Keeping It in Perspective
by Laura Shipp
When figure skating champion Scott Hamilton first appeared on the cover of Coping magazine, he spoke about how he had battled (and beaten!) testicular cancer two years earlier. His coping strategy? A positive attitude. “If you have a bad attitude, you’re really gonna’ struggle,” he told Coping in 1999, “but if you face [cancer] 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.”
A lot has changed for the Olympic gold medalist in the past 10 years; however, some things – like his eternal optimism – will always stay the same. Recently, I caught up with Scott to discuss what’s been going on in his life since that first interview.
Without a doubt, the biggest change has been the birth of his two sons, Aidan and Maxx. Scott says they have altered him “completely and thoroughly, from the toes up and the hair down.” He boasts, “They are the best thing that has ever happened to me. Both boys are miracles, considering my medical history.”
Fertility issues are common after treatment for testicular cancer, so Scott and his wife, Tracie, were pleasantly surprised when they had no trouble conceiving their first son in 2001. Scott reveals, “The fact that Aidan was born nine months and two days after Tracie and I were married was a shock. I was fortunate that the cancer and the chemo didn’t affect my ability to father a child.”
It wasn’t quite so easy when it came to the couple’s second child. Scott was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor on his pituitary gland in 2004. The treatments left him with no pituitary function. Scott says he had to “jump through a few hoops” in order for the couple to bring Maxx into the world early last year. Those “hoops” included regular injections to promote testosterone production. Pittance for a man who is greatly familiar with surmounting obstacles.
“You are going to go through a lot of stuff in your life, and you can look at it as debilitating, or you can look at it as a challenge.”
As a young child, he battled a mysterious illness that kept his body from digesting food and stunted his growth. Then at age 18, he lost his mother to breast cancer. A loss that inspired him to become the champion he is. “I was an underachiever,” Scott admits. “And she sacrificed time and time again to make sure I was able to keep skating. So when I lost her, I decided I was going to be everything she thought I could be.”
That resolution led to an Olympic gold medal at the 1984 Winter Games, in addition to four consecutive U.S. and World Championship wins and a professional career as one of the world’s most well-known and well-loved male figure skaters. With those career highlights, Scott could be the poster child for triumph over adversity. “You are going to go through a lot of stuff in your life,” he says, “and you can look at it as debilitating, or you can look at it as a challenge.”
For Scott, one of those challenges was testicular cancer. “My professional career as an entertainer was booming, and then I got cancer,” he says. “I went from being a professional skater on a successful tour to being completely exhausted, not a hair on my body, bloated from the chemotherapy, and I started feeling sorry for myself.”
He realized he had a choice: he could look at cancer as a dreadful disease that would take him off the ice and irrevocably change him for the worse, or he could adopt a more proactive view. He resolved, “This is now a new rallying point. I have a new voice. I have a new perspective and a new challenge. I am going to get back on the ice and try to inspire others to rise above.”
And that’s exactly what he did.
As we wrap up our conversation, Scott offers up a poignant question he often asks other survivors: “What do you think is the most significant side effect of chemotherapy?”
His answer: “It kills cancer; how’s that? It’s all about perspective.”
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To give back to the cancer community, Scott established the Scott Hamilton CARES Initiative at the Cleveland Clinic, where he was treated for both his testicular cancer and brain tumor. This year marks the Initiative’s 10th anniversary. As part of the celebration, Scott will make his first public appearance on the ice since retiring five years ago. He says, “It is very exciting to blow the dust off the skates and polish the rust off the blades.” Scott will be joined by legendary recording artists Cheap Trick and the Cleveland Pops Orchestra in a salute to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. To learn more about Scott, the Scott Hamilton CARES Initiative, and the 10th anniversary gala to be held on November 7, 2009, go to scottcares.com.
You can see Coping’s 1999 interview with Scott Hamilton at copingmag.com/scott_hamilton.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2009.