Three brain tumors couldn’t conquer Scott Hamilton.
After surviving a debilitating childhood illness and testicular cancer, Scott Hamilton thought he’d run through his lifetime quota of deadly diseases. “I thought from then on, I got a pass for the rest of my life,” he says. “At 108 years old I was going to get hit by a truck, and that was how I’d leave the planet.” It turned out his health wasn’t through with him yet.
In 2004, Hamilton was preparing for the annual fundraiser he hosted for the Cleveland Clinic’s Taussig Cancer Center — the same center that had successfully treated him for testicular cancer in 1997. He hadn’t been feeling well, so he stopped in to see his urologist, Eric Klein, MD. The doctor found evidence of low testosterone, which explained Hamilton’s weakness and lethargy, but not his blurred vision. Klein recommended he get a brain MRI to check it out.
Later that day, Hamilton got the results. He had a tumor at the base of his brain.
When he’d been diagnosed with testicular cancer, Hamilton was single. Now he had a wife, Tracie, and 14-month-old son, Aidan, to think about. “How am I going to do this?” he wondered.
What’s going on?
Tracie and Aidan had flown in from Tennessee (where they live) to be with Hamilton at the fundraiser. As soon as Tracie arrived at the hotel and saw her husband, she knew something was wrong. “She goes, ‘What’s going on?’ I go, “I’ll tell you when we go upstairs.”
Once settled in their hotel room, Hamilton broke the news. “I have a brain tumor,” he