When it comes to life’s challenges, North Side 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 and only two women in the United States have run more of them. She finished No. 237, the Capital City Marathon in Olympia, on May 16.
But the last few marathons have had special meaning for the woman who treats each race like an individual journey. Last October, one day after finishing the Portland Marathon, Dellinger went for her annual mammogram and soon learned she had breast cancer.
“Cancer picked the wrong woman to mess with,” she said. “It was a new marathon to run.”
Next week, on June 4 and 5, Dellinger will represent Cancer Care Northwest and herself as she runs 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 will set back her training schedule.
Of course, the cancer diagnosis did set back her training schedule, forcing her to cancel three marathons last 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, 47, 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. “If she can do this, we can keep working too.”
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 wants to use 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.”