JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Angela Hammack runs with ghosts.
"I know that might sound far out to some people," said Hammack, 46, a nurse for the past nine years at Jackson Oncology Associates, "but a lot of my patients that I've grown to know and love who eventually died from cancer ... it's like they're right alongside me every step I take."
Hammack felt them carrying her recently as she completed the inaugural Dopey Challenge at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. — a four-day event that included a 5K run (3.1 miles), a 10K (6.2), a half marathon (13.1) and a full marathon (26.2) as a grand finale. That's 48.6 miles total, or roughly from Jackson to Forest. Approximately 7,000 people participated.
She ran to raise money for the Mississippi/Louisiana Chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Before the Orlando challenge, Hammack had raised more than $22,000 for the organization dedicated to funding blood cancer research, education and patient services.
And as she crossed the finish line of her 11th marathon, Hammack said, "I got really emotional. That's the first time I've ever just fell apart after a run. I started crying, just thinking of why I did this, what all I did to get here, those I did it for. ... I'm drained physically and emotionally. But it's worth every bit of it.
"I gain so much determination from seeing patients come into the clinic, continuing to fight when there seems to be little hope left. I push myself to try and help make a difference so maybe others won't have to go through that."
She covered the marathon distance in 5 hours, 23 minutes, slightly longer than average for a female runner.
Hammack, who ran her best time — 4 hours, 44 minutes — in October at the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, said: "My times aren't important. I don't compete against other people. I just want to finish."
Hammack has been running for local cancer charities since 2007. She focuses much of her fundraising on blood cancers.
"And the reason is, they don't pick a certain age, race or gender. Blood cancers affect people across the board," she said.
Those who know Hammack said the 48.6 miles at Disney were in the bag once she decided to enter.
"Angela is one of the most unique people you'll ever meet," said Susan James, nurse manager at Jackson Oncology. "She does things at one speed — 100 miles per hour. I have no idea where she gets her energy. She talks faster than I can listen.
"But the thing is, that people sometimes take for granted is, she really has a good heart. I don't know of anyone who has more drive and ambition. She's served as president of the Oncology Nurses Society. She became certified to teach other nurses how to give chemotherapy. There is a lot more to her than just the marathons."
Said Teresa Davis, clinical trials coordinator at Jackson Oncology: "Angela not only raises money and awareness about cancer, but she helps improve patients' perspective about cancer and the research that's being done. She likes to talk, likes to teach and likes to educate. That's what you look for in an oncology nurse."
Hammack admits to marching — swiftly — to a different beat than most.
She runs marathons, yet suffers from asthma.
Her iPod includes Christian, classical, grunge, Broadway, heavy metal and hip-hop.
She often trains at 4 a.m. but declares, "I'm not a morning person."
She is here, then there, her 5-foot, 118-pound body darting like a bee with a buzz.
"But let me get home, and it's a different story," she said. "We live on 53 acres in Terry, and it is so peaceful and quiet. I will sit there and not do a blooming thing. My husband, Jimmy, has horses, and I enjoy watching them. It's a place where I can relax and slow everything down a bit."
Hammack, who was born in Starkville, graduated from Mississippi State University in 1989 with a degree in communications. Bored with desk jobs, she attended paramedic school at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson and graduated in 1995.
"The day I graduated, I found out I'd been accepted into nursing school at Mississippi College (in Clinton)," she said.
She earned her nursing degree in 1997 and began working at the Elvis Presley Memorial Trauma Center in Memphis.
"When I started dating Jimmy, I would come down for visits but felt like I needed to be doing something all the time," she said. "A friend said they might hire me part time at Jackson Oncology. I talked to them, and they did. It was a different experience than what I had been used to in trauma. This was a lot of nurturing and talking with patients. ... I really enjoyed that."
Hammack joined Jackson Oncology full time in 2004, but the trauma bug didn't leave. So a couple of weekends a month, she travels by train to Memphis and back and pulls two shifts at her old job.
"The adrenaline of seeing somebody dying, but then watching them come back to life through the Lord's will and with a little bit of your help is an amazing thing," she said.
Running to fight cancer gives her a different type rush.
"I saw a sticker ... that fits me," she said. "It read 'endorphin junkie.' And I can totally relate to that. Doing something like this for such a worthy cause is an all-natural high. I know some people might think it's crazy, but that's what keeps life fun and interesting."
The money portion of her mission begins with a formula calculated by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Travel expenses to an event are figured, then tripled. That's how much Hammack must raise. Seventy-five percent of the money — most of which is donated by corporate sponsors — goes to the charity.
Hammack has run marathons and half marathons all over the continental U.S. and also in places such as Hawaii and Dublin, Ireland.
"The main thing is the money stays in our state. Some of it goes to research, which has already come up with drugs such as Gleevec, which reverses some forms of leukemia," Hammack said. "It makes all this mean so much more when you can actually see the positive effects of the money raised."
Said Mary Moffett, director of patient access, education and advocacy with the Mississippi/Louisiana Chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society: "Nothing is more inspiring to me personally than to see someone make a difference in the lives of others. Every dollar that volunteers like Angela Hammack raise to cure blood cancer is a life changed forever. Because of dedicated individuals who step up to make this mission happen, we can truly see the end of cancer from here."
"I'm just one person doing very small things," Hammack said. "But to try and make some kind of a difference is deep, deep inside me. I'll keep on until I can't do it anymore."
Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com