Peggy Fleming: Challenge of a Lifetime

As an Olympic champion figure skater and a lifelong athlete, Peggy Fleming has always been in tune with her body.”My body was always the tool to my success as an athlete,” Peggy says,”so I’m very aware; and when I feel something different, I always have it checked out.” But in January 1998, Peggy was feeling great, and a visit to the doctor was the last thing on her mind. She had seen her physician five months earlier for her annual exam and had also had a mammogram. She was running, working out regularly, and busy preparing to again lend her expertise to ABC Sports as a reporter for the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships.”Things were humming along great. I was probably in the best shape of my life,” she says.

Which is why, when she noticed a lump in her left breast, her first reaction was to think that it was probably just a pulled muscle.”I was getting ready for the national championships,” Peggy says,”and I had finished my makeup and hair and I stretched in the mirror and saw a lump pop out on my chest. I thought, That’s different. I hadn’t seen that before, and there wasn’t one on the other side.” Her instinct told her that this change in her body was significant; still, she didn’t get alarmed because she had been to the doctor so recently. But when the lump was still there two weeks later, she took herself to the doctor.

From that point, Peggy says, her introduction to all things breast cancer took off full tilt. A needle biopsy, which produced a questionable result, was followed by a second biopsy the next day. This time the sample confirmed that the lump was in fact malignant, and surgery was scheduled. A lumpectomy and six weeks of radiation followed. Because the lump was discovered early, and the diagnosis confirmed a Stage I tumor and no lymph node involvement, Peggy avoided chemotherapy.

Still, she was not immune to the side effects of treatment.”I got pretty tired about three weeks into it,” she says,”and I was still running with my friends at the time, so I got heat rash, which irritated my skin and caused it to bubble up.” But Peggy credits those same runs that irritated her skin with keeping up her spirits and her physical strength:”If you can get up and move and get your muscles moving again, and get back into a routine, I think it can be really helpful. I just couldn’t wait to get it over with and be myself again…to have my body back. Running was a way to test myself and see how I was feeling each day: I stretched out; I breathed fresh air. It gave me confidence.”

Turning to physical activity as a form of therapy and a welcome release after her diagnosis was a natural tendency for Peggy, for whom exercise has always been a priority. As a competitor, she has been defined by her athletic achievements…capped by winning a gold medal in figure skating in the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France…and, she says, she can’t imagine approaching cancer with any other attitude but that of a fierce competitor determined to win. That attitude and her desire to share her positive approach to her diagnosis have made her an inspiration to many.”When I was diagnosed, and it became public, I think my attitude really got people’s attention,” Peggy says,”because it showed them what I was all about and how strong I really was. It was just normal for me. As an athlete, you have to be positive about yourself…you have to get out there and put your talent on the line. But I think for other people, they thought, Wow, that’s impressive. But I’ve always had that attitude. I learned as a skater to compete, to test myself. It’s a good tool; it came in handy.”

It was also beneficial, she says, to lean on her husband of 37 years, dermatologist Greg Jenkins, who as a physician was also able to help Peggy sort through her options and seek the best care. She feels lucky that because they’ve lived in the same Northern California community for 30 years, and because they know so many people in the medical community there, finding a medical team was not a challenge…she felt extremely confident in her choice of physicians and knew she was being well cared for.

Assured that she was in good hands, Peggy says, she followed their instructions and also took a breather from her busy schedule…which, in addition to life as a mother of two sons (one of whom was still at home at the time), often includes appearances, public speaking, and endorsements…to give herself time to heal.”I kind of took a time-out,” she says.”My sisters came and visited, and we had some fun. I just really slowed down the pace and focused on getting well.” When she did make a rare public appearance, Peggy says…mostly for cancer-related causes…she did so to retain the routine and the sense of self that were so important to her recovery.”I participated in a few things, not many. But it made me feel like myself again to get out there.”

In all aspects of her life, Peggy’s emphasis on retaining her routine and a sense of normalcy…for herself and her family…played a key role in her healing process. In her home life, she was intent on remaining present for her younger son, Todd, who was 11 at the time. She napped while he was at school…as the radiation treatments took their toll…and took care to emphasize that”Mom was going to be okay.” Though her older son, Andy, was away at school, Peggy also made certain that he was not overly burdened. When he was given the news, she says,”he had to come home and look me in the eye to hear that I was going to be alright”; she emphasized that life would go on and that the boys shouldn’t worry.

It was Peggy’s determination to buckle down and get on with life, remaining focused on the goal of her recovery, that saw her through, and it was this advice that she passed on to other friends who faced diagnoses after her own.”I think I was able to be really reassuring to my friends,” she says of her ability to pay forward the lessons of her own experience.”I would tell them to just take it one step at a time.” In addition, Peggy says, she and her friends rallied together to attend breast cancer walks and provided each other with the fun and the friendship that was necessary above all.

Now, nine years down the road from her diagnosis, Peggy remains thankful for both her early detection and the wonderful care she received.”I’m very grateful. I’m glad I followed my instincts. I surrounded myself with a good group of physicians, who guided me well.” She continues to see her oncologist yearly, and she keeps careful records of all her appointments.”I keep files so that I’m copied on all my test results,” Peggy says.”The communication with my doctors is really good. All my doctors are copied.” And it’s a habit she advises other patients to adopt to ensure that they are aware of their results and can become their own advocates:”Women, especially, need to follow up if they don’t hear from the doctor’s office. If you haven’t heard, call and ask. Don’t slip through the cracks.”

As a result of her own positive outcome and stemming from years spent carefully monitoring her own health, Peggy is determined to spread the message about the importance of good self-care:”Don’t procrastinate about taking care of yourself. A healthy lifestyle starts with you. It’s not any magic pill that a doctor can give you. It’s about how you treat your body every single day.”

Because Peggy’s years in the spotlight have shown her what an impact her messages to the public can have, the majority of her endorsements now, she says, are health related. Recently, she has become involved in Medco’s Tour of Champions, which has teamed the pharmacy benefits manager and mail-order pharmacy with sports legends Mark Spitz, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Bruce Jenner, Greg Louganis, Bob Beamon, and Peggy herself…all of whom manage an illness that requires them to take medication every day. Though Peggy doesn’t take drugs for her breast cancer at this point, she did take tamoxifen [Nolvadex®] for a brief period and currently takes medication to control her cholesterol.”People think an Olympic athlete epitomizes good health, physically and mentally,” she says, describing the value of her endorsement of health products that she really thinks can improve people’s lives.”And I think for the public to see people like us get cancer or have other issues, they think, Wow, it can happen to them? Everybody has health problems, and we all need to pay attention to them and to our family history. We’re great athletes, but we’re all human.”

Ultimately, Peggy exhibited in her cancer journey the same grace and strength that won her so many fans as a figure skater.”I had to focus on my health when I was diagnosed,” she says, discussing the fact that she has often called her breast cancer experience”another Olympics.” When faced with this second, and perhaps even greater challenge to her body and spirit, she says, she dug deep and found that the same qualities helped her persevere once again.”I called on those tools that I learned as an athlete: to be strong, to have confidence, and to show up when they call your name. I showed up when they called my name for cancer, and I just said, I’m going to do what I need to do to win and do it as gracefully as I can, and I’m going to listen to my doctors and slow down and take care of myself.”

Listening to her body, caring well for herself, and passing on the important messages that help save lives continue to shape Peggy’s life, ensuring that the world will know the beautiful spirit of this Olympic champion for years to come and that many more women will benefit from the hope she inspires and the wisdom she has to share.

For more information on Peggy Fleming and Medco’s Tour of Champions, visit www.tourofchampions.com.

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