Keeping her perspective

Suzie Harrison

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.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World