For a year and a half, Dawn Forgione has been a picture of health. Given her life history, that would seem to be good enough, but Forgione is aiming higher: She’d like to be the picture of health.

Forgione, a Boca Raton, Fla., real estate agent, is one of five finalists in a contest to anoint "America’s healthiest person." Not that she’s always been so healthy — but that’s exactly the point.

One day last February, Forgione was home watching the CBS talk show "The Doctors" as she recovered from her second hip-replacement surgery. The show was promoting a contest, held in conjunction with Prevention magazine. The goal was to find someone who lives a healthy life, has overcome personal challenges, and is inspirational to others — or, as the contest organizers put it, is "the picture of health."

She was riveted.

"This could be the story of my life," Forgione remembers telling her 24-year-old daughter, who decided to put together a video about her mother and submit it to the contest.

"This woman lives for life," daughter Brittany explained in the video voiceover. There was her mom in the video’s photo montage — snuggling with her kids, dining with good friends at a restaurant, phoning a client from her real estate office.

But there are plenty of other, less-ebullient images in the video: Forgione leaning against a walker, washing dishes at her sink; another photo as she lay stretched out on a hospital gurney; a close-up of her incredibly battered and bruised face.

For someone who always has thought of herself as athletic and health-conscious, Forgione has had to face down a litany of serious illnesses and once suffered horrendous injuries in a bicycle crash.

"These things would happen to me, but I’ve always bounced back real fast," says Forgione, 51 — she’s lost remarkably little time at work because of her history of health problems. It’s a long list.

"Let’s see," she begins. "When I was 22, I had my first bout with cervical dysplasia, a precancerous condition. I had two bouts of that. I had severe endometriosis and had a hysterectomy in my 40s.

"I had ankle surgery, I had knee surgery, I had breast cancer, an early stage of skin cancer and two hip replacements," she explains. "And the bicycle accident."

The bike spill in 2006 was no mere tumble. Forgione ended up with 40 stitches in her face and knocked out some teeth as she was training for a 150-mile fundraising ride for multiple sclerosis.

"I looked like a monster, but I went to work a few days after," she says. "I had this tooth that was knocked loose, and I had to walk around showing a house and holding the tooth in place."

She sold houses throughout her breast-cancer treatments, she says.

"I had to have a lumpectomy and radiation," she says. "I never missed a day of work except the day I had the surgery. Every day, I would go to the gym and I would get radiation and then go to work." …CONTINUED

Same story with the hip replacements: With the first one, she was home for three weeks because she wasn’t able to drive. With the second, a different surgical technique enabled her to work almost right away, she says.

"I just keep going," she says. "I’m a single mom and I’ve been on my own for 15 years. I need to work to make money."

An agent with Lang Realty, Forgione has been in the business a dozen years. Originally from New York, in Florida she has worked in public relations and owned restaurants with her husband. When her marriage broke up, she decided to go into sales. She ended up in residential real estate, which she says went well from the start, partly because of her many contacts in the area through charity fund-raising events she had hosted through the restaurants.

"I was able to jump into real estate because I had a database of people," she says, and a base of support through her health travails.

"I love sharing my story with people," Forgione says. "It makes them feel good and inspires them to have hope. Maybe this is why these things have happened to me."

That’s why she entered the Prevention magazine contest, she says. The winner will appear on an episode of "The Doctors," be featured in a spread in the magazine, and receive $5,000. An identical amount will be donated to the charity of the winner’s choice, which in Forgione’s case would be the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer campaign.

The public was invited to vote among the five finalists at the website, which featured their bios and videos, culled from more than 1,000 submissions, according to a spokesman for the magazine. Voting closed April 15, and the recipient of the most votes will be announced April 30.

"I really want to win because I want to be on TV to continue the conversation about being a survivor and never giving up," she says.

She credits her current well-being — she’s been cancer-free now for 18 months — to exercise, a diet heavy on uncooked foods, and to regular checkups and early detection of disease — something she says she constantly reminds people about. Her prognosis is encouraging because both the skin cancer and breast cancer were found early through routine screenings, she says.

Throughout her health issues she’s maintained a positive attitude.

"If you put all this junk in your head, you’re going to focus on junk," she says.

Not that there weren’t dark moments.

"Sure, I’ve cried," she says. "The first time I laid on that table with the radiation, or the day I went to the doctor and had a suspicion that something was up and he said it’s breast cancer, I cried. I did the ‘Why me?’ thing.

"When you get cancer, you think it means: pick out your coffin," Forgione says.

"But this is part of life. You just have to think, ‘Now how am I going to get out of this?’ and move on."

Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.


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