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Oncology Times:
doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000368860.68188.b4
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What Makes Edith Perez Run: How She Combines Multiple Passions to Benefit Breast Cancer Research

Eric T., Rosenthal

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In addition to Edith A. Perez, MD's considerable accomplishments as a breast cancer clinician and researcher, the Mayo brothers would also be very proud of the medical oncologist's role as a multitasking model of medical efficiency.

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The Director of Mayo Clinic's Breast Program and Chair of the Clinical Study Unit at Mayo Clinic Jacksonville (FL), she helped found a fundraising mechanism to support her dream of establishing a translational breast cancer genomics program that would focus on finding the best treatments for individual patients.

She and one of her patients—a local celebrity TV newscaster in Jacksonville, where Dr. Perez is based at Mayo's Florida campus—began holding a marathon in February 2008 to raise money to support breast cancer research and women living with the disease.

The first two years yielded fields of a total of some 12,000 participants from all 50 states and 15 countries and more than $1 million in contributions, and this year more than 8,000 people were signed up to be part of the third annual “26.2 with Donna: The National Marathon to Finish Breast Cancer” on February 21.

But that's not all.

Every year the marathon has been preceded by a day of continuing medical education dealing with genetics and breast cancer, with about half of the 100 attendees running, walking, or serving as crew for the fundraising event, and with vital information being culled from those running to aid another project Dr. Perez is collaborating on with members of Mayo's Runners Science program.

I first learned about the marathon at the 2008 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium. I was running early in the morning when I thought I spotted Edith running near the convention center. When we met later during the meeting she confirmed that she was indeed the runner I'd seen, and then told me about her marathon event.

Then when we saw each other this past December at the 2009 symposium she once again spoke passionately about the fundraiser and asked if I'd write about it.

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I said I'd consider doing the story, but only if she provided full disclosure—prompting a very strange look from her until I explained that I wanted to know her time at last year's marathon.

She next flashed her famous smile, and good naturedly declined to comment, noting demurely that she had to stop numerous times for photo requests.

However, even though she didn't answer that question, OT still decided to go ahead with the story, and I followed up by phone about a month prior to this year's event, which was originally named “The 26.2 with Donna: The National Marathon to Fight Breast Cancer.”

“My patient and friend Donna Deegan told me sometime after the second marathon that she didn't want to fight breast cancer anymore. She just wanted to finish it. So we changed the title accordingly.”

She said that she and Ms. Deegan—the longtime evening news anchor for the combined ABC-NBC “First Coast” broadcast, and a three-time breast cancer survivor who first transferred her care to Mayo in 1999 to enter a clinical trial led by Dr. Perez—had become good friends over the years.

In 2003 the Donna Foundation was founded to raise money to be used for Jacksonville-area women living with breast cancer who couldn't make ends meet.

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The Foundation partnered with the social service agency Catholic Charities to help pay various medical and non-medical expenses incurred by these women.

“When Donna first told me she wanted to start the foundation I was a little skeptical because I thought here was another TV person who doesn't have a clue. But she showed me she was committed, and I became a trustee on the Board of Directors.”

Then a few years later over a cup of coffee the two mused about how they could work together on a project, and they decided to start an annual marathon, with 70% of the proceeds benefiting Mayo's breast cancer genomics program and the remaining 30% going to the Donna Foundation to be disbursed to women in need.

The idea of a 26.2 mile run came from several influences. Donna Deegan was a marathoner, as was her husband, Tim Deegan, First Coast News's chief meteorologist, and Dr. Perez was a runner. They were also able to bring in Jeff Galloway, a major name on the marathon circuit.

“I knew we could do this since Donna and Tim were local celebrities and could mobilize the effort, and Jeff was a celebrity in the running world,” Dr. Perez said.

It also took time to get Mayo to approve use of its logo since the Clinic fastidiously guards its reputation for excellence, but once aboard Mayo has been providing medical services during the event as well as other support.

The 26.2 with Donna claims to be the only marathon in the country dedicated solely to fighting/finishing breast cancer.

Dr. Perez said that funds are raised primarily through registration fees (ranging from $55 to $300 depending upon when payment is made, the length run, and the number of runners involved), and although no independent fundraising is required of participants, they are not dissuaded from bringing in more money if they wish.

In addition to the full marathon, runners can participate in a half marathon, or as part of a five-person relay team. A post-race celebration takes place on Mayo's campus.

The initial 2008 run was only Dr. Perez's second marathon, and she finished it along side of Ms. Deegan, who was undergoing chemotherapy at the time.

Dr. Perez, the Serene M. and Frances C. Durling Professor of Medicine at Mayo Medical School, ran her first marathon in Honolulu when she was 25 and completing her residency in internal medicine at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California, before serving as a general internist in the Division of National Health Services Corps in Los Angeles, and then as a fellow in hematology/oncology at Martinez Veterans’ Administration Medical Center at the University of California Davis School of Medicine

Dr. Perez was born in Naguabo on the east coast of Puerto Rico. Her father owned a grocery store, and her mother was a teacher who later became a librarian. She has one sister who is a lawyer in Washington DC.

“I graduated from high school at 16, and then from the University of Puerto Rico in three years at 19 before entering the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine in San Juan.

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“My mother went back for her masters in library science when I was in high school and she once sent me to take class notes because she wasn't able to attend that day. I'd also go to the library with her and read about great role models in the encyclopedia.”

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Originally Wanted to be a Mathematician

She originally wanted to be a mathematician, but the death of a grandmother got her thinking about working with people and a career in medicine.

And she attributes a college requirement as having had a major influence on her life: “I had never played sports before, and had taken piano lessons growing up, but I had to take a physical education class in college and decided to try tennis, which I'd never played but had seen on television.”

It was love at first swing, and she began playing two to three hours every day, joining the university team the following year, and continuing to devote whatever time she had available.

After medical school she knew she would have to leave Puerto Rico to gain experience and at 23 she was in Loma Linda and started to make new friends.

“We had great weather and there were those people who played tennis and those who ran and I belonged to both groups, starting my days at 6 am and finishing at 4 pm so I'd have time to play tennis and run.”

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Now Never Leaves Home without Her Running Shoes

That became part of a lifelong ritual, and she never leaves home without her running shoes, shorts, and 26.2 with Donna-logoed singlet.

In February 1995 Dr. Perez was recruited to Mayo Clinic's main Rochester, Minnesota, campus where she spent half her time in the laboratory working on cell lines and the other half in the clinic.

She said she was motivated early on to do clinical and translational research, and when the opportunity arose six months later to help develop a breast cancer program in Jacksonville, she took it, adding there were already many good people doing breast cancer work in Rochester.

And, of course, the Florida winters were a lot more conducive for running and tennis than those in Minnesota.

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The Mayo mode, she explained, involves developing the same standards of care for all three of its sites in Rochester, Jacksonville, and Scottsdale, AZ, and she has led many breast cancer clinical trials in her various capacities including being Chair of Mayo's Breast Cancer Disease Oriented Group, Chair of the North Central Cancer Treatment Group's Breast Committee, and as principal investigator of the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group at Mayo Jacksonville.

Author of more than 240 peer-reviewed publications, she still manages to write 10 to 12 new papers each year, and she is especially proud of her continued funding from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation since 1998.

More than a month before the third annual 26.2 with Donna, Dr. Perez was busy working on plans for the one after that in 2011 and its accompanying medical education conference.

“I enjoy collaborating with others, and I get my fun continuing to help others,” she said, noting that proceeds from the marathons have contributed to bringing new science into patient treatment.

© 2010 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.

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