Woman Runs Marathon After Overcoming Heart Failure and Breast Cancer

PHOTO: Toni Wild, 50, gets a hug at the finish line of her first marathon in New Orleans, Feb. 24, 2013, four years after her heart transplant.PlayCourtesy Toni Wild
WATCH Woman Survives Breast Cancer and Heart Failure

Toni Wild is 50 years old, but she never lies about her age. After surviving breast cancer twice, losing her husband in a freak car accident, and going into heart failure because of the chemotherapy, she considers surviving 50 years one of her greatest achievements.

Now, she's telling her story of survival.

"There were so many twists and turns that could have ended my life, and ended it quite early on," she told ABCNews.com. "I wanted other women and other individuals to hear my story and to see that regardless of what obstacles you may cross in your life, you can overcome those."

Wild's journey began in 1992, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 29. She underwent chemotherapy and radiation and was cancer-free for five years. While on a trip with her husband a week after doctors gave her a clean bill of health, they got a flat tire, and he was struck and killed by an oncoming car as he was changing it.

Doctors declared him brain dead, and asked whether Wild wanted to donate his organs, something they'd never talked about before.

"I made that decision," she told the American Heart Association as part of its Go Red for Women campaign. "I was actually able to provide three families with a second chance at life: One with a heart, and two with kidneys, and then several other families with tissue, bone and corneas."

As Wild approached the one-year anniversary of her husband's death, she found another lump in her breast and knew it was cancer. She would have to undergo more chemotherapy and radiation, but again, she became cancer-free in 1998.

But she wasn't healthy. She'd been coughing, but she ignored it, figuring it was just a change-of-season cold. But soon the cough turned into shortness of breath and fatigue, and she had trouble walking around the house.

"I realized something wasn't right," she told ABCNews.com. "I did seek medical attention, and at that time, I was told I had walking pneumonia."

It didn't sit right, so she asked if it could be because of her heart. Wild remembered learning that her chemotherapy was "cardiotoxic," since she'd undergone chemotherapy twice, and she wondered whether a heart problem was causing her symptoms.

"He basically discounted my claim," she told ABCNews.com. "He sent me home with antibiotics and told me I should feel better in 24 to 48 hours."

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But by that time the next day, she was worse.

"I had to choose whether I wanted to eat, breathe or talk because I could not do any of those things at the same time," she said.

An X-ray in the emergency room revealed that Wild's heart was three times the normal size. Two days later, and just three months after her last round of chemotherapy, she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Her heart wasn't able to pump enough blood to the rest of her body.

About 5.7 million people in the U.S. have heart failure, causing 55,000 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For the next 11 years, Wild lived with varying signs and symptoms of heart failure, but medications and regular rest allowed her to live normally. She remarried in 2000.

But the extreme fatigue and shortness of breath returned when she was 46.

"All my original symptoms sort of came back to haunt me," she said. "It was determined at that point that my heart function had decreased to about 10 percent capacity."

Wild's heart was worn out, and if she didn't get a heart transplant, she would die.

"I just kind of assumed I would sort of be that quintessential little old lady walking around with her little oxygen tank," she said. "I never thought of myself as having to be a transplant recipient."

But a week after doctors put her on the transplant list, the phone rang. She had a heart.

The surgery lasted five and a half hours, but she woke up and felt "like a new person." It was the first time in two months she was able to breathe normally.

"It makes me realize there's so much truth in the statement of 'paying it forward,'" she said. "In 1997, when I decided to donate my husband's organs, I had absolutely no idea, would not even fathom the thought that, years down the road, I would find myself in that exact situation of needing a heart."

Now, she runs simply because she can. She says her donor allowed her to do something she never thought possible, so she doesn't say, "I ran seven half marathons," she says, "We ran seven half marathons."

Four months after her transplant, Wild ran her first 5K. And on Sunday, four years after the transplant, she ran her first full marathon, called Rock 'n' Roll New Orleans.

"I can't explain it. I felt like I was being carried," she said. "Words cannot describe the feeling of accomplishment I have after finishing this marathon, especially because there were some people that doubted the fact that I could do this -- including myself at times in the past."

It took her six hours and 36 minutes because a virus kept her from training for 23 days before the race, but she finished.

"It was absolutely the most incredible day of my life," she said.