Sona Donayan met her lymphoma diagnosis with determination to reclaim her life and beat the disease in the long run.
When Sona Donayan lined up at the start of the 2010 Pasadena Marathon, it was not her first time taking on a long-distance run. It was, however, her first time since beginning chemotherapy.
Donayan, a seasoned marathon runner and single mother of two, has the confidence to face adversity head-on. Her determination helped see her through a tough diagnosis and challenging treatments.
"Marathons are about enduring hardships, and life is a marathon," she said. "I'm not ready to be done with mine."
A year before the race, she felt a painful bump on her chest, below her neck. Ultimately, physicians detected a large mass in her chest — stage 2 non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
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 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," said Donayan.
Donayan underwent 96-hour chemotherapy infusions at City of Hope every three weeks while keeping her job as a nutrition instructor at Glendale Community College. Her body was in such good shape from her years of running that she withstood increasing doses of chemotherapy without yielding.
She began running nearly a decade ago. At first, she ran around her neighborhood to lose weight. "Next thing I know, I started running marathons," she said.
Throughout the years, she maintained her fitness level by training and completing more than a dozen marathons from Miami to Las Vegas. She also crossed the Alps on foot and hiked the grueling Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru.
Donayan had signed up for the 2010 Pasadena Marathon a year in advance.
"Running is my sanity," she said. So she sought to run the race during treatment.
A trial run of 12 miles weeks before the race left her exhausted, and she arranged with the marathon's organizers to run a half-marathon instead of the full 26.2 miles.
More than three hours after she began, Donayan 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. Family and friends 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.
With one race complete and many more ahead, she vowed to regain her fitness and not let lymphoma beat her spirit. A month later, she finished her sixth and last session of chemo on the day of the Los Angeles Marathon.
"I want to be an inspiration," she said. "I want to be a ray of hope for someone else battling cancer."
And Donayan did reclaim her runner's endurance. In May 2011, she returned to the Pasadena Marathon. She finished the full race — her 19th marathon — in just over six hours, ahead of 12 other women in her age group.
Since then, Donayan has added two additional finisher medals to her collection: the 2011 Lake Tahoe and Seattle marathons. She currently is contemplating a Mount Kilimanjaro climb.
"Finally, I'm back on the full marathon course and my active lifestyle, slowly but surely," she said.
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