Runner wins race with cancer

Linda Rowe-O’Neal ran Monday in the 106th Boston Marathon, the holy grail of distance runners but nowhere near the biggest accomplishment in her life the last two years.

Rowe-O’Neal was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2000 and beat it the way she finishes marathons: Putting one foot in front of the other.

The Des Moines woman, who started running competitively when she was 25 and is now 47, and the surgeon who performed a mastectomy on her, Dr. Jeff Hunter, agree that her runner’s mindset paid off in her race to live.

“Her positive energy and attitude played a significant role in her recovery. She was motivated to maintain her healthy lifestyle,” Hunter said. “I just think it’s a real great story –– a young woman who faced and overcame serious medical adversity.”

The story started when Rowe-O’Neal, taught the value of self-examinations by her mother’s victory over breast cancer in 1988, found a lump “the size of a sand pebble” under her armpit. Doctors found another one closer to her chest.

Hunter, who works at Virginia Mason Federal Way, did a biopsy. Rowe-O’Neal was barbecuing at home with her husband, Scott, an investigator for the Washington Bar Association, when Hunter called her with the news that cancer had been found and she should see him the next day.

Unfazed, Rowe-O’Neal ran in the Sound to Narrows race in Tacoma a few days later. About three weeks later, she underwent a mastectomy at St. Francis Hospital. Two weeks after that, she ran 19 miles as part of her normal running routine. Later, she entered a 10-mile race in Hawaii, kept up her training and ran in the Portland Marathon during eighth months of treatment. The latter included regular injections to stimulate the growth of white blood cells in her bone marrow.

“The only thing I was scared of was chemotherapy –– putting my body through that when I was so health-conscious,” she said.

In addition to running, she said, her faith, family and friends kept her spirits up on her way back to a clean bill of health and a full return to competitive running, including this week’s Boston Marathon, her third since 1998. Her time of 4 hours six minutes and 20 seconds put her in the top third of 5,338 women who finished the race.

Next up for Rowe-O’Neal is throwing the honorary first pitch of a Seattle Mariners game next Tuesday at Safeco Field, arranged by Virginia Mason as a salute to her and other cancer survivors.

Hunter said there is “no evidence” of any recurrence of the disease in Rowe-O’Neal. “Everything looks positive,” he said.

Rowe-O’Neal, a respiratory therapist for Group Health in Seattle and Highline Regional Specialist Care, has some advice for anyone fighting cancer.

“Don’t let the disease take over your life. Dictate to it how you’re going to live,” she said.

Editor Pat Jenkins can be reached at 925-5565 and

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