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The Four-Letter Word

An inspiring story for anyone whose life has been affected by cancer. Dawn Tenney´s face may look familiar to friends of Bridgeport Hospital. For one thing, if you´ve ever had lunch at Café 267, the hospital´s cafeteria, you´ve probably been on the receiving end of her smile. Dawn is a team leader in the hospital´s Food and Nutrition department.

Readers of Healthy & Wise, the hospital´s community health magazine, may also remember an article called "When They Say ´We Understand,´ They Really Understand." That story, featuring several hospital employees who are cancer survivors and who work with cancer patients, included Dawn, a cancer survivor who works part time in Bridgeport Hospital´s Norma F. Pfriem Cancer Center. "I could reassure them that although this year might be the worst of their lives, the rest of their life is still in front of them," she said in that article.

Dawn´s own story began in 1991. She came to work one day with a swollen neck, and a concerned co-worker urged her to see a doctor. She was diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma in her chest and neck. After six rounds of successful chemotherapy and a month of radiation therapy in The Cancer Center, she went into remission: no more cancer cells could be found.

That makes Dawn a winner. But her story doesn´t end there.

Because there was a chance that her cancer could come back, Dawn went every spring for a checkup with her oncologist, Jerry Malefatto, MD. And every spring she´d go in thinking, I hope I´m still OK.

"You´re always afraid the cancer will come back," she explains. "In the summer when you perspire at night, you think, Is this because it´s hot, or is it night sweats because I´m sick again? Every time you don´t feel right, you worry that you´re sick again.

"But at my last checkup, Dr. Malefatto used a certain four-letter word that changed my life," Dawn says. "He said, ´Well, Dawn, you´re ten years out, and after ten years, we don´t call it remission. We call it a CURE´!" After her first reaction of joy and relief, Dawn got to thinking. "I´ve been given a second chance at life," she says. "I will not survive cancer just to die of a heart attack." So Dawn, who has "never been thin," as she puts it, began a serious program of diet and exercise, determined to get down to a healthy weight.

So far, with aerobics, weight lifting, and sensible eating habits, she has lost 120 pounds, and people are starting to notice the difference in her. "The one person I couldn´t wait to notice it was Dr. Malefatto," Dawn says. "When he saw me in the cafeteria and asked if I was losing weight, and whispered ´Good girl!´ I thought I´d cry."

Has it been hard to stick to a diet when she´s surrounded by food all day long? "It used to be hard before," she admits. "But now I have the impetus. I´ve got this second chance. How many people get that? I´ve lost too many friends to cancer. I don´t want to spite God."

What´s her weight goal? "I don´t really have one," she says. "I just want to reach a healthy weight and stay there."