Mention the name Dorothy Hamill to adults who lived through the 1970s and one phrase immediately pops up: America's Sweetheart. This title was bestowed on Hamill after her captivating performance in the 1976 Olympics, where she earned a gold medal in figure skating at the age of 19. To say her star took off after her triumph would be one of the bigger understatements in sports. Practically overnight, Hamill went from earning a self-confessed going rate of two dollars an hour for babysitting to being offered thousands of dollars a week to do what she loved: ice skate.
She would go on to star in the Ice Capades for seven years before actually owning it for a short time. By traveling the country, appearing on television in skating specials, and showing up for interviews during many winter Olympics, Hamill has remained in the public eye, though the headlines about her that appeared a few years ago had nothing to do with skating.
A Tough Diagnosis
Most people assume that celebrities lead a charmed, worry-free life, but no amount of fame or achievement in the name of your country can give you immunity from cancer. About five years ago, Hamill was diagnosed with breast cancer, and suddenly, like other cancer patients, her life changed.
"With cancer, once I got diagnosed, I knew I had to have surgery," she says. "It's not like in ice skating, where you know if you work harder, you can achieve the result you want. Once you get your diagnosis you have to do as best you can on your mental outlook and do your research to understand how complex cancer is."
For someone who had spent the better part of her young life willing her body to achieve her dream, Hamill found herself in a struggle where she no longer controlled the outcome.
"I think, for me, it was more that I tried to keep a positive outlook from the start," she says. "I look at it like I was very lucky in getting my diagnosis with the timing and all of the advances in medicine that have been made recently."
Not only did Hamill benefit from those advances, she actually volunteered to participate in a study to help future patients.
Helping Future Cancer Patients
"When I first got diagnosed, the plan was that I would have surgery, radiation, then chemo," she explains. "But then I went to the Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins for a second opinion and they said that I didn't need the chemo. Apparently there had just been a study released that showed that with the particular form of breast cancer that I had, having chemo in addition to radiation didn't affect the chance of recurrence."
At this point, Hamill could have simply gotten her treatment and gone home, but she had a much more altruistic vision of how she was going to do her part to not only beat her cancer, but to help other women beat their cancer.
"Around the time of my surgery there was a study starting that would measure the effectiveness of aromatase inhibitors," she says. "I felt that since I got to benefit from others who had participated in studies it was only fair that I do my part."
Hamill says that her cancer was hormone related, which is why her doctors mentioned the study. For those that don't know, aromatase is the enzyme that synthesizes estrogen. Studies have shown that most cases of breast cancer require estrogen to grow, so taking an aromatase inhibitor may block the production of estrogen or prevent the normal response of estrogen, thus starving the tumor.
Unfortunately, the new drugs (aromatase inhibitors) didn't help Hamill at all. In fact, they were making her ill.
"The fact that I was part of that study, that's how I knew that I was feeling worse and worse and worse," she says. "Soon, they switched my medication and the doctors told me, 'These drugs are just not for you.'"
The reason aromatase inhibitor drugs make some women feel so lousy is that it deprives them of estrogen. While this has been shown to improve survival odds in women with estrogen-receptor positive breast tumors, the severe depletion of estrogen can be too much for many women to handle, and there may be long-term side effects such as bone loss.*
Focusing on Recovery
It's now been almost five years since her surgery and radiation.
For the first three years post-surgery, Hamill felt fatigued and achy from the operation, radiation, and the medication she was still taking.
"Right after the radiation I was so tired and fatigued, that's when doctors suggested that I start taking vitamin D," she says.
Many patients undergoing radiation have low levels of vitamin D that may go undiagnosed by their doctors. When those levels are brought back to normal with vitamin D3 supplementation, many patients feel their energy levels return as well.
In addition to the vitamin D, Hamill takes a multivitamin and eats a healthy diet that includes lots of seafood in order to get the appropriate amount of omega-3s.
"I eat lots of fish because we're in Nantucket," she says. "I generally eat healthy, but I'm more aware of what I should be eating now than before. When I was training I worked with a kinesiologist and took potassium supplements and all kinds of things to stay in peak form."
Along with her diet and her supplements, Hamill relied on her loving family and the doctors at Hopkins, who she feels were amazing, to help her through her recovery.
"My husband and daughter were there for me the whole way," she says. "And the doctors at Hopkins were incredible. Any time I had a question, they'd take a phone call day or night."
Moving Beyond Cancer
These days, Hamill says that she's feeling well and doing well. She skates every day and runs a fantasy camp for adults, though she says her performing days may soon be behind her.
"The aches and pains of slamming into the ice for all those years have taken their toll," she says. "I'm getting a little too old to perform, but skating is the one place where I feel energized. It's always been therapeutic for me. I love the cool air, the wind in my face. I can't do some of the simple things that used to be easy, but I still love it."
In addition to skating, Hamill does some yoga and likes to do some running and biking for exercise. Much of her time, however, is devoted to charity work.
"At this point, I'll do performances to raise money for various kinds of cancer," she says. "I try not to limit my efforts to just breast cancer. I've worked with Scott Hamilton and his big benefit for the Cleveland Clinic. I've worked with the Dana Farber Institute and the Jimmy Fund over the years to help raise money for children's cancer research."
Some of her most important work is with a program called I-Skate at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, where she works with kids who have spinal cord injuries and neurological problems.
"We have a skating session every Sunday during the winter," she says. "Some of the kids are in wheelchairs, others have braces or crutches or different disabilities. We've been doing it for four years and we've seen some of these kids from little kids who were using walkers to those same kids actually knowing how to skate on their own. The kids don't have any idea who I am or that I was an Olympic ice skater, but the joy on their beautiful faces is amazing."
The happiness in Hamill's voice as she describes her work with these children is evident. So is that positive outlook she mentioned earlier.
"As great as things can be, you know that some day something is going to come up," she says. "When you look at the rest of the world, I think of my cancer and say, 'Thank goodness it's only this.' That doesn't mean that it can't come back or won't come back, but I keep a positive outlook and do what I enjoy doing."
To learn more about Dorothy Hamill or to donate to the Kennedy Krieger Institute, visit www.dorothyhamill.com.
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* Hind D, Ward S, De Nigris E, Simpson E, Carroll C, Wyld L. Hormonal therapies for early breast cancer: systematic review and economic evaluation. Health Technol Assess. 2007 Jul;11(26):iii-iv, ix-xi, 1-134.