Surviving cancer is a feat, and Angie O’Neal defeated it twice by embracing a more active lifestyle. “Being a wife, a mom, working full-time, all with the threat of cancer looming in the back of my mind, I think I really needed something fulfilling…running made me realize that was what I was supposed to be doing.“
In 2006 Atlanta, Georgia based runner Angie O’Neal received a dreaded diagnosis of breast cancer. Determined to fight one of the biggest battles of her life, and doing so, just 10 years later in 2016 she was diagnosed once again. But having a very active lifestyle helped Angie beat cancer twice. Now, the Lead Ambassador of The Race, the Atlanta-based half-marathon and 5K road race geared toward the Black running community, businesses, neighborhoods, and charities, shares her inspiring story with MidStrike Magazine.
MSM: As runners we all have our personal journeys and battles with self. But there are times when we have to fight a battle for our own lives. When you were first diagnosed what were your initial thoughts?
Angie: My heart sunk. I was in complete disbelief. I just knew the doctor was going to tell me that I didn’t have it. I immediately thought of my family. Naturally the questions that came to mind were whether I was going to die from this, and if so, how were my kids going to take it? Was my husband going to be able to manage without me? My doctor was actually very hopeful and she told me to live in the moment, but of course at that time I couldn’t understand that because I really didn’t like that moment…at that moment.
MSM: I’m sure your mind was racing but as runners we have a tendency to zone in on the task at hand and nothing else. Mentally, were you prepared to fight this battle as if you were about to start a race? Was the running mindset something that helped you?
Angie: With my first diagnosis, I wasn’t as much of a runner as I am now but I have always been someone who will try to tough things out when I know I have to. Maybe that mindset is the reason I thought I could be a distance runner or endurance athlete. I gave myself a whole day to lay around and cry and just have a pity party, but the next day I made myself get up and prepare for battle and I told myself, “no more feeling sorry for myself.”
MSM: What was your support system like when you started your treatments?
Angie: I had the biggest support system, since I’m not opposed to sharing. I had my family, a host of close friends, and the entire firm where I worked at the time. They supported me in any way they could, setting up food deliveries and making additional allowances for me to work from home or have time off whenever I needed it. For that reason I never missed a beat. My family and friends were available to me whenever I needed them and if they ever did feel sorry for me, no one ever let on. They always greeted me with genuine concern and always from a positive place.
MSM: While going through treatments were you able to continue to focus on your fitness goals?
Angie: With the first diagnosis I was a lot more fearful, mostly because I had no idea how I could have contracted cancer and that made me just want to stop doing anything too physical. I had developed exercise induced asthma shortly before my diagnosis and I had also been suffering from a lot of anxiety and chronic panic attacks, so naturally it made me even more concerned about exerting myself too much. It always had me wondering, was it related? But when I was done with treatments and got the all clear, it immediately propelled me into a more active lifestyle. I suddenly wanted to get out and try so many things that I always wanted to do but thought I couldn’t.
Now after my second diagnosis, I had a much different attitude. I was actually mad because I didn’t want any of my surgery and treatment to deter me from my now very active lifestyle. Even before I came to the realization that I could possibly survive this a second time, I knew nothing was going to stop me from participating in the things that had given me so much life. I immediately asked my doctor how soon after surgery could I start exercising and if I would be able to resume my active lifestyle while going through chemo. She told me that I could do whatever I felt like I could do at that time. I don’t think until she saw me out running down Peachtree Street a few times that she realized how active I really was!
MSM: Did you find it hard to train while battling cancer? Was it hard for you to keep focus?
Angie: After my second diagnosis, the running and training is what helped me battle cancer because it gave me something else to focus on. It really was a good distraction. I just planned my activities around the days I had to go in for treatments. It helped keep me in the right frame of mind so I could battle the treatments…it gave me peace of mind. I was living in the moment. I discovered that I could get up and run the next day after my treatment because I wouldn’t start feeling that bad until a couple of days later. I even discovered that the steroids seemed to give me more energy and helped a little, so eventually I signed up for races on those days to see how I would do. Jokingly, I hoped I wouldn’t be cited for having enhancements and that they wouldn’t take my t-shirt or age group award away, LOL.
I signed up for my first Ragnar Relay before I had surgery and my first marathon before I even started my treatments. Both times it gave me something to work towards. I had been through this before so I felt like I could withstand it, so my activities became my focus. After every treatment, I would leave the office thinking about what runs I was going to do the next day. I was just determined to live my days despite what I was dealing with, cause it was still my time.
MSM: You’re a runner, cyclist and you swim, which eventually led to you doing a triathlon. Take us through some of the races you’ve done and races you would like to do.
Angie: Initially I just loved doing 5ks because they were short and I could run as fast as I could for a short amount of time. It was like instant gratification. The truth is, I’m not a big fan of running for really long distances. Of course I eventually had to challenge myself with longer races but it took me several years before I ran my first half marathon and then even longer before my first marathon. Some of my favorite races were the Miami Half, New Orleans Half, Savannah Half, Chicago Marathon, and of course, the Georgia Publix Marathon which was my first. I always knew I was going to try a tri and I did my first sprint back in 2018 and then again in 2019. I want to eventually do a longer triathlon, maybe an Olympic distance but I really have to become a much more confident swimmer. Because I am such an endurance athlete, a lot of my friends are convinced that I will do an Ironman Triathlon but I have to admit, I’m not completely convinced myself. It’s that swim!
MSM: Which race would you call your unicorn? What race is at the top of your list?
Ange: I’ve only done a few marathons and I’m not sure if I want to do many more but before I officially retire I would love to do one overseas, maybe Paris. I know that if I really put forth the effort, I could probably qualify for the Boston Marathon, but I’m thinking I may wait until I’m 55 to give myself another 10 minutes to finish! A lot of folks are pushing me to go for it, but I know I need to be ready mentally and physically.
