What's Up, South Texas: Former track star overcomes biggest race of her life – breast cancer

SAN ANTONIO – A San Antonio teacher and former track star was not going to let breast cancer stop her from using her voice to encourage others who have the same disease. 

A month after her 53rd birthday, Donna Dennis was diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s something she said came out of nowhere, as no one in her family has had breast cancer. 

Growing up, life was always fast-paced for Dennis. 

“I grew up in a military family,” Dennis said. “We traveled a lot, but not too much because my mother wanted us to stay grounded.” 

She grew up on a base in Seattle, Washington, but she would frequently visit family in San Antonio. 

As a child, running was Dennis’ bread and butter. 

“My brother used to have me race his friends from streetlight to streetlight, and I would beat them as he would bet on me. But I never got to see any of the money,” she said.

Her brother told that she should run in a track team. And from junior high to high school and into college, she had major success as a track star. 

“I had a scholarship to University of Washington,” Dennis said. “That is all I knew was track and field. I just knew go to school and run. The Olympics came up my sophomore year, and I was, like, ‘Wow! I made the Olympic tryouts!’ And it went off from there.”

Dennis’ track record was flawless, and she was known as one of the greatest female sprinters in the nation. After several injuries, she began to explore other options.

Dennis took up modeling and acting in Los Angeles and worked as a flight attendant.

She later had two sons and moved to San Antonio, where her family lived, and she began teaching special education at the East Central School District. 

Life was filled with happiness for Dennis. Last year, however, she felt a lump on her breast.

“I never thought, ‘Will I get it? I always thought, ‘When will I get it?’ And when I touched it, it scared me and I thought, ‘My time has come.’”

Dennis said the hardest part was telling her sons.

“I said, ‘Look, I had an exam and I have breast cancer, and they were just crying. But I told them I was going to be OK,” she said. “They were upset and crying, and when we broke away, I can hear them hitting walls in their rooms and stuff.”

Dennis said the thought of her sons being without their mother devastated her. 

“I thought, ‘Wow, I am not going to be able to raise my boys, even though they are getting older,’” she said. “’I am not going to be able to see them get married or have kids.’ And your mind goes on and on, and you think, ‘I am not ready yet. I still have things on this Earth that I want to do. I am not ready to stop this.’”

With that in mind, Dennis said she knew she had to fight, and she knew it was going to be difficult. In September 2017, she began chemotherapy. 

“Your bones would ache, and it was a mental thing too,” she said. “You just didn’t feel right. You knew something was going on, and you just didn’t feel right. You feel tired and weak and lightheaded and dizzy. I had to eat, and I am not an eater so it was miserable.” 

Before she began losing her hair, Dennis said she wanted to embrace being bald. 

“I cut my hair,” she said. “I wanted to beat it first. I didn’t want to wake up and my hair wasn't there. I cut it low. I didn’t go all the way bald, but I had a little fuzz.”

She continued chemotherapy for three months, all while attending her sons’ athletic events and being the mother she has always been to them. 

“They are my soldiers,” Dennis said. “My purpose wasn’t supposed to be track or anything like that. It was to be a mother. With breast cancer, I knew God gave it to me to be a voice for people who went through the same struggles I went through.”

As of February, Dennis, now 54 years old, is cancer-free. 

“I will be able to see my boys longer now, so I can keep fussing at them,” she said as she laughed. “But I feel like this was my biggest race that I have won. And it feels good.”

Dennis said her goal is to spread awareness about breast cancer. 

“I want this to be my platform to help others that are battling breast cancer,” she said. “I want to let them know there are programs out there to help you through this. I want to speak with legislatures to work on ways to improve insurance for those with breast cancer. Of course, it is covered to a certain point, but before you know it, those extra bills can add up.” 

More than anything, Dennis wants people to look at her story and be inspired to continue to fight, as she has been watching and listening to other breast cancer survivor stories.

“I want them to know that you will come out on the other end,” she said. “I know it may not seem like it, especially through the depressing thoughts going through chemo and all of that. You just feel like you are in a dark tunnel, but trust me when I say, ‘You will come out on the other end, and you will be able to laugh.’” 

If you know of anyone else out there like Dennis, with a story, big or small, to tell that would inspire others, send in your tips to jgray@ksat.com or KSAT’s Facebook page.  You never know where we might end up for the next “What’s Up, South Texas.”

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