Fighting Words

Hermosa Beach resident and bone cancer survivor Adrienne
Slaughter speaks up and inspires others.

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  • Written by
    Kelly Dawson

Dressed in a multicolored scarf and red-rimmed glasses that match the equally varied décor of Las Brisas Restaurant in Redondo Beach, Adrienne Slaughter is laughing with a waitress who describes this place as Slaughter’s second home. Slaughter comes here often, and as she begins to talk about her bone cancer diagnosis and initial treatment over a two-week period at the age of 14, the familiarity of the tale is also apparent.

When she reaches the story’s climax—an emergency surgery that required the amputation of the bottom half of her right leg—she is quick to explain the blessings of that experience. Slaughter’s positive attitude toward her osteosarcoma survival as a teenager and beating breast cancer as an adult is now the basis of her work as a professional motivational speaker.

It’s been suggested that you were going to become a professional tennis player before you were diagnosed with cancer. Can you tell me about how your tennis background may have prepared you to fight cancer?
Adrienne Slaughter: I was in tip-top shape and very slender as a 14-year-old. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and was raised in a big family as the youngest of five daughters. Both my parents played golf and tennis, in addition to three of my four older sisters, and I grew up being the “ball girl.” I was on the tennis court at a very young age and wanted to follow in the footsteps of my older sisters and play tennis well.

How did you prepare yourself mentally?
AS: The emotional, mental and spiritual strength of my parents was key in my positive mental shape. My physical shape was a given, but the task was my emotional reaction to being told, “You’re not playing tennis anymore.” Also reacting to all of a sudden having a leg amputated. I had to make a decision. Am I going to react, “Why me?” and hate the world and blame someone—or blame God? Or am I going to grin and bear it and decide that I am going to be like Mom and Dad? I am going to be strong for them.

Definitely. After your recovery, you became a motivational speaker. At 17, you were awarded Speaker of the Year by United Way. What was that like?
AS: It was fun. In the spring of 10th grade, our school had a fundraising event for the American Cancer Society, and I ended up raising the most money. After being awarded the prize, I asked how I could start volunteering. They started setting me up with talks to ladies and community groups, and then that summer United Way became the umbrella over American Cancer Society. Now I am being called on by United Way to speak, and the first talk they invited me to be the keynote speaker of was to the Atlanta Rotary Club. I get up, and of course I have notecards, but I don’t find myself looking at them very much at all. I was telling a story about myself, what my experience with cancer entailed and the positives.

I find it surprising that you didn’t look at your notecards for the speech. A lot of teenagers—and even adults—have a fear of public speaking.
AS: I was nervous, but I was not afraid to speak. I’m not talking about a product or a service. I’m just talking about me. It came naturally.

As a motivational speaker, you’re talking to other cancer survivors, but you also have wide themes of empowerment and living a healthy lifestyle. What is your speechwriting process?
AS: My #1 goal is relating to the audience. Audiences can be a mix of kids to 80-year-olds, which is the audience I had when I was the Master of Ceremonies at the Team Spirit walk. It was a phenomenal event, which ended up raising a quarter of a million dollars.

"I was given a 1% chance of survival, and now 32 years later, I am still alive and kicking. I love to say that
with my titanium right leg.”

Was the fundraiser for cancer research?
AS: For breast and ovarian cancer research at the Memorial Medical Center Foundation in Long Beach.

Whom do you look to for inspiration?
AS: I look to my parents and their leadership. I also look to Thomas Jefferson, who founded the University of Virginia, which is where I went to school. Also Walter Payton. He started foundations and just seemed like a leader on the football field. Sports figures were positive figures to look to and remind myself that I can still play tennis. I’m commonly asked, “How is your life different having had cancer?” And one of the ways that my life is different is that losing my leg gave me the will to achieve more. So not only do I play tennis, but I also rock climb and ski.

I think that if you take a positive outlook to what some may think of as a hardship, it can give you an advantage. Or at least a fresh perspective. What do you think?
AS: I started waking up every morning and being appreciative that I was awake. If there were storm clouds outside, I knew that there was still a sun behind those clouds.
It’s difficult, though, to discuss cancer. How do you stay positive for your audience?
AS: You know, I don’t know anything but. Again, I think of faith, family and my friends. They gave me the strength to have such a positive attitude. Hey, I only have to shave one leg!

I did see that you made a similar joke while speaking at The Comedy and Magic Club. What’s your favorite joke to tell?
AS: I just do the ones that come to mind at the time. While I was an MC at the Team Spirit event in Long Beach, I joked that when I started skiing, even though I was in great shape, it did help to have some extra padding on my buttocks when I fell.

Do you think it’s important to have a sense of humor about things that could be thought of as “off-limits?”
AS: I think it makes other people more comfortable. If I were introverted and uncomfortable about my situation, then other people would be uncomfortable around me. And that’s the last thing I want. I love people. I love life. I have lots of energy, and I want to make the world a better place. That’s the reason I want to pursue this speaking career professionally.

What are you working on now? Can you tell me more about the local charities that you work for—Team Spirit in particular?
AS: This is the first year that I’ve been involved with the Team Spirit event. My mother had ovarian cancer and unfortunately passed away. And then four years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. This specific event could not have been more perfect for me. It was meant to be. And I’m excited to be a part of it next year. I’m currently a part of the Women’s Club of Hermosa Beach, and seven years ago with their help I founded the Adrienne’s Search for Children’s Cancer Cure. The eighth annual fundraising event will be this coming March. I started this on my 25th anniversary of having cancer. I decided years ago that when I hit that 25-year mark, I needed to do something special and give something back.

What message do you want people to take away from your story?
AS: There are several messages, but one is: “If there is a will, there’s a way.” I was given a 1% chance of survival, and now 32 years later, I am still alive and kicking. I love to say that with my titanium right leg. λ