On the track at Laguna Beach High School on Tuesday, 17-year-old Tori Degen had to watch while her cross country teammates ran by, each
time they would cheer and call her name.
Beautiful, tall and thin, she might look like the stereotypical
Laguna high school student, but Tori has a fight in her that sets her
apart. She has battled against two types of cancer and has won both
This fight shows in all aspects of Tori's life; she won't be on
the sidelines for long. She doesn't let anything keep her from the
things she loves most.
She participated in Laguna's Relay for Life for the first time
earlier this month with a group of friends.
"I always jump at the opportunity to help with any charity thing
like that," Tori said. "Especially something really important to me
like this cancer walk. It was amazing how many people were there. I
was so surprised that so many people in this community take part."
Tori herself is an inspiration. Her best friend since
kindergarten, Hillary Greene, 16, said a lot of people look up to
"People admire her because of what she's gone through, and she
maintains a strong attitude about a lot of things," Hillary said. "I
think she's just really a remarkable person."
Hillary said it was hard to see her best friend go through
something so difficult and painful.
"I was born in Laguna Beach and have lived here my whole life,"
Tori said. "I've grown up with the same people -- everyone here is my
friend and I love them all."
In her younger years, Tori said she was a real "girlie, girl" and
loved ballet, every kind of dancing and dresses. But then as she got
older, around 8-years-old, she became interested in tennis, soccer,
running and track.
"I had a completely normal childhood just like any other kid in
this town," Tori said. "And I love the beach -- I've always loved the
It wasn't until she was in seventh grade that she noticed
something unusual happening to her body.
"I noticed my stomach was getting bigger and bigger and I started
gaining weight," Tori said. "There was no reason why I just thought I
was turning into a teenager. I was so active there really wasn't an
explanation for it."
She dismissed the changes because some of her peers were gaining
weight. But in late May 2001, she started experiencing a lot of sharp
pains in her lower stomach area for two months.
"Finally my parents said let's go to the doctor to see what she
has to say about it," Tori said. "When I laid down on the
[examination] table this huge mass showed in my stomach that I had
never seen before."
Tori still didn't think anything was wrong. But the doctor said it
wasn't right and called her parents into the exam room.
"I think we were all in shock," Tori said. "All I remember through
the next month is tests, ultra-sounds, x-rays and visiting several
doctors. Finally they said I need to go in for exploratory surgery."
A few weeks later she had the surgery and remembers waking up from
the anesthesia and seeing her mother by her side.
"I asked what they found, and my mom made this big hand motion and
said they had found this huge tumor," Tori said. "My mom ended up
telling me they had taken out this six pound tumor and one of my
ovaries because that's where it was growing."
Tori said she was still in denial about the whole thing until her
mom told her it was cancerous.
"I spent the entire summer going through rounds of chemotherapy,"
Tori said. "The hardest part came when my hair started falling out. I
think that's when I realized what a big deal this really was and how
She decided she wasn't going to get depressed about it, though
when she saw her peers with long flowing locks it did occasionally
bring her down.
"Then I would go back to the hospital and look at these
2-year-olds that were going through chemo, as well as kids that
weren't going to survive their disease," Tori said. "That put it all
in perspective for me. I never thought for a minute that I wouldn't
survive. So it just really inspired me to not ever feel depressed
about it and to take everything as it came."
Tori had the fortune of having supportive friends who visited her
and made school life a bit easier.
"When I started eighth grade I wore a wig for three months of
school," Tori said. "Then one day in PE I was so hot -- it was so
blazing hot that day -- and I couldn't stand it anymore. I just
ripped off my wig and it was the last time I ever wore it."
Her hair was about an inch long and Tori said she was a little
scared at first, but her friends were excited and supportive.
"I never wanted to put it back on because of the response I got
from people," Tori said. "And that was the end of that cancer story."
Her life went back to normal as she got back into soccer, running
and other sports.
"Then this past May I was in for one of my routine check-ups and
my doctor noticed another abnormality in the uterus area," Tori said.
Once again she needed exploratory surgery, and yet she still kept
her positive thinking.
"When I woke up from surgery, my mom had this sort of terrified
look on her face," Tori said. "And I asked her what they had found
and she said nobody knows."
The doctors ran some more tests and a week later she needed to
have another operation.
"In June, I was back in surgery for a hysterectomy and my parents
were really upset about it," Tori said. "They didn't want me to have
to go through that at all."
Tori said she thinks that they were more upset about it than she
"My attitude was just take out whatever needs to be taken out so
that there was no possibility for it to grow back again," Tori said.
"This time the doctor said I wouldn't need further treatment and that
was a relief."
She's getting back in the groove again. About two months after
surgery Tori started running cross-country, and she will be joining
the surf team in a few weeks.