MSM: We definitely think you could qualify for Boston!!! Was fitness something that was always a part of you, or was it something that came later?
Angie: I was always a physical person, pretty much a tomboy. I loved climbing trees and playing football with my brothers but I was never confident enough to try competitive sports in high school. I loved being a cheerleader and dancing mostly. Even as a young adult, I was always looking for something that would keep me moving. If I wasn’t out dancing somewhere, I was trying out a workout video, playing kick ball/flag football and I eventually joined a gym. But once I started having children, most of my activities slowed down naturally.
MSM: Give our readers a look into your why. Why did you get into running?
Angie: The truth is, I really hated running. I was never really fast but I knew I had resilience and I liked the feeling I got after I ran. When my kids were small, I would try to get out for a quick run around the block. If I ran around it three times, I could get a mile in. It was great therapy at the time. After cancer, I had a friend who started a run group back in 2008. I was working out a little but I felt like I needed a little something more. I joined the group one night and it felt great. We would run around the city for about three to four miles and no one would get left behind. It was just the beginning. From there some of us started to meet up on Saturdays and then challenged ourselves to train for a 10K. Eventually I learned about other groups like Black Girls Run and runningnerds. That’s when I knew it had become a lifestyle. I had been on anti-depressants before cancer and after defeating cancer the first time. Being a wife, a mom, working full-time, all with the threat of cancer looming in the back of my mind, I think I really needed something fulfilling that would make me feel like I was taking charge of my health and my life. Running made me realize that was what I was supposed to be doing. I never refilled that prescription again since I made running and physical fitness a normal part of my life. I have been running and exercising regularly ever since, only taking a break when I was recovering from surgery.
MSM: While fighting cancer, what was the moment when you said to yourself “I got this”, the moment you knew you were almost to the finish line when you defeated it the first time?
Angie: With that first diagnosis I was a different person than who I am now. I was only 37 so I felt like I was tip-toeing through all of it. Because my kids were so much younger, I felt like I had to be so careful. I wanted to make sure I was around for as much of their lives as possible. I think it may not have been until I started to see a few strands of hair growing back on my then bald head that I started to feel renewed. I was keeping my head covered with scarves the whole time and one day it just fell off in the store, I think that was the day! I never put another scarf on my head, my new normal started then.
MSM: On your second diagnosis what were you feeling? Were your thoughts the same as the first diagnosis, where you knew what the plan of action was?
Angie: I think the second diagnosis was even more frightening. I was thinking, this must be it. Why else would it be coming back? I started feeling like I had my second chance already and it was over now. Had I done this to myself again, I just started preparing myself for the worst. But once my doctors told me it was contained and I could still beat it, my attitude changed. Now I knew I had to hold on to every moment, I wasn’t going to let it stop me. My kids were much older now, it had been 10 years since the last time. I knew I could talk to them straight and let them know that life was going to go on like normal. Yes, I would have a lot of procedures to undergo and it was possible that I would have to do chemo again but I wasn’t just going to sit around and behave like a sick person, unless I was really sick. It was my plan to live intentionally from that point on.
MSM: Now that you’re cancer free what is your day to day like? Are you doing anything different than the first time regarding fitness?
Angie: Since cancer, I’m definitely paying more attention to my body, my diet, my overall health, mind, body and spirit. And I’m pushing myself a lot more. I’ve done two triathlons, run three marathons, countless other races, and have become somewhat of a cyclist. I’ve incorporated a lot more strength training and I have been thinking about doing a fitness competition. My daughter and I have also started doing weekly rhythmic fitness videos that we post on her YouTube channel, Facebook and IG TV. I love encouraging other people to stay healthy and fit, especially all while doing things that I love like dancing and working out. I stay involved in many things that promote health and wellness and support in my community such as being an ambassador for The Race and Laceup Fitness. That also incorporates the non-profit organization, Laceup Fights, supporting folks who’ve been stricken with diseases like cancer to help them maintain their fitness goals.
MSM: In these last few Covid months, have you found it harder to train with no races?
Angie: Not at all. I don’t always run and workout to train. It’s a lifestyle for me, racing is not my only motivation, it’s not just about competing. Especially during Covid, it’s even more important to keep moving. All my strength training has been virtual and there’s no shortage of folks to run and bike with. Even during quarantine I found more motivation to get out and find new running routes by myself. A lot of it is my therapy. It helps me mentally and physically. It keeps my head clear, which helps combat the anxiety around the state of the world right now.
MSM: What are some races on your list that are a must. Any chances we’ll see you in some marathon majors?
Angie: I’m definitely going to try to do the New York Marathon and who knows if I’m around for a few more years, maybe I’ll try to qualify for Boston. Let’s see who can convince me. I would love to try some trail races too, but you will probably never see me doing an Ultra anything!
MSM: Would you like to share any words of inspiration or encouragement for any fellow runners and women out there fighting cancer?
Angie: I would love to encourage anyone going through cancer to get up and keep moving as much as you can. There is so much in life that’s out of our control and that’s why its important for us to control the things we can. Live intentionally, do what your body allows you to do. Despite what you’re going through, these are all your days to live. And if it makes you feel better, share your story!
MSM: Please let our readers know how they can continue to follow the journey of Angie O’Neil.
Angie: Everyone can follow me on IG @Angieruns16, Angie O’Neal on Facebook and you can view all of our workout videos on my daughter’s YouTube channel Joa Derri and you can click on the Fitness Channel Playlist. Or follow our hashtag #MakeitMove
MSM: I think we speak for many folks when we say we are glad that you are blessed and you are a survivor and you are such an inspiration to many. We thank you for sharing your story
Angie: My pleasure.