It would be hard not to be inspired by the exceptional women who participated in our cover story and special report on Surviving Breast Cancer, which coincides with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. "They show it's possible not only to survive but also to remain leaders," says senior editor Rob Howe, who directed the 19-page project that starts on page 52. Howe says the women were eager to share their stories. "No matter how busy they were, they felt it was important."

Assembling our group in one location was next to impossible, so we asked New York City photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders to do five shoots to accommodate our participants. The pictures were then combined through computer technology to produce the image you see on our cover.

For art director Hilli Pitzer, the L.A. session was unforgettable because it was so upbeat. "They were comparing notes about their treatments and joking about their medical reactions," she says of the hours Shirley Temple Black, Olivia Newton-John, Marcia Wallace, Peggy Fleming, Jill Eikenberry and Diahann Carroll spent together in July. "Most of them had never met, but they all felt comfortable sharing with each other. It was very touching."

In addition to Pitzer, who came to PEOPLE in 1983, and Howe, a nine-year veteran of The Washington Post who joined PEOPLE in 1995, our look at the fight against the disease engaged the expertise of associate picture editor Mary Fanette and design director Phil Simone. The task was especially poignant for Simone, whose mother, Celeste, had lost her breast cancer fight in 1973, when she was only 50. "It makes me feel good to help people realize how many women are battling this," he says.

The battle is becoming increasingly winnable. "It has been a remarkable year for new treatments," says Howe. "Just in the last several months, researchers have refined mammograms and reconstructive surgery, and some doctors believe we are closer to a cure than ever before." Along with the triumphant smiles on our cover, that's one more reason to call this a story of hope.