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Survivor is in it for the long run

A cancer survivor looks forward to logging 13.1 miles, and to every new day of life.

By JULIANNE WU, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 22, 2002

LEALMAN -- Barbara McNeill has never run in a marathon before. Not even half of one.

Since August, however, the 50-year-old has been training to run half (13.1 miles) of the Jan. 12 Walt Disney World marathon, sponsored by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. She and her daughter, Jennifer Bryant, 25, are training with eight other women.

About 10,000 participants are expected.

McNeill, who with her daughter has raised $5,000 for the Society, has a twofold purpose for participating.

"First, the whole purpose is to raise money and make people aware of leukemia and lymphoma. Everybody is touched in some way by this disease ... cancer," she said.

Her second reason is more personal. She is a survivor of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

In December 1998, McNeill went in for a mammogram. She learned she had enlarged lymph nodes in her neck, under her arms and in her groin.

A biopsy in January 1999 confirmed the lymphoma. Treatments included six months of chemotherapy.

According to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Web site, an estimated 106,300 people in the United States will be diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma this year -- or more than 8 percent of the 1.25-million new cancer cases.

When she runs on Jan. 12, it will be four years to the day that McNeill was diagnosed.

"At first, I thought having cancer was a death sentence," McNeill said. "In fact, my mother died of breast cancer about 10 years ago. But, I learned there's much more to life."

McNeill, who prefers the term "disease-free" to remission, has been running a home day care program in Lealman for 20 years. One of her five young charges is her 22-month-old grandson, Coleman, who often accompanies his mother and grandmother on their weekly training exercises.

McNeill and Bryant, who lives a block away from her parents, got involved with the marathon and the Suncoast Chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society after receiving a postcard about a meeting. They joined right away.

Thanks to a program called Team in Training, McNeill and Bryant train with eight other women on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings at Walter Fuller Park and generally run about 3 miles each time.

But, on Saturdays -- coached by veteran marathon runner Bill Conway -- they have worked up to 10 miles at a stretch. On various Saturdays, they alternate between the Eddie C. Moore complex or Sand Key Bridge in Clearwater or Fort Desoto Park in Tierra Verde.

McNeill said it's challenging. "But it has been one of the most rewarding experiences. I have met some of the finest people and we have become quite good friends."

Said her daughter, Bryant: "I've seen my mom's ups and downs, and to see her running and healthy now is so exciting."

Although the group of women with whom McNeill trains won't actually run 13.1 miles until the day of the marathon, their aim is to do it in 31/2 hours or less.

"Otherwise, I guess they pile the stragglers into a Goofy bus and drive them to the finish line," McNeill said.

The Team in Training program provides participants with coaching, training, hotel and travel accommodations, a pasta party before the event and a celebration after.

Each person has to raise at least $1,900 for the Society.

McNeill and Bryant sent letters to about 100 of their friends asking for donations, and they held a garage sale and a scrapbook party.

"It's really an inspiration to watch Barbara run ... against all the odds she faced," said Conway of New Port Richey. "The training is hard and it takes time, almost like a second or third job. She and the whole group are absolutely fantastic."

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