Dorothy Hamill

Dorothy Hamill Dorothy Hamill

When You Fall Down, You Get Up

by Laura Shipp

In 1976, a 19-year-old Dorothy Hamill camel-spinned her way into the hearts of America, taking the gold in figure skating at the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Every little girl wanted to be her, and hair salons across the nation were inundated with young women requesting her signature wedge haircut. With her bubbly personality and bright smile, this girl next door instantly became America’s sweetheart. 

She is one of seven U.S. women to win the Olympic gold medal in figure skating, but life has not always been golden for the perky figure skater from Riverside, CT. With the publication last year of her memoir, A Skating Life: My Story, Dorothy revealed her hidden battle with depression, which also ran in her family. She hoped that by relating her struggle with the disease, she would be able to encourage others facing the same challenge. Now, Dorothy is opening up about her battle with a different disease – breast cancer.  

“If I think that I can help someone by a negative experience,” she tells Coping®, “then I’m always happy to do that. I don’t have any secrets. I don’t necessarily need for it to be out there in the public, but I think it’s important for people to know that it can happen to anyone.”

In January of this year, after canceling several dates for the “Broadway on Ice” tour and inciting a flurry of rumors in the figure skating world, Dorothy announced she was receiving treatment for breast cancer. She has undergone a lumpectomy and radiation and is now participating in a clinical trial for an aromatase inhibitor.  

“As an athlete,” she concedes, “the physical side effects are tough. I get frustrated at not being able to do what I want to do on the ice.” Dorothy experiences significant arthritis and has suspended her arthritis medication since starting oral medication treatment for cancer, making ice-skating difficult for this Olympic champion.

“I am trying to get back on the ice, and I’m trying to take it easy, one day at a time. It’s a good outlet,” she says, adding optimistically, “I’m at a really happy place in my life, personally. Physically, it’s not what I thought, but maybe that will change. Maybe it will get better.”

Photo by Errol Higgins

She is one of seven U.S. women to win the Olympic gold medal in figure skating, but life has not always been golden for the perky figure skater.

Though she remains hopeful about her diagnosis, she admits, “I do have down days and down moments. And I try not to wallow in them. I allow myself some quiet time and some positive time just to recoup.”

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Dorothy insists that her family and friends are what is most important in her life right now. Her daughter, Alexandra, was only 19 and had just begun her first year of college when her mother was diagnosed. She took time off from school to be with her mom during this difficult time. “My daughter has been so supportive,” Dorothy says, her voice softening as she dotes on her only child. “It’s a lot to put on a youngster’s shoulders.” Although they have always had a great relationship, Dorothy says the cancer diagnosis has brought them even closer together.

As for the rest of her support team, Dorothy admits she doesn’t know what she would have done without them. Because there was so much to process and so much to learn in a short amount of time, Dorothy relied on her doctors’ advice and help from family, friends, and sister survivors when making treatment decisions. “It’s a lot to become an expert in when you only have two weeks before you have to go in for surgery,” she says. “But if you communicate with your doctors, you can figure out a way to get through it.”

And if there is one thing Dorothy Hamill knows well, it is perseverance. “The one thing I’ve learned in figure skating is when you fall down, you get up, and you continue on. You can’t worry about what has happened.  You have to move forward,” she says. “As bad as it seems, if you look at the rest of the world, it can always be worse. I try to keep it in perspective.”

An Olympic champion in the rink, Dorothy Hamill charmed a nation. Now a champion in the fight against breast cancer, she hopes to inspire the nation to take a stand against cancer.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2008.