‘Take it step by step’: DONNA Marathon ‘Survivor Champion’ using cancer diagnosis to inspire others

More than 6,000 people ran or walked in the 17th Annual DONNA Marathon Weekend as the event wrapped up in Jacksonville Beach on Sunday with the marathon and half marathon. One woman is using her breast cancer diagnosis to inspire others.

There was a lot of symbolism to Mary Ladner crossing this finish line Sunday morning after less than two hours of running.

She was crowned the “Survivor Champion” for the Donna Marathon and half marathon.

But this champion is also eyeing crossing the finish line of her own cancer battle.

“This is about life,” Ladner said. “I am just grateful for my life, and I am grateful for the medical community because without them I would not be here today. I was a runner before. It was important to me to get this back. But it is not about me. It is about everybody who came before me and everybody who will come after me and everybody who is not as lucky and fortunate as me.”

January 3, 2023, is a day Ladner says she will never forget. That is when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I found it through an ultrasound and a biopsy,” she said. “But initially I felt it myself. I probably went about six months where folks said, ‘Oh, it is fine. It is probably nothing.’ I knew something was not right. I kept on it, which led to my diagnosis.”

What came next was more than a year of extensive treatment and several surgeries.

“After my surgery, I probably had about 12 rounds of chemotherapy, 15 rounds of radiation, and I have my last infusion [scheduled for March 1],” Ladner said, who is from Peachtree City, Ga.

Nearly 6,100 runners and walkers were a part of DONNA Marathon Weekend to encourage people like Ladner to hold on to hope.

The event was started by Jacksonville mayor Donna Deegan 17 years ago after she experienced three different stints with cancer herself between 1999 and 2007.

“To be cancer free here 17 years later, it is nothing short of a miracle,” Deegan said. “I think every year that we can celebrate survivorship is a big one.”

Survivors like Ladner. She says her fight does not end, even after her active treatment possibly ends in March.

“It is a lifelong journey,” Ladner said. “You will be monitoring for the rest of your life. The fight does not end when you grow your hair back or when you are done with your active treatment. It is something that stays with you for the rest of your life.”

The goal this year is to raise $250,000 for The DONNA Foundation. All of that money will go to help people like Ladner dealing with critical treatment in addition to research to find a cure.

“On my playlist, I have the Whitney Houston song: “Step by Step,” Ladner said after News4Jax asked her about the message she has for others who may be in a similar situation to hers.

“Don’t look at the entire staircase. That staircase is long. It is a long hill to climb. For some, it is longer than others. I was very fortunate with my prognosis and my treatment plan. Others have a much longer journey. Some have a lifelong journey. Take it step by step.”

Day by day, and to never lose hope.

No matter the outcome, they have already won.

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