Woman runs marathon following successful minimally invasive lung cancer surgery

Jennifer L. Rosato Perea, JD has served as the Dean of DePaul College of Law since 2015.

Jennifer Rosato Perea, JD, has always been a high achiever, professionally and personally. The Cornell University and University of Pennsylvania Law School-educated attorney served in senior administrative roles at several law schools before becoming Dean of DePaul University College of Law in 2015.

Perea also is an avid runner, known to compete in 10 to 15 races each year, ranging from 5K to 10K races. She began running half-marathons in 2020 to cope with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and made plans to run a full marathon. 

But she would face additional challenges that year. In November, the 61-year-old underwent a hysterectomy after suffering from fibroids for several years. A pre-procedural MRI revealed an “incidental finding” in her scan results – a suspicious-looking nodule on her right lung.

Four months later, the nodule was confirmed as Stage I lung cancer. For Perea, a non-smoker with no symptoms and no family history of lung cancer, the biopsy results came as a surprise. 

Almost 15% of lung cancer patients have never smoked. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 20,000 and 40,000 nonsmokers are diagnosed with lung cancer each year.

Wanting to be sure about treatment recommendations, Perea sought a second opinion from the University of Chicago Medicine. She met with Jessica Donington, MD, MSCR, Chief of Thoracic Surgery. “When I met Dr. Donington and her team, they completely won me over,” Perea said.

“It is really important for my providers to see me as a whole person and not just a patient that has to get something removed,” she added. “I felt like Dr. Donington and her team said, ‘OK, this is a woman who is a dean of a law school, she works very hard, she wants to get back to running – how can we help her?'”

Perea underwent a video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS) lobectomy, a minimally invasive procedure where a camera and surgical instruments are inserted into the chest via small incisions through the chest wall to locate and remove the cancer. The surgeons were able to remove the more than two-centimeter cancer with just a two-night hospital stay.

Perea experienced coughing and shortness of breath for the first two months following the surgery. Even so, she set a goal to run two half-marathons on her own before her four-month checkup with Donington. At that checkup,  Donington cleared her to run the New York City Marathon in November 2022 – her first marathon.

Jennifer L. Rosato Perea completed the New York City Marathon in under seven hours only months after undergoing surgery to remove cancer from her right lung.
Perea completed the New York City Marathon in under seven hours only months after undergoing surgery to remove cancer from her right lung.

Perea finished the marathon in 6 hours, 49 minutes and 49 seconds and was able to raise money for lung cancer research.

“I willed myself because I really wanted to be able to run again. The team at UChicago Medicine made it happen. I am deeply, deeply grateful,” said Perea.

“Stage I diagnoses make up less than 20% of lung cancer diagnoses – it’s at that stage when we can catch patients who are most curable. She was definitely in that group,” said Donington.

“As a patient, you need the will to get better. But you also need the medical team in your corner that wants to support you getting there – not just taking the cancer out and making sure the sutures are well done,” said Perea. “I felt that from the team at UChicago Medicine.”

Currently, there are no lung cancer screening mechanisms for individuals who have never been smokers. By the time one may become symptomatic, the cancer may have already spread to other parts of the body. In Perea’s case, her early intervention was based on the luck of a well-timed MRI.

“My parents did not smoke. I have been working in classrooms most of my life. It was just random,” she said. “Anyone can get cancer.”

Radiologist Christopher Straus, MD, reviews radiology images

Lung Cancer Care

At UChicago Medicine, we offer a wide range of lung cancer care options, including minimally invasive surgery and innovative targeted therapies, as well as clinical trials of promising treatments not widely available.

Learn more about our lung cancer care.
Jessica Donington, MD

Jessica Donington, MD, MSCR

Jessica S. Donington, MD, is an expert thoracic surgeon who treats the full spectrum of lung, esophageal and mediastinal conditions. Her focus is on the comprehensive and multidisciplinary care of benign and malignant chest diseases.

Learn more about Dr. Donington