After two bouts with cancer, Rep. Marda Dillree's greatest challenge may lie ahead -- restraining herself from dispensing handshakes and hugs when she returns to the Utah House in January.

Dillree, 54, is undergoing a stem-cell transplant at LDS Hospital to treat a rare form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Her immune system will be compromised by the procedure, so her doctors have advised to keep the displays of affection to a minimum."I'm a hugger. I'm a person who loves to give a friend a squeeze. That will be my big challenge, to have minimal personal contact with people," she said in an interview Tuesday.

Dillree's cancer was first diagnosed in December 1997. She underwent chemotherapy, which appeared to wipe out the cancer cells.

Then, after attending a cancer march in Washington, D.C., this fall, Dillree discovered more lumps on her head. A biopsy confirmed the cancer had returned and that it was spreading rapidly.

A stem-cell transplant was "my best and only option in terms of curing it. We had to take it," said Dillree, R-Farmington.

She entered the hospital Nov. 19 but plans to be home by Christmas. She will then build up her strength for the rigors of the 1999 Utah Legislature.

Two weighty assignments await her: serving as House chairwoman of the Transportation and Environmental Quality Appropriations Committee and a new responsibility as speaker of the Third House, the social and fund-raising arm of the House.

"I feel I can handle it. I thought long and hard before I did it," she said.

In fact, Dillree volunteered to be speaker of the Third House, said Rep. Kevin Garn, newly elected House Majority Leader.

"It is an intense position that requires a lot of work organizing the House social events, events for spouses and two or three other major events. It takes incredible energy and organization abilities. She took hold of it and got a lot of the work done before she went into the hospital," said Garn, R-Layton.

Lawmakers consider Dillree an inspiration.

"Marda is just an incredible person. Last year, when we found out she had cancer, everyone rallied around her. As we did that, all us of felt we were much better people. We all felt deeply for her and it cemented our relationships. We felt we had greater purpose," Garn said.

Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, has worked with Dillree as a lawmaker and during their respective stints on the Davis Board of Education.

"This is a woman with natural leadership abilities. She networks so well and she is so responsive to the people she represents. She's always been that way and I've watched her well over 15 years. Her gallantry and courage in this battle has been exceptional."

In the face of serious health problems, Dillree has approached her legislative challenges with quiet confidence and a sense of humor.

Fellow lawmakers and constituents alike marveled over her bold decision during the 1998 session to yank off her wig during her induction into the Legislature's infamous "Bald Eagle Forum," which celebrates the foliclely challenged members.

"Being another woman, I'm not sure I could have done that. She wanted to be an example to other cancer patients. She wanted us to laugh with her. They key there is 'with' her."

Dillree said she has been buoyed by her legislative colleagues.

"The first time, there were so many incredible blessings. Sometimes you can live a lifetime and never feel the love and outpouring of emotion of people who care about you. You realize how blessed you are and not to take the little things for granted," Dillree said.

That's not to say that undergoing cancer treatment while living and working in a fishbowl is easy.

"I haven't cherished going through this in the public eye. I've lost my hair again and this time, I'll have to have radiation. This isn't an easy process to go through, let alone twice and doing it in a very public way.

"The other option is staying home and not being involved and miss a part of my life that gives me a lot of joy and satisfaction."