Peggy Fleming: Challenging Breast Cancer
By Idelle Davidson
The year was 1968, and the war in Vietnam was raging. As if in delicate counterpoint to all the disturbing images filling the airwaves, Peggy Fleming appeared, a ballerina on the ice at the Olympic Winter Games in Grenoble, France. It was a first for television, with the event broadcast live and in color. For four minutes this petite 19-year-old charmed the worldwide audience. "As I went into that event I was twice world champion," says Fleming. "I was the favorite to win and I felt like I had the pressure of the world on me. I remember feeling terrified."
But when she skated out into the arena, the audience hushed as in a cathedral. Like an old friend, the music took her by the hand, and Fleming released her panic. Gracefully tracing the ice, she performed toe loops to the music of Tchaikovsky and a split-jump double flip to a crescendoing Rossini overture.
When it was over, Peggy Fleming had won America’s only gold medal at the Olympic Games.
Following the Olympics came photo sessions for the magazine covers of Life and Sports Illustrated, five television specials, skating performances at the White House, and commercial endorsements for Canon cameras and Concord watches.
She starred in the skating troupes, "Ice Follies" and "Holiday on Ice," and in her own traveling show called "Peggy Fleming’s Concert on Ice." Twenty-two years ago, Fleming accepted the role of on-camera commentator for ABC Sports. She still holds that job today, traveling around the world to cover dozens of skating competitions.
Shortly after her Olympic victory, Fleming married her sweetheart, Greg Jenkins, now a dermatologist. They raised two sons in Palo Alto, California, and in 1991, she and Jenkins became grandparents.
"Those years that I was competing helped me learn how to focus under extraordinary pressure," says Fleming. "I have tapped into that lesson so many times in my life."
But no challenge tested her like the one that came her way in February 1998, when doctors diagnosed Fleming with breast cancer.
A Tough Challenge
As Fleming discusses her ordeal, she stands at a podium before a roomful of people in Irvine, California. The audience consists of fans, cancer survivors, media, and staff from Atairgin Technologies, Inc. Fleming is the official spokesperson for Atairgin, a biotechnology company involved in clinical trials to develop early detection tests for ovarian and breast cancers.
At age 52, Fleming is a beautiful woman with flowing brown hair and velvety blue eyes. Even though she is a world-renowned athlete secure in her career, it’s easy to see remnants of the shy child she once was, as described in her autobiography, The Long Program (Pocket Books, 1999). As a girl, Fleming was afraid to raise her hand in class, lest the teacher call her name. Discovering she was special on the ice helped her develop self-confidence. But now in front of this crowd, and later in private, this public person speaks softly, humbly sharing her personal self.
She has seen too much illness, she says. She lost her mother to multiple myeloma (a cancer of the bone marrow), and her mother-in-law to ovarian cancer. One of her three sisters died suddenly of a heart attack last year at the age of 50. And then there was her own cancer.
Fleming questioned: Why me? "My career image and my reputation had always been based on my good health and athleticism," Fleming says. "My body had never let me down. It was as if somebody had pulled the rug out from under me."
Her ordeal began a couple of weeks before the diagnosis. Fleming was in Philadelphia to cover the national ice skating championships for ABC. She was also there for a reunion with the 1968 Olympic skating team.
Feeling fatigued from work but excited to be seeing her friends again, Fleming wanted to look her best. As she stood in her underwear in front of the hotel bathroom mirror, carefully applying her makeup, Peggy yawned. She stretched her arms and noticed a small lump on the left side of her chest.
"I thought, ‘I’ve never seen that before,’" says Fleming. "But I wasn’t concerned because I had just had a mammogram 5 months earlier." She assumed she had pulled a muscle from working out.
Fleming left Philadelphia directly for Milan, Italy, to cover the European championships. The lump remained and in fact, didn’t feel like normal muscle tissue at all, she thought. That’s when Fleming began to worry. Finally home, she visited her OB/Gyn who sent her immediately to a breast surgeon.
A needle biopsy revealed a "questionable" lump. The surgeon removed it a few days later, leaving her with a tiny incision. He sent her off with the message: "The lump was probably nothing." So Fleming left again for Boston, this time to perform in a pairs number with skater Robin Cousins. She told him about the surgery and he gingerly lifted her as they glided along the ice.
When she returned home, her husband Greg broke the news: the tumor was malignant. As Fleming wrote in her book, "I felt like I had been hit in the stomach, and the head, and the heart. Cancer? Malignant? Those couldn’t possibly be words used about me." In a rare moment outside of the professional glare, the fear consumed her. She dropped her guard and cried.
But then she began looking at the cancer as a type of challenge. "I always look for the positive side of things," she explains. "When you’re a competitive skater or athlete, you never go out there with the attitude of, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope I don’t fall.’ You go out there with the attitude of, ‘I can do this.’"
Fleming says she figuratively rolled up her sleeves and said to her doctor, "Just tell me what to do. I am going to be the best patient you’ve ever had."
Position of Strength
Fleming underwent a lumpectomy and her surgeon removed ten lymph nodes for a biopsy. Waiting for the results was agony. "My family held its breath because if it was going to spread, it would be in the lymph nodes first," she says. "But I was one of the lucky ones."
The lymph nodes and tissue from the lumpectomy showed no cancerous cells. "I was told by my doctors that I had a very curable kind of cancer," she says. Hers was a tubular carcinoma, 1 centimeter in diameter, with a clear zone of healthy cells around it. Fleming would need 6 weeks of radiation but no chemo.
Word got out and CNN called to confirm her surgery. Later that day, sports fans heard the news from ABC commentator Jim Nantz at the Olympic games in Nagano, Japan. Ironically, his announcement came one day before the 30th anniversary of Fleming’s win in Grenoble.
Fleming approached her ordeal from a position of strength and chose to keep year-old vacation plans with a girlfriend. Just 10 days later and with her doctor’s blessing, they traveled to a health spa south of San Diego, within the Mexican border. She had never been to a spa before, and she loved it.
"I kept the bandages on," says Fleming. "I had massages but they just didn’t do that side. I sat in the hot tub but I didn’t sit all the way in. I worked out, went to yoga classes and just didn’t do the full stretch on that side. I focused on myself."
Having a supportive husband, whom she calls "her rock," and continuing to gently work out, even during radiation treatments, helped enormously, she says. So did some now-lifelong "radiation friends." She forged a bond with two other women who were also struggling with cancer. They helped each other get through treatment.
About 3 weeks into Fleming’s sessions, fatigue hit her hard. "It was a humbling experience to go through it," she says. Greg brought home ointments and creams for her skin discoloration and itching. And her left arm, where surgeons had removed lymph nodes, is strong now from exercise, but then it was weak with numbness.
Her depression came next. The burden of taking care of the house with shopping and laundry became too much. When she lost her desire to work out—her passion—she knew something was up. It turns out that the drug tamoxifen, which her doctor had prescribed to prevent cancer reoccurrence, was creating her low mood. It’s a fairly rare side effect, but when Fleming went off tamoxifen, the cloud lifted.
Fleming and her doctors are confident that her breast cancer will not return.
"I think I’m going to be fine," she says. And now her message to others: early detection. As good as mammograms are, women need to vigilantly check themselves. Her check-up and screening 5 months earlier had not picked up the cancer. "I physically saw it," she says. "I just paid attention, that’s all I did."
This award-winning skater says that her career, her marriage, parenting her boys, and experiencing cancer have taught her wisdom.
"You know, life is full of challenges. And it’s all about how you face them, how you come through them," says Fleming. "Any time you compete, you test your heart, you test your determination, and you test yourself. Every time you challenge yourself, it is a gift."