as the marathon machine or marathon warrior, Dellinger runs a marathon every two to three weeks. She finished No. 272 on October 27, 2013.
But since 2009 marathon running has added meaning for the woman who treats each race like an individual journey. In October 2009, one day after finishing the Portland Marathon, Dellinger went for her annual mammogram and learned she had breast cancer.
“Cancer picked the wrong woman to mess with,” she said. “It was a new marathon to run.”
By the following June, Dellinger represented Cancer Care Northwest and herself as she ran 30 solo miles during the 2010 Relay for Life at Spokane Falls Community College, a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society.
“It’s my way of proving cancer did not beat me. I won this,” she said, noting she picked 30 miles because it’s more than a marathon but not so many miles it would set back her training schedule.
Of course, the cancer diagnosis did set back her training schedule, forcing her to cancel three marathons that fall and winter. But she’s glad that was it, because the cancer was caught early. “I was a fit, powerful woman. How could it be me?” Dellinger said, describing her range of reactions. She didn’t drink or smoke, she exercised and ate healthy foods and didn’t have any symptoms or lumps.
Still, Dellinger, was religious about getting an annual mammogram. “I’ve had a mammogram every year since I was 35,” she said, explaining that five women in her family had gotten various kinds of breast cancer, though Dellinger knew from a DNA test that she didn’t carry one of the identified genes that are susceptible to the disease.
Her cancer, ductal carcinoma in situ, is a common cancer of the milk ducts and curable when detected before it has a chance to spread, said Dellinger. “Six more months and it would have been invasive. … I’m so fortunate it was caught early … By early detection my cancer was 100 percent curable.”
Dellinger recalled asking her surgeon, Dr. Stephanie Moline, if she was going to die. The answer? Yes, eventually, but not from breast cancer.
So, Dellinger flew to Boston and ran the Cape Cod Marathon, her last as a two-breasted woman. Then she came home and had her right breast removed on Nov. 9. She declined reconstructive surgery because she wanted the fastest recovery possible, to run more marathons. Just nine weeks later, on Jan. 17, Dellinger finished PF Chang’s Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon in Phoenix.
“I think that’s what kept me so upbeat and motivated through the entire recovery, because I had that goal. I was running my comeback marathon,” said Dellinger, adding that she presented the finisher medal to Moline as a thank you. “It was an amazing experience crossing the finish line of that marathon, knowing just nine weeks prior what I had been given.”
The medal is displayed at Cancer Care Northwest, where it’s a reminder to the staff that what they do matters.
“I felt very blessed that she would share that with us and thought of it as a good inspiration,” said Moline of the medal. “If she can do this, we can keep working too.”
Yesterday, October 27, 2013, Dellinger ran the Cape Cod Marathon again, still grateful and positive about her journey as a cancer survivor and marathon runner.
“It was an emotional finish because this was the last marathon I ran 4 years ago before this breast cancer journey began,” wrote Dellinger on her Facebook page. “So it was a day of coming full circle. It has been a great team of people who have worked hard to get me here. A very talented Surgical Oncologist, Orthopedic Surgeon and all of my amazing friends! And after I finished I had one thought…..I am going to be alright because I kicked Cancers Ass!”
According to Moline, Dellinger’s upbeat attitude likely helped her recovery. “She has a lot of positive energy, whether it’s facing 26 miles or facing a diagnosis of breast cancer. Most women don’t recover from surgery that quickly or bounce back with a positive attitude and keep going … Having a positive outlook, I think, made her recovery easy.”
Now, Dellinger uses her story to encourage others, blending the lessons she’s learned running so many marathons with the lessons she’s learned beating breast cancer.
“Marathon running is a way of life. Now as a breast cancer survivor, I can entangle the two and be an inspiration,” she said. “I run for hope. I run for every mother, woman, aunt, grandmother, partner, and sister who has ever been diagnosed with breast cancer. I also run to feel. Surviving breast cancer is something I have to feel.”
This post is an updated version of an article I wrote for the May 27, 2010 issue of The Spokesman-Review. I’m featuring it on the blog as a fitness profile because her story still inspires me and she has become a friend. Now, each fall I attend the mammogram party Dellinger hosts at Inland Imaging. (See story about that here.)