Some of Kelli O’Hara’s best moments have come while running.
“I grew up on a farm (in Oklahoma) and I would run on the dirt roads,” the singer/actress tells Survivornet.com. “I would think about things, and running became so therapeutic. I can pinpoint places and cities, both across the country and in New York – in Central Park, Riverside Park — where I had long, thought-provoking runs.”
O’Hara, 45, will have another long run on Sunday, when she tackles her first marathon – the 2021 TCS New York City Marathon.
“I am excited,” the seven-time Tony nominee says. “I have all the nerves.”
What will help her with each step, she says, is thinking about all the friends and family members who have been touched by, or succumbed to, cancer as she’s running to raise funds for the Cancer Support Community, a global nonprofit network that provides $50 million in free navigation and support services to patients and their loved ones.
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“When you can carry someone in your heart as you’re struggling to find resilience it helps. I have them in my heart,” she says.
O’Hara ran a 5K for the CSC in June. “I know 5K is very, very far away from 26.2 miles, but it’s the fundraising aspect that’s important,” she says, and even though she has enjoyed running since she was a teen, the singer/actress hadn’t really planned to do the marathon.
“I’ve thought about it every single year. Then another year would pass. And a couple times I joined the lottery and didn’t get in. Or I’d find an excuse – I have a matinee that day. But I have so many friends who ran the marathon and did the matinee, that excuse didn’t really work.”
Then the CSC called her in August and asked her to consider running the NYC Marathon to raise funds for them. “I knew this is the universe telling me the time is now.” She adds that she’s happy to have “a reason and purpose to do it.”
Part of that reason stems from her mother-in-law, Pam Naughton, who died in 2013 after battling pancreatic cancer for four years. Her husband, actor James Naughton, O’Hara’s father-in-law, was beside Pam’s side through it all, recalls O’Hara.
Although usually an aggressive cancer (O’Hara’s grandfather died nine months after his diagnosis, she says), pancreatic cancer was a four-year fight for O’Hara’s mother-in-law.
“It was incredibly aggressive,” says O’Hara. “She found out she had it, but it was coinciding with her first grandchild being born – my son (Owen, now 12) – and after normal chemo didn’t work, she and Jim did trials, totally off the wall things; she did everything a person could do to fight this, and she did for as long as she could. It was one of the most heroic things I’ve ever seen.”
And for James Naughton, working for pancreatic cancer funding, legislation and research activism has become a continued passion.
“Jim has remarried. It’s been eight years now. I think he mourns Pam’s passing every day,” says O’Hara. “He gave all his time, his heart, his body, his efforts to her fight for over four years, and he is now fighting for her cause.”
O’Hara says that the caregiver in any situation is often overlooked. “I think one of the things about CSC community they help not only the patient, but the people around that patient. The support for the person caring for that person.”
“None of us have the answers. Treatments, options, about how to take on these treatments, what you can expect. — that’s where CSC comes in.” She adds, “The thing about cancer is that it’s everywhere. Cancer has, unfortunately, touched every single of one of us.” She adds, “As I’ve watched people care for those who are going through that journey. I learned the caregiver needs to have breaks. The caregiver needs to be cared for. You can’t hold somebody up if you’re falling down.
And, she notes, “Counseling is very important in this arena as well. No wants to talk about death and struggle, but it’s important.”
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O’Hara says she has not had a personal cancer scare. “Knock on wood. Nothing that’s been too alarming. We all have the occasional thing, but it comes out okay.”
And she’s been okay during the pandemic, as she has continued to have singing engagements and has incorporated her training for the marathon into her schedule.
“I’d run in the morning and have my concert at night. I’ve been doing concerts since July 2020.” In some of the spots, there were 50 people in a 1500-seat venue. “I’d think, is this just a bad dress rehearsal? But I was so glad to be singing in person.”
She’s also working on a new show for Broadway and she’s got a role in HBO’s upcoming drama The Gilded Age, due early next year.
But before all that she’s got another singing gig – on Sunday. O’Hara will sing the national anthem before the marathon gets underway, and before she runs it herself. She will be proud to have her husband, Greg Naughton, and their kids, Charlotte, 8, and Owen, 12, waiting for her.
And once she crosses the finish line? “If I can breathe – I’ll sing some sort of hurrah.”