PORTLAND, Ore. - Thousands of runners will converge on the Rose City on Sunday for the Portland Marathon and for one woman, it will be an emotional day that will bring her full circle on a journey that started a year ago.
Carol Dellinger, a 48-year-old dental assistant from Spokane, Wash., is an avid runner who has 242 marathons under her belt, an impressive feat.
"As long as I'm fueled and watered, I can run a marathon any day," she said.
Indeed she can. In fact, after running in the Portland Marathon this weekend, Dellinger will be headed for Denver to run in another one. And after that, she'll be running in the world's largest marathon, the New York City Marathon.
Dellinger is definitely a powerhouse but what might surprise you is that she is also a breast cancer survivor. She had a mastectomy just 11 months ago.
"It was two days after I crossed the finish line at the Portland Marathon (in 2009) that I found out I had breast cancer," she said.
Dellinger had just gotten a mammogram the day before she flew to Portland to participate in last year's Portland Marathon. After the race, she got a call that there were some irregularities in the scan and they wanted her to come back in. Just a few days later, she was told it looked like she had cancer in one of her breasts and a biopsy later confirmed the diagnosis.
"When I got my biopsy results and was sitting with my cancer surgeon at Cancer Care Northwest she goes 'well, it's cancer and this is what it is.' And she spent two hours with me that day going over exactly why the only option was a mastectomy."
Dellinger was diagnosed with Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS), which meant that cancer had formed in the milk ducts but had not spread to other parts of the breast.
"To hear those words 'you have breast cancer' - that's a scary thing," said Dellinger. "That's a damn scary thing."
Scary is right - anyone who hears the word 'cancer' from a doctor can't help but wonder if it means the end of the road for them.
"I've known a lot of women who go through breast cancer and don't make it," said Dellinger. "And I can remember sitting there during my very first appointment and asking her if I was going to die. And she looked me straight in the eye and she goes 'yes you are, but not from breast cancer.' And right then and there, that's when I realized I was just going to hit this thing head on."
Life Goes On
Dellinger did not let breast cancer bring her down and she never looked for sympathy from others. Instead, she did what it took to get through it and continued living her life the way she always had.
"It was never 'oh poor me.' I never had a pity party," she said. "My exact wording is 'cancer picked the wrong woman to mess with.' I really believe that because I was not going to let it define me or rule my life."
Although she did have to cancel two marathons during her two-month recovery from the mastectomy, Dellinger got back into action nine weeks after the surgery by running a marathon in Phoenix, Arizona. It wasn't easy, though, especially after not being able to train much.
"I felt great until about mile 23 and then the wheels came off," she said. "And I continued to run but it was like I was running on stumps for legs."
Dellinger said swinging her arm as she was running was painful because the surgery left her without a lot of range of motion.
"When you have a mastectomy, you don't realize how much breast tissue you have. It goes up underneath your armpit and everything. So I'm pretty flat on that side and I have a big divot under my armpit. And your range of motion - it took me months before I could put my arm above my head."
But Dellinger, not one to let even something as serious as breast cancer stop her from doing what she loves, persevered and made it to the finish line.
"It was probably the most euphoric, extraordinary thing that I've done in all my marathons because I realized what I had just gone through," she said. "I cried like a baby at the finish line and it wasn't tears of pity or sorrow, it was tears of complete joy."
Dellinger, who is now cancer free after her breast was removed, describes herself as a 'warrior' and is proud of the scar she has on her chest. She said she chose not to have her breast reconstructed because she wanted to have the least amount of surgeries during the process.
"I went to battle and was wounded - they had to remove my breast - but I came out stronger," she said. "I look at my body every day and it's a constant reminder of what I was able to overcome and what I went through. And that just makes me a stronger person."
Since her mastectomy 11 months ago, Dellinger has run in eight marathons - the Portland Marathon will be her ninth following the surgery. She has hit the pavement running - literally.
An Inspiration for Others
Dellinger said she is a firm believer that things in your life happen for a reason, even the bad things. She never viewed getting breast cancer as a negative, but rather saw it as just another challenge in her life - another marathon to complete.
"I really truly believe that I was handed the challenge of overcoming breast cancer so I could inspire others," she said. "I was already an inspiration running over 200 marathons and now I'm at 240 plus marathons and a breast cancer survivor. And people see what I've overcome and it's even more of an inspiration."
Dellinger also values the new friends she has found this past year.
"I cannot begin to tell you the amazing people I've met during this journey," she said. "You never realize how many people have breast cancer until you have breast cancer yourself and then they come out of the woodwork. It's kind of like you buy a brand new, bright red Chevy Silverado truck and you never saw one before but you get one yourself and all of a sudden you start seeing them."
Dellinger will likely find old friends and make new ones this weekend at the Portland Marathon. She's looking forward to being back in the Rose City again but knows there will be a lot of emotions rising to the surface.
"I was running the Portland Marathon last year with breast cancer and I didn't even know it," she said. "So Portland, it's going to be an emotional marathon for me, I believe. Portland is so special to me - this is where it all started."
Early Detection is Key
Dellinger said she cannot stress enough the importance of going in for regular mammograms. Her diligence in getting one every year likely saved her life.
"I'm just so fortunate that it was caught in the non-invasive stage," she said. "That is why it is so important that women go in for that yearly screening. My surgeon told me if I would have waited until springtime to get my mammogram, I would have been looking at chemo and radiation."
"I have a good friend right now who is in the late stages and probably won't make it through the end of the year," she added. "It's all about early detection. There's not a day that goes by that I don't wake up and feel grateful for where I'm at."
- For information on early detection and screening
- VIDEO: The proper way to do a breast self exam
- Breast cancer Q&A with a local doctor
- Susan G. Komen for the Cure
Share Your Story
The annual Portland Marathon attracts thousands of runners to the Rose City and everyone who participates has their own story about what brings them there. There are also many people who have battled, or continue to battle, breast cancer.
If you or someone you know is participating in the marathon this year or has a story to share about their breast cancer fight/survival, please leave a comment below for others to read.
For More on the Portland Marathon
- MAPS: Marathon course | Half marathon course
- Road closures
- For spectators
- Walks and other events
- For more information on the marathon
All photos courtesy of Carol Dellinger.