Remember Dorothy Hamill? The figure skater with the perky wedge haircut and the beautiful smile, winning a 1976 Olympic gold medal and hearts all over the world as a fresh-faced 19-year-old? She revealed Saturday that she’s been diagnosed with breast cancer. Join the club none of us wants to belong to, Dorothy-you’re one of us.
I’m reminded of Dorothy Hamill frequently-several times a month, in fact. Every time I visit our local hospital, for instance, and give my name at the desk. "Name?" "Peggy Hamel." “Oh, wasn’t she that figure skater”?" I patiently explain that my name is similar to that of TWO figure skaters: Peggy Fleming, 1968 Olympic gold medal winner, and Dorothy Hamill. Peggy Fleming was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998, at the age of 49. I was diagnosed in 2001, age 47. Dorothy Hamill, 51, was diagnosed this week. Peggy’s birthday is July 27; mine is July 21; Dorothy’s is July 26. If you’re into signs of the horoscope-we’re all Cancer. Random coincidences, all; so why do I feel this eerie connection?
Maybe it’s because I was a skater, too. No, not a figure skater, cutting precise figure-8s and landing flying salchows in my pretty white lace-up skates. Nah, I was a hockey player. A goalie, in fact. And there was nothing pretty about what I wore. I was a member of the Brown University Pandas ice hockey team, back in the early ‘70s. Title IX, the act giving equal opportunity to women in sports, had been passed" just barely. And it had yet to take effect at Brown. I made my own uniform by taping numbers onto the front and back of a heavy cotton T-shirt. I practiced in pads soaked with sweat from the guy who’d worn them just before me; with no budget for equipment, I shared with the intramural boys’ league. We had bake sales to raise money to travel to away games.
Times have changed since then. On some campuses, women athletes outnumber their male counterparts. The ice hockey players get their own equipment-and buses, meal allowances, free sticks, sharp skates, and their own trainer. Goodbye, bake sales.
A lot has changed in breast cancer world, too. In the early '70s, lumpectomies were rare, and tamoxifen was just being tested. Mastectomies were brutal, disfiguring operations. Chemotherapy wasn’t nearly as available, nor as targeted, as it is now. And women died from breast cancer-regularly. Commonly. Doctors back then didn’t have nearly the number of weapons in their arsenal as our oncologists do now.
Thankfully, me and my "namesakes," Dorothy and Peggy, went through breast cancer within the past 10 years. Peggy’s was caught early; she’s doing fine, and has become a breast cancer activist (and winemaker). Mine was caught semi-early; I’ve become a breast cancer blogger and cancer volunteer. Dorothy’s appears to have been caught early; she says she wants to rejoin Broadway on Ice, a show she’s starring in, next week. (Which to me says lumpectomy.)
Time will tell if Dorothy joins Peggy, me, and so many others who’ve become involved in the cancer community. I’m betting she does. There’s a bond connecting Dorothy and Peggy and me (and so many of you), and I don’t mean our names. I mean breast cancer, and the way it’s changed our lives: making us stronger, wiser, more compassionate, and happy to be alive. (Even if none of us can land that flying salchow anymore)
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.