A mysterious childhood illness, cancer, three brain tumors. No matter what life throws at him, figure skating legend Scott Hamilton gets back up.
by Kaylene Chadwell
From an early age, figure skating legend Scott Hamilton has been perfecting the art of falling down and getting back up. As a young child, he battled an unknown illness that prevented his body from digesting food properly and stunted his growth. For years, doctors were stumped by his symptoms, never able to pinpoint their cause or how to cure them. As a result, Scott spent a great deal of his early childhood in and out of hospitals.
The making of a star
When he was nine, Scott stepped on the ice for the first time, just for fun. He soon began participating in weekly beginner ice-skating classes. Almost immediately, his health began to improve, and, before long, his symptoms had all but disappeared. By the next summer, he was competing. Scott had found his calling – and a cure.
Then, when he was 18, Scott lost his mother to breast cancer. The grief was devastating. To cope, Scott channeled his pain into figure skating, committed to becoming the best skater he could be – the one his mother always knew he could be. His determination pushed him to Olympic gold seven years later in the 1984 Winter Games. He also managed to stack up four consecutive U.S. and World Championship wins and become one of the world’s most well-known and well-loved Olympic figure skaters.
The cancer diagnosis that halted his career
In 1997, Scott was touring with Discover Stars on Ice, the ice skating extravaganza he cofounded, when he was plagued by abdominal distress. The diagnosis? Testicular cancer that had drained into his abdomen, resulting in a malignant tumor. “The fear was beyond anything I had ever experienced,” Scott reveals to Coping magazine. “It was after I survived that I felt I could endure anything.”
Scott underwent four rounds of chemotherapy, as well as surgery, which required 38 staples. “No one was allowed in my room unless they made me laugh,” Scott shares. “I had great support throughout my chemo and surgery. Friends and family supported me … with an unmistakable, unconditional love that made me see my life differently than I did before.”
Once he recovered, Scott got back out on the ice and began sharing his cancer experience, advocating for cancer survivors to know and understand all their treatment options. “It is very important that we have a true understanding of our condition and options before pulling the trigger on any treatment type,” Scott urges. “Knowledge is comfort and power. If there is a way to get your case in front of as many medical professionals as possible, you will have a much better experience. You will know that you proceeded fully aware of every option there is for your disease type.”
More life-threatening diagnoses
In 2004, seven years after Scott’s cancer diagnosis, he was diagnosed with his first brain tumor. He was then diagnosed with a second in 2010. And a third in 2016. At this point, Scott began to feel like he was collecting life-threatening illnesses. Mercifully, these tumors were benign, though they were still very serious.
“The first brain tumor knocked me down,” he admits. “The second brain tumor, things didn’t seem right, and I guess that was a premonition. The surgery to remove the tumor had a complication that created an aneurism. After the obliteration of the aneurism, I went back to life more diminished than my previous two health adventures. When the third one was found, I was much more in control. I had survived two previous ones and cancer, so I approached this adventure with calmness and a better understanding of the process.”
“When I was diagnosed with cancer in 1997, I realized this was the biggest competition of my life. I was on unfamiliar ground, meaning I didn’t know anything about cancer or chemo or surgery or how to beat this disease. But at the same time, I realized I knew exactly what to do because I had been training for this moment my entire life. Everything I had learned about winning and losing and fighting and becoming a champion would now inform how I faced this new challenge. There was only one choice: to win. That decision was literally life or death.”
– Excerpted from Scott’s latest book, Finish First: Winning Changes Everything (W Publishing Group).
Miraculously, according to Scott, the most recent tumor shrank on its own; no treatment needed. His doctors are keeping an eye on it, but for now, Scott is reveling in the good news – and his good health.
Scott’s foundation, and his future
Since facing cancer, Scott has been heavily involved in giving back to the cancer community. He has worked with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. In 2002, he started Chemocare.com, which offers people diagnosed with cancer easy-to-understand information about chemotherapy and its side effects. He also created the 4th Angel mentoring program (4thAngel.org) to connect people newly diagnosed with cancer, as well as caregivers, with trained mentors who’ve been through a similar experience.
Most recently, Scott launched the Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation. The charity’s logo is an upside-down cancer ribbon because he wants the Foundation to “Turn Cancer Upside Down.” It’s also no accident that the logo resembles his trademark figure-skating move – the backflip.
“When I was going through my cancer journey, I realized how much was missing in the cancer community to educate and support people fighting for their lives,” Scott explains. “I also understand the need for everyday people to participate in funding cancer research. That’s why I want CARES to be an important citizen in the cancer community. We want to fund cancer research that brings the future of cancer treatment to the present. I want to help people get back to their lives without the collateral damage that exists with current treatment options.”
In addition to his work for cancer survivors, Scott continues to be an inspiration. He has written a book, Finish First: Winning Changes Everything, which he says is a “guide to winning.”
“Finish First helps people understand how they can be their best selves and put themselves in a position to be more successful than they ever thought they could be,” Scott shares. “I argue the case that we all have a purpose, and we have to work to, not only uncover it, but develop it and change the world around us. And ultimately change the course of our lives.”
When asked what’s in the future for him, Scott responds, “Waking up in the morning is a great goal… to be a great father to my children and a loving husband to my incredible wife, to better practice and deepen my understanding of my faith. I want to work as hard as I can to change cancer for the better, and then wake up again to continue my work.”
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2018.