"I am a richer, deeper person for it."
by Cindy Phiffer
In March 1997, Scott Hamilton was riding the crest of his success. While touring with Discover Stars on Ice, the ice skating extravaganza he co-founded, abdominal distress that had plagued the 1984 Olympic gold medalist and Hall of Famer for months became too excruciating to ignore.
“I knew something was going on,” he admits, “but I didn’t know what. I thought it was an ulcer or stress or lifestyle. By the time I got a checkup from a doctor, I had a tumor in my abdomen that was twice the size of a grapefruit. That should never happen — ever! I’m so in touch with my body that for me to let it get to that point was stupid.”
Scott was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had drained into the abdomen, resulting in a malignant tumor. The competitive nature that drove him to win four consecutive national and world skating titles immediately kicked in, along with his survival instinct. Scott chose to keep his news quiet while he regained his emotional footing.
“There were a lot of people that wanted to talk while I was sick,” he remembers. “I said, ‘I really don’t have anything to offer until I’ve been through the treatment. When I feel cured, that’s when I’ll start talking about it.’ I sort of holed up, and I didn’t really do anything publicly until I’d been through everything. I came through all the surgery and [my doctors] said everything was gone. They monitored me for a while, and then I felt I had something to say.”
When Hamilton regained his stride, he headed straight back onto the ice. He also started talking about his cancer experience. He believes that the chemotherapy he received — four rounds of three different medications five days a week — could have been greatly decreased and that his surgery, which required 38 staples, might have been less extensive if he had listened to his body earlier, rather than dismissing his abdominal distress.
Hamilton, who turned 40 last year but is still affectionately referred to as “Scotty” by many Americans, believes that the way in which a survivor manages the recovery process is largely dependent upon attitude and perspective. “The fear factor’s pretty big when you find out that there’s something growing in you,” he says. “It’s a real loss of control, and that’s the hardest issue. If you have a bad attitude, you’re really gonna struggle, but if you face it with courage and dignity, and can kind of thumb your nose in its face and laugh a little bit every day, then you’ve got something.”
“Being aware of what’s going on with your body is a responsibility, not only to you, but to everybody who loves you. They’re the ones who feel the most desperate when you get sick.”
To combat feelings of helplessness, frustration and discomfort, Hamilton used skills he had been honing since childhood. Between the ages of five and nine, he battled a mysterious condition that prevented absorption of necessary nutrients and temporarily interrupted his growth. At age 18, Scott lost his mother to breast cancer. Both challenges offered ample opportunity for him to develop the survival skills he would need later.
The 5’3” dynamo speaks passionately about the importance of calling upon these tools during recovery. “Draw short-term goals,” he says, pausing for a quick breath and then continuing with a sense of urgency. “I think you look at what you’re facing, and it’s important to know that there is an end to it. My third round of chemo was depressing because I didn’t have any energy, I felt nauseous, I felt bloated, I didn’t have any hair, my body had changed and I knew I wasn’t going to get back to skating for quite some time. My whole life had changed so drastically that it was depressing.
“Then, on the last day of my third round of chemo, I realized I only had to go through this one more time. I’m convinced that you can do anything if you know you never have to do it again, so going into the fourth round of chemo, I put out my arm and said, ‘Hook me up. Let’s go. Let’s get these five days behind me, and let’s get to getting well. Let’s make sure there’s no more cancer in me and that whatever was in there is dead enough that we can just take it out surgically and I can get back to my life.’ Once you see the light at the end of the tunnel, things get a little bit easier.”
Scott found that a strong mental attitude and a keen sense of humor are also important tools. “It’s not easy being in the hospital,” he says. “It’s not easy knowing that your life has been changed drastically. And beyond the physical, there’s the mental and the emotional as well. Your life is changed forever, but it can be in a really positive way if that’s the road you choose.”
“Find a way to laugh every day. When you’re laughing, you’re smiling ... when you’re smiling, you’re relaxing, and the entire negativity of the situation won’t start to control your energy level and your zest for life.”
When asked the importance of cancer survivors being their own advocates, Scott says that he left the medical arena to the physicians and focused his energy on the things he knew best. “I kinda said, ‘Fix me,’ to the doctors,” he recalls, “but I made sure I was responsible for my level of life quality ... people coming in to visit, who, how much, taking joy in the little things.”
He also called upon his famous sense of humor. “Find a way to laugh every day,” he insists. “When you’re laughing, you’re smiling ... when you’re smiling, you’re relaxing, and the entire negativity of the situation won’t start to control your energy level and your zest for life.”
As an athlete, Hamilton stills finds it hard to believe that he could have ignored his body’s signals for as long as he did. The cancer experience has given him a zeal for spreading the word about the importance of awareness and personal responsibility. He knows that fear keeps some people from taking important steps, such as having regular checkups. However, he’s learned from experience that “what might be bad today could be a whole lot worse tomorrow.”
“Being aware of what’s going on with your body is a responsibility,” Hamilton explains, “not only to you, but to everybody who loves you. They’re the ones who feel the most desperate when you get sick.”
Scott sees his role as a well-known cancer survivor as an opportunity, especially in his work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. “Before, I’d see these kids come in and their hair had fallen out and they were really tired, and I could see that they were struggling, but it was hard to relate,” he confesses. “I didn’t really know how they were feeling, but now I do. I can better relate to them about things that are extremely personal, which I couldn’t before because I was kind of an outsider and I didn’t have the perspective or the real credibility to talk about their challenges. Now I can say, ‘Where are you in treatment?’ and ‘How many have you had?’ and ‘How many do you have left?’ I can kinda tell them what they’re going to be feeling and say, ‘Hang in there. I’ve been there and I’ve done it and I’m doin’ fine.’ I feel like I have more to offer now.
“I feel almost fortunate that I had that experience in my life, as clearly devastating as it was. I feel like I’m a richer, deeper person for it. Dealing with cancer and the treatment and the recovery and all those things can adjust your outlook on life and the beauty of it all. You get kind of a new lease on life, and you appreciate your health more than you ever did before. Birthdays are a little more fun and holidays are really special and you don’t take things for granted like you once did.
“It’s a blessing that I had cancer,” says Hamilton, speaking just like he skates: fast, furiously and with tongue in cheek. “I was stuck in the hospital, and I got to see every single minute of the Masters Golf Tournament on CBS. I’d never been able to do that before. How’s that for turning something around?”
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This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 1999.