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Fleming's Cancer Battle Leads Her to Speak Out

Figure skating: Olympic champion is national spokeswoman for breast cancer awareness campaign.

October 18, 1998|ANNE M. PETERSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

It started with a glance in a mirror.

Peggy Fleming saw the lump on her breast. Small. But enough to cast an unfamiliar shadow.

That was in January. Fleming wasn't too concerned because only five months earlier she had a mammogram and a checkup. And she'd found harmless lumps before.

Still, she wanted to be sure.

A month later, Fleming underwent surgery to remove the small amount of cancerous tissue in her left breast. It was 30 years to the day after she won the Olympic gold medal for figure skating.

"I think my life's experiences really came into play," she said, in a rare interview. "I wanted to win. I wanted to beat this."

Today, Fleming is proud to say, she is cancer-free.

Usually protective of her private life, Fleming, 50, is candid about her experiences with the disease.

Like fellow figure skater Scott Hamilton and his frank discussion of his testicular cancer, Fleming said she feels a responsibility as a public figure to help others and now is the national spokeswoman for "Speak Out," a breast cancer awareness campaign sponsored by Samsung Telecommunications and Sprint PCS.

"I felt I really needed to share this," she said. "I think it really helped me, and now I want to help others."

Fleming won the gold medal in the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble, France. Wearing a demure chartreuse dress, she skated with precision and grace, instantly becoming an American princess.

Fleming, who also won five U.S. titles and three world titles, capitalized on her memorable Olympic performance by skating in ice shows, and later she became an analyst for ABC Sports. She settled down with her husband, dermatologist Greg Jenkins, and their two sons in a quiet neighborhood near San Jose.

There was nothing to suggest she was at risk for breast cancer; no one in her family had it, and, as an athlete, she had always paid attention to her health. But as Fleming attests: "The highest risk of getting breast cancer is just being a woman."

Breast cancer, the most common form of cancer among women, is the leading cause of death of women between the ages of 35 and 54.

In 1998, more than 178,700 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and 43,500 will die, according to The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, the largest private funder of research dedicated to breast cancer.

After finding the lump, Fleming had a biopsy, which confirmed her worst fears. But she approached the diagnosis with the stubborn perseverance of a competitor. She would win.

"I had everything in my favor," she said. "We caught it early."

The hardest part, she said, was telling her sons: Andy, 21, a college student, and Todd, 10.

"I had a real positive thing to tell them: That I was going to be OK," she said, her voice catching slightly.

On Feb. 10, Fleming underwent surgery to remove the cancer.

Wishes for her quick recovery came in from around the world after the surgery was made public. Hamilton sent flowers and a note. Fellow commentator and skating promoter Dick Button called.

Michelle Kwan phoned from the Winter Games in Nagano, where she went on to win the silver medal.

Kwan, who wasn't yet born when Fleming turned her famed Olympic performance, called her a role model.

"I think she's done a lot for figure skating," she said. "When you look back 100 years from now at figure skating, you'll still see Peggy Fleming."

After her surgery, Fleming underwent six weeks of radiation.

"It was tougher than I thought it was going to be," she said. "You get fatigued so easily. That was irritating."

It also was tough on her youngest son. "I tried to take naps, so that I would have energy when he came home. I just tried to make my life normal," she said. "The way he showed his concern, he wanted to be with me all the time. And that was fine with me."

For the "Speak Out" campaign, Fleming is talking about her experience in national television and magazine advertisements and encouraging women to do self-exams and to get regular mammograms.

"This is a very strong message," she said. "It saved my life: Early detection is the key."

This month, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Samsung and Spring PCS are giving $500,000 to the Komen Foundation and are providing phones and service to foundation affiliates for a national community outreach program.

Fleming is steady and matter-of-fact as she discusses the disease, as if using her cool television persona and competitive resolve as a shield. Only occasionally does she let her guard down.

But when she says goodbye, she says quietly, "Remember to take care of yourself."

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