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Cancer became catalyst for a changed life

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image Dana Dittmar. Photo Melody Jameson

It took a life-altering bout with cancer 20 years ago to inspire Dana Dittmar, Sun City Center Chamber of Commerce executive director, to reorder her life and priorities for the better.


SUN CITY CENTER –Drifting through a desultory life, she was in an unsatisfactory marriage, driving herself each day to a job she detested, equipped with a useful degree but lacking direction.

Even though today she is the exuberant executive director of this community’s chamber of commerce, Dana Dittmar 20 years ago was in her early 30s, unsettled, chronically out of sorts, by her own admission not a happy person.

Then, out of the blue came the diagnosis. Against all odds, she had an aggressive form of breast cancer. It would be at first life threatening, then life altering, soon life affirming and finally life inspiring.

Come Saturday night, she’ll be celebrating those two intervening decades, sharing in her typical high energy manner with friends, neighbors, colleagues, other survivors the reawakening that her bout with cancer has wrought.

Dittmar grew up in North Carolina, earned a degree in mass communications from North Carolina State at Raleigh, worked in radio and television, starred in commercials, even dabbled for a bit with the role that then was known as the station “weather girl.”

And, she had the looks for it, she acknowledges with a grin today, “a tall skinny blonde with legs up to here.”

She also was unanchored, she says, simply taking life as it flitted by, no concrete planning, no definite goals. By the time she was 34, she was married and a DINK — double income, no kids — working in the mortgage insurance industry, she recalls with a grimace.

But the company did provide periodic “lunch and learn” programs for employees. One of them focused on identifying breast cancer, complete with soft-material breast molds encasing nodules mimicking tiny tumors. The women practiced finger tip examination of the molds to detect the tumors.

That night, at home, Dittmar says she conducted a fingertip breast exam for real. And she found something supposed to be suspicious; a very, very small knot. Not much concerned, she did the prescribed thing; she called an appropriate doctor, kept an appointment, underwent an examination and biopsy, then left on a weekend trip. After all, she was still youthful, she was not sick, there was no history of any cancers in her family, and only one in every 100 tumors actually was malignant.

Anything but a clean bill of health was unimaginable. The odds were with her.

On Monday, following the weekend get-away, she called the doctor’s office as promised, fully anticipating their good news, cheerfully relayed.

“I was blown away, just flat blown away,” she says today. The report was ominous. An especially aggressive type of cancer, fed by estrogen. “I’d only been married a year; I no longer could take any birth control medication and I certainly could not become pregnant, the hormonal changes would be disastrous.”

She and her husband at the time reviewed the options. She was leaning toward at least one radical mastectomy, maybe two. He was strongly opposed, favoring a less invasive approach. “I was scared,” she admits freely, “this was mortality.” He, on the other hand, had married a complete woman, she suggests, and was not prepared for anything less. “He was supportive,” she says, but nonetheless determined.

And, her male surgeon echoed her husband. They argued for a simple lumpectomy, followed by regimens of chemo and radiation. She remained ready for at least one breast removal. “I could live without that part of the anatomy,” she asserted then, questioning whether she would live with it. And, in 1992, there not yet were the advanced blood tests that can pinpoint a genetic proclivity for breast cancer. Ultimately, she capitulated.

The little tumor was removed with minimal surgical procedure, she underwent both radiation on five consecutive days for seven weeks and chemo for six months. She packed on pounds, lost her hair, fought through the extreme fatigue to keep up with two bowling leagues and leadership in her chapter of Business and Professional Women, plus gained the almost imperceptible but permanent tattoos that mark a place on the body subjected to radiation. “Those tattoos hurt,” she still recalls.

As she continued her recovery, she also did an about face. She began reading Deepak Chopra, studying the mind-body connection, practicing what she was learning.

“I’d repeatedly watch ‘Cool Running’, the story of a very game Jamaican bobsled team competing in Canadian snow. On television, I watched nothing but comedies, I asked people to tell me their corniest jokes,” she says, looking back, remembering that she deliberately laughed at every opportunity.

“I had dis-ease,” she emphasizes, motioning with her hands to demonstrate that as she sees it her mind and body were out of sync when she was younger. The disturbingly dissatisfying life she was leading, characterized by a lack of direction, created a fertile field for rooting the cancer, she believes.

Her solution was to take firm control of her life and reorder it. Her first marriage ended. She returned to school and obtained a Master’s Degree in Cultural Studies, a field of scholarship which encompasses subject matter long of interest, including comparative religions. She invested some $6,000 in training with a competent professional job coach.

Among the outcomes: she went from a $30,000 a year job to a much more satisfying position in the medical field paying $65,000 a year; she remarried; she found her way to more fully utilize her education and experience, she embarked on a journey designed to take Dana the mature woman to a better lived life and a happier place in it, she indicates.

Along the way she learned of a philosophy originated in Hawaii and known as Ho Oponopono which she practices every day, without fail. Now, “every day I say’ I’m sorry’ for whatever I do wrong, every day I ask for forgiveness, every day I express my gratitude and say ‘thank you’, every day I say ‘I love you’ .”

This practice, coupled with healthy food choices and the kind of supplements everyone takes, is the simple combination that supports her cancer survival, Dittmar says, adding with irrepressible good humor “and I don’t think much about cancer any more. I’m not a cancer victim.” Eliminating such thoughts from the mind precludes fostering “dis-ease” in the body, she suggests.

Looking ahead, Dittmar declares “many of my female relatives lived into their 90s, one even reached the age of 104. So, I plan to be around a long, long time.”

In the meantime, there’s a party planned for the chamber banquet hall Saturday, beginning around 7 PM, as its executive director celebrates a cherished life made possible by cancer.

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson

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