SUN CITY CENTER — One friend calls her a magnet who naturally draws people in.
Another expresses gratitude because she's always there in times of need.
The energy and optimism of Sun City Center Chamber of Commerce executive director Dana Dittmar has help transform the organization during her two years at the helm. It's the same positive spirit that helped Dittmar transform from cancer victim to cancer survivor.
Last week, Dittmar, 54, joined family, friends and colleagues to celebrate 20 years as a breast cancer survivor.
After winning second place in the Sun City Center Holiday Golf Cart Parade, a smiling and happy Dittmar greeted more than 50 guests on Saturday evening at the chamber banquet hall who came to laugh, talk, eat, dance and enjoy life as Dittmar does.
They danced to the tunes of Marvin Gaye and Jimmy Buffett and toasted a living example of how attitude and positivity can heal and bring success.
In 1992, when Dittmar was 30-something, newly married, living in North Carolina and trying to establish herself in the work world, she received the startling news that she had an aggressive form of breast cancer. Unaware of any history or genetic predisposition to the disease, a seminar led to the grim discovery.
"What I went through seems rather barbaric now compared to the treatment that's available today," Dittmar said. "I call it the 'slash, poison and burn' approach to breast cancer. I had a lumpectomy, five doses of radiation and 12 rounds of chemotherapy for nearly two months."
At the time of her devastating diagnosis, Dittmar was unhappily working in a job as a corporate marketer, which she described as toxic. It allowed her no opportunity to use her creativity and communication skills to succeed.
She believes her unhealthy work situation and the emotional turmoil that ensued led to cancer, though she acknowledges that she smoked and used birth control medication that altered her hormones.
"In my mind, that situation disrupted my body," Dittmar said. "You can't have that state of inner anguish without it resulting in some kind of damage."
Her last chemo treatment was the trigger that changed her life. Up to that point, Dittmar had handled the regimen well and her prognosis for recovery was good. On the final round, she developed septic shock. Her immune system was so badly weakened and compromised, she couldn't fight infection.
Dittmar was hospitalized and placed in isolation, where she fought for her life.
"I survived the cancer but the treatment for the shock damn near killed me."
It didn't take long after being close to death to realize she had to change her life. For a woman in her mid 30s, she had a lot of life to live. During treatments, Dittmar had started reading Deepak Chopra and studying his mind-body philosophy, which stresses health, vitality and greater well-being through conscious, positive healing. She also had a cousin who introduced her to American Indian mind-body healing practices.
She believes this new way of thinking helped her recovery and grounded her.
"We're only consciously aware of 10 percent of our thoughts," Dittmar said. "The rest is subconscious. The messages we subconsciously send ourselves matter. I've trained myself to weed out the negative thoughts and focus on the positive thoughts. I have trained myself to have complete faith in the power to do anything I imagine I can."
Imagine she did. Dittmar, who had a degree in communications from North Carolina State University, enrolled in graduate school and got a master's degree in cultural studies from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She also invested in career coaching. Calling it one of the best decisions of her life, she turned to a professional business adviser. The adviser helped her get a new position in the health care field at a senior management level that was double her previous salary.
She uprooted herself, moved to Florida for her new job, ended her first marriage amicably, and began a new life as a successful career woman with a healthy attitude and a vibrant spirit.
"Attitude is 99 percent of the healing," Dittmar said emphatically. "We have to reward ourselves in this life because there are too many things to beat you down. You don't need to be one of them. You have to be your biggest champion and I tell myself this every day."
To business colleagues and members of the Sun City Center Chamber of Commerce, Dittmar is indeed a champion.
J.R. Del Castillo was enjoying the evening celebration with her husband, Laddy. A board member and sales associate at Minto Communities in Sun City, Del Castillo said that Dittmar is certainly one of a kind.
"When somebody has such a positive attitude every day and wants everything to be perfect for you, how can you not be drawn to that?" Del Castillo said. "She's like a magnet. The chamber is not the same as it was two years ago when she first arrived."
Sue Meixner, with All Paths to God Church, a spiritual ministry affiliated with the United Centers for Spiritual Living, was enjoying food and music with Dittmar and other ladies from her congregation.
Meixner said she was looking for a location for her growing metaphysical religious community in Sun City Center and Dittmar happily rented her space in the chamber, saying she had been searching for spirituality that preaches optimism and finding one's own happiness from within.
"Considering our whole premise is positivity, Dana is definitely one of those people who radiates it," Meixner said. "She's a living example of can do, joy, pleasure, laughter and fun."
Hugging her friends and spiritual buddies, Dittmar celebrated with the energy and exuberance that often defines her.
"I'm high on life. I'm doing the things I want to accomplish," Dittmar said. "I love my job and I love this community. Energy is natural when you're happy."
Kathryn Moschella can be reached at [email protected]