City of Hope patient Sona Donayan stood on a street in Pasadena, Calif., in the early light of dawn, surrounded by 8,000 strangers.
Some of these runners showed up to the start of the Pasadena Marathon on Feb. 21 to run a few pounds off. Some would complete their first-ever road race. Others pledged to reach the finish line faster than they ever had before.
|Donayan enjoys her hard-earned race medal. (Photo by Alicia Di Rado)|
But Donayan did not want to cross her personal finish line — not yet. “Marathons are about enduring hardships, and life is a marathon,” she said. “I’m not ready to be done with mine.”
Soon, the crowd surged, and the runners took off. They waged their battle against the clock, but Donayan’s competition was more profound. She aims to beat lymphoma.
A long journey
In a way, the race started nearly a decade ago, when Donayan was battling obesity after her second pregnancy. Besides returning to college to become a registered dietitian, she started running around her neighborhood to lose weight. “Next thing I know, I started running marathons,” she said.
Now 44 years old and a divorced parent with custody of two sons, the Pasadena resident and Glendale College nutrition instructor has finished 18 marathons so far, from Miami to Las Vegas. She signed up for the 2010 Pasadena Marathon a year in advance.
But in October 2009, she began feeling a painful bump on her chest, below her neck. Her primary care physician provided a pain reliever, suspecting a bruise. Within 10 days, the intense pain drove Donayan to an urgent care clinic, where physicians detected a large mass in her chest.
It turned out to be B-cell lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
At stage 2, the disease appeared confined to her mediastinum, the area of the chest separating the lungs. Although aggressive, the cancer could be treated, according to City of Hope’s Leslie L. Popplewell, M.D., clinical associate professor in the Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation.
“I got to see Dr. Popplewell a few days before Thanksgiving, and had my first chemo on Thanksgiving Day,” Donayan said. “I remember her saying, ‘You’re going to make it easy for us. You’re a perfect patient.’ I feel so lucky to have her as my doctor.”
To blast the lymphoma, Donayan began undergoing 96-hour chemotherapy infusions at City of Hope every three weeks. Her body was in such good shape from her years of running that she has withstood increasing doses of chemotherapy without yielding.
|City of Hope lymphoma patient Sona Donayan is an avid marathon runner. (Photo by Alicia Di Rado)|
Still, with the Pasadena Marathon approaching in February, Donayan worried that she would be unable to continue her racing during treatment. “Running is my sanity,” she said.
She did a trial run of 12 miles in early February but felt exhausted. So she arranged with the Pasadena Marathon’s organizers to run the race’s half-marathon instead of the full 26.2 miles.
Donayan would run her race and enjoy the camaraderie of her fellow runners after all.
The big finish
More than three hours after runners set out onto the roads of Pasadena, Donayan strode down Colorado Boulevard and crossed under the finish banner. Only her headscarf hinted that she was any different from the other runners completing the race.
“I feel like I could’ve run a full marathon,” she said, beaming. Her family and friends proudly posed for photos with Donayan, who wore her medal proudly. Two days later, she carried the medal with her to her chemotherapy session at City of Hope and showed it to her medical team.
On March 21, instead of finishing her ninth straight Los Angeles Marathon, she finished her sixth and last session of chemotherapy. She vows to regain her fitness and not let lymphoma beat her spirit.
“I want to be an inspiration,” she said. “I want to be a ray of hope for someone else battling cancer.”