JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Donna Deegan is a three-time breast cancer survivor.
The wife, mother of two and journalist who lives in Atlantic Beach, is possibly best known for her work toward raising breast cancer awareness. You’ve likely heard of her annual run -- the 26.2 with Donna, which is now a signature event of her organization, The Donna Foundation.
It should come as no surprise that Deegan’s heart sank when she learned Casey DeSantis, Florida’s first lady, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“It is a painful and fearful thing for anyone to hear those words: you have cancer,” Deegan said. “And I know as somebody who has spent a lot of time in the public eye that can be especially traumatizing.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis said it hasn’t been easy, but that his wife “is a very, very strong woman” as he spoke about the diagnosis for the first time publicly during a Tuesday news conference. Casey DeSantis, 41, is the mother of the couple’s three children.
Deegan explained what it’s like for families and caregivers who first learn a loved one has been diagnosed. Like Casey DeSantis, she too was young when she was first diagnosed at age 38.
“There’s a sincere sense of helplessness of how can I be the most helpful, what can I do to be there, how do I not be, you know, cloying and at the same time be helpful? It’s tough,” Deegan said. “It’s a difficult thing for those that are on the other side of it and, of course like Casey, I had very small children.”
When she was first diagnosed, Deegan said, the first thing she thought about was the wellbeing of her children.
“No matter what the prognosis, immediately your mind goes to your children, and will you be there for them, and what will they have to go through, and what will you share with them, and what should you not share with them,” Deegan said.
The diagnosis is life-altering for everyone and their families. But as Deegan noted, the experience can change someone’s perspective, for the better.
“I think it can be positive in so many ways. You can find a courage and a strength that you never know that you had until you were faced with having to have it,” Deegan said. “I think you can really come to the fact of hey, you know what? Life is sweet and and short and we have to make the most of every moment and let’s jump out of bed every day and go, hey, we’re grateful.”
Notably, Florida’s first lady’s diagnosis was announced in October -- Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And Deegan hopes that means more people will take Casey DeSantis’ diagnosis as a sign to focus on their own health.
That means checking their family history and determining whether they need a screening.
“And the answer is: Absolutely. You should,” Deegan said.