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Crushing cancer Hood to Coast

The list of people Karen Baas wanted to inspire when she began running was initially short: her two children.

“You can overcome anything,” she said. “That’s what I want primarily my children to understand.”

Overcoming is inherent in Baas’ running journey, given that the motivation to train for her first marathon was reclaiming her life after six months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

In the nine years since she battled Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Baas has upped her game to include ultramarathons and a six-day-a-week running schedule.

The race she’ll run later this month, however, won’t be memorable for its length. It’s special to her in other ways: Baas is on a team of cancer survivors running in the Hood to Coast relay.

“It’s been on my bucket list,” Baas said of the race. “And to be on a team with all cancer survivors is just phenomenal to me.”

The perennial 199-mile event is enormously popular, drawing over 40,000 entries every year, according to Dan Floyd, the nonprofit’s chief operations officer. Fewer than half of those runners — 12,600 this year, according to the race website — get to run.

Most runners get their spot through a lottery process. The Cancer Crushers, however, are all staff in Providence Health & Services, chosen by their employer to not only run, but contribute to the event’s mission: raising money for cancer research through the Providence Cancer Institute.

Baas received an email soliciting entries earlier this year and submitted her story. Within a few hours, she was chosen, she said.

“I was pretty excited,” she said.

In a week and a half, Baas will drive to Portland to meet the rest of her team, many of whom have been training together for weeks.

The race begins Aug. 23 at Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood, finishing the next day at Seaside. Each of the 12 team members runs three legs.

Baas has had to fight for victory on a team before. Nine years ago, it was with her kids, her dad and her future husband, in a battle for her survival.

She was working as a receptionist at Dr. Edward Helman’s Medford office when a lump developed on the side of her neck.

Baas, who also worked as a veterinary technician and a pet-sitter at the time, was hesitant to be tested, she said, because of the impact on her kids.

“I was a single mom,” she said. “I didn’t want to pay for the process of having the CT scan, so I said, ‘no, it’ll go away, it’ll go away.’”

It didn’t. Two days later, Helman checked on her.

“I said, ‘Hey, Karen, this has to be done,’” Helman said.

Baas said that her connections working in the doctor’s office and her other job as a veterinary technician helped her receive a CT scan, biopsy and diagnosis within the next two weeks: Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The cancer affects the lymphatic system and can spread.

For six months, Baas had regular chemotherapy treatments and received radiation.

Because Hodgkin’s lymphoma isn’t linked closely to any single cause, Baas and other patients don’t know why they developed the disease.

But even as she struggled through hair loss, illness and having to drop her two other jobs working with animals because of her weakened immune system, Baas felt like she learned something.

“I felt like maybe it was life saying to slow down,” she said.

But after her final treatment was over and the chapter of her life seemed ready to end, Baas’ cousin Kathy DeJong suggested she try something new: running a marathon.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Baas said.

At first, Baas couldn’t finish a mile without walking. It was painful, tiring — “a hellish adventure,” in her words.

But with time and training, she developed into what she calls herself now: a cardio junkie.

Baas, now 44, has run multiple ultramarathons, including the Siskiyou Out Back 50-mile run last month.

“I live each moment for my children,” she said. “And I feel like even going through chemo, I lived each moment for my children. They never were affected by anything.”

Helman said that Baas’ story of perseverance is a good example for patients facing difficult diagnoses.

“Attitude is a lot of it,” he said, “and Karen just exudes that attitude of being a survivor.”

Jean Marks, a marketing specialist with Providence, said that multiple Southern Oregon cancer patients are participating in clinical trials funded partially by the Hood to Coast relay.

Interested donors can find more information about how to give at app.mobilecause.com/vf/FINISHCANCER.

Last year, the event raised over $900,000, Floyd said.

Karen Baas, who survived Hodgkin's lymphoma nine years ago, now runs 10 miles a day on weekdays and 20 on Saturdays, she said. She is running on a team of cancer survivors in the annual Hood to Coast relay race. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune