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Cancer survivors celebrate life by swimming with dolphins at the Miami Seaquarium

As Ahmad Chehabeddine watched youngest daughter, Lana, reach out to touch a dolphin swimming by, he recalled the moment he heard the worst news a parent could imagine. His eight-year-old child had Leukemia. The doctors gave her a 15 percent chance of living.

That was 2001. Lana, now 19, has been cancer-free for nine years. On Tuesday, she was one of a dozen cancer survivors who got to swim with the dolphins at the Miami Seaquarium on Key Biscayne. The event was organized by Relay for Life, a nation-wide series of fundraising events to support the American Cancer Society.

Drying off with the other the wet-suited swimmers, Lana looks younger than her 19 years but speaks with the maturity of a survivor. After watching her radiant smile as she glided through the water hanging onto a dolphin’s dorsal fin, her stories of hospitals and chemotherapy seemed far removed from the joy of the moment. She remembered being diagnosed with Leukemia as a child, but did not understand the severity of such news until she began treatment and started to lose her hair. Now, with her long ponytail still dripping, she explains how her experience as a patient made her want to be a pediatrician. Last month, she finished her freshman year at the University of Miami on a full scholarship to study medicine.

“It’s uplifting to see what everyone has been through,” she said of dolphin-swimming event for cancer survivors. “You understand each other on a deeper level.”

Many of the survivors expressed deep gratitude for those who supported them in their fight against cancer, and the heighted appreciation for life that comes after almost losing it. They spoke cautiously of the future, recognizing that “there are no guarantees,” as 55-year-old cancer survivor Chris Whittaker put it. He added swimming with the dolphins in the category of experiences he never thought he’d live to have.

“When you meet someone and you tell them you have cancer, they don’t say it, but you can feel the negative energy,” said Whittaker. “But this was awesome; I could feel the energy of the dolphins. And it was all positive.”

Whittaker introduces himself as a survivor and a fighter. He was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2010, but just as he was beating back the disease, his doctor broke the news that he also had leukemia. Last December, he was told that he wouldn’t live past the Christmas season, but in defiance of the calendar and his diagnosis, his Christmas tree is still up in his living room . His treatment left him blind, but he described feeling the smooth skin of the dolphins as they swam under his hands.

“The best medicine doesn’t come from a bottle or from the doctor,” he said. “It comes from the heart. And that’s what this positive energy was today: a big dose of medicine.”