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Breast CancerSide-Effects Management

Dorothy Hamill: Olympic Gold Medalist Turned Breast Cancer Advocate

Dorothy won a gold medal at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Austria, read about her fight–off the ice–with breast cancer.
October 2016 Vol 2 No 5
Laura Morgan

Ms. Hamill encourages patients to ask questions and be honest about their feelings so that their doctors can help them choose the best treatments and the next phase of their breast cancer journey.

Dorothy Hamill. Some people may adore her charming smile, others may think of her perfectly styled bob hair; most, however, remember her grace on the ice, and more recently, her fight with breast cancer.

In 1976, Ms. Hamill won an Olympic gold medal and became the World Champion in women’s single figure skating. This 19-year-old Greenwich, CT, native became an overnight sensation, capturing the hearts of Americans. Dubbed “America’s sweetheart,” Ms. Hamill continued her career as a professional figure skater, participating in high-profile ice-skating events, such as Ice Capades and Stars on Ice.

Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Years later, in 2007, Ms. Hamill was diagnosed with stage II estrogen receptor–positive (ER+) breast cancer, the most common type of breast cancer in the United States. Patients with this type of cancer are susceptible to estrogen, a hormone that promotes the growth of breast cancer cells.

At age 52, Ms. Hamill was no stranger to breast cancer–her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1980 and survived after undergoing bilateral mastectomy (removal of both breasts).

Coming to terms with her own diagnosis almost 30 years later was not easy. “All of my skating training had taught me that your hard work will pay off, but I knew that cancer was different,” Ms. Hamill wrote in a blog. She tried to maintain a positive attitude, knowing that her cancer was caught early and could therefore likely be treated successfully.

Ms. Hamill’s treatment plan was initially going to include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, but after getting a second opinion, she learned that chemotherapy would not reduce the risk for recurrence. Instead she had a lumpectomy, which removed the tumor and some of the surrounding breast tissue, and then had radiation therapy.

After treatment, she wanted to pay it forward by helping other patients with breast cancer. She enrolled in a clinical trial at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore. The trial investigated the effectiveness of anti-estrogen therapies, such as tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors, that help to prevent breast cancer recurrence.

Debilitating Side Effects

Ms. Hamill received tamoxifen to reduce her risk for breast cancer recurrence. However, she had several unpleasant side effects, including fatigue, which compromised her active lifestyle and her quality of life. “While every breast cancer survivor’s experience with anti-estrogen therapy is different, I found myself feeling fatigued, achy and stiff day after day after starting my treatment,” she wrote in a blog.

In addition to these debilitating side effects, she had been struggling with lifelong depression and was taking an antidepressant to manage her depression. She soon learned that taking tamoxifen together with an antidepressant is not a good idea, and she stopped taking the antidepressant, which left her feeling physically, as well as mentally, unwell.

After 5 years of tamoxifen therapy, her oncologist recommended that she continue taking the medication in light of new research showing that using tamoxifen for 10 years improves survival and lowers the risk for breast cancer recurrence.

Taking Back Control

This was a turning point in her journey. Unwilling to endure any more side effects of medications, Ms. Hamill decided to take control of her cancer journey and researched ways to fit her treatment to her personal needs. She didn’t want anti-estrogen therapy to prevent her from living a full and fulfilling life.

Her research led her to the Breast Cancer Index test, which helps oncologists decide whether extending endocrine therapy is appropriate for certain patients with ER+ breast cancer. The Breast Cancer Index test can predict the risk for disease recurrence and identify patients who are likely to benefit from continuing anti-estrogen therapy beyond 5 years. This noninvasive, one-time test uses tissue sample from the patient’s original tumor biopsy to examine certain genes.

“After discussing with my doctor the risks and potential benefits of continued therapy, I knew the test was a way for me to feel more comfortable about my decision,” Dorothy wrote in a blog post. “The test helped determine that continuing on anti-estrogen treatment was not likely to reduce my risk for recurrence with any great significance, so my doctor and I discussed the results and together we decided there was little likelihood of benefit in continuing the treatment,” she added. This gave her the peace of mind to stop the tamoxifen therapy.

Empowering Women

Taking control of her breast cancer journey inspired Ms. Hamill to take active steps in helping patients with breast cancer. In January 2016, Ms. Hamill, together with Biotheranostics, the company that developed the test, launched the BeWisER+ About Breast Cancer campaign to encourage breast cancer survivors to understand that knowledge is power in the fight against breast cancer.

“Today, I’m a breast cancer survivor, but there are still challenges. I worry about the long-term risks of the medication I have to take for 5 or 10 years, and if it’s really helping,” Ms. Hamill said in the press release announcing the launch of the campaign. “That’s why the BeWisER+ About Breast Cancer campaign is so important. It encourages women who are breast cancer survivors like me to understand that wisdom is power in the fight against breast cancer and that working closely with their doctor when making treatment decisions is the best way to take control of their breast cancer journey.”

The BeWisER+ About Breast Cancer campaign provides information for patients with ER+ breast cancer, helping those who are taking anti-estrogen therapy to learn about their treatment options, potential side effects, the possibility of recurrence, and new information and tests to promote their individual treatment plan.

Ms. Hamill encourages patients to ask questions and be honest about their feelings so that their doctors can help them choose the best treatment options and the next phase of their breast cancer journey.

Celebrating 3 Milestones

This year marks several important milestones for Ms. Hamill, including the 40th anniversary of her Olympic success, her 60th birthday, and being 8 years cancer-free. Although she still worries about cancer recurrence, she works closely with her doctor to stay up-to-date on available tests and information. Today, Ms. Hamill is trying to stay active, eat healthy, and live a healthy lifestyle.

Breast Cancer Index
Preferred Test for Some Women with Breast Cancer

Results of a recent study published in June 2016 in the journal Clinical Cancer Research showed that the Breast Cancer Index test is more accurate than the Oncotype DX Breast Recurrence Score test at predicting the 10-year risk for breast cancer recurrence in patients with early-stage ER+ and lymph node–negative breast cancer. The Breast Cancer Index test was better than the Oncotype DX Recurrence Score test at correctly identifying patients who have a low or intermediate risk for breast cancer recurrence.

These results may help to identify patients who are candidates for chemotherapy or for extended endocrine therapy to improve their chance for survival.

“Breast Cancer Index, a second generation tool designed to answer questions about recurrence and inform treatment decisions, now has demonstrated meaningful and significant prognostic accuracy vs. Oncotype RS [ Recurrence Score] for early-stage, ER+, lymph node–negative patients. Our test will help enhance personalized breast cancer treatment, by identifying accurate risk of recurrence throughout the patient journey,” said Nicolas Barthelemy, President and CEO, Biotheranostics, in a press release.

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Last modified: March 10, 2022

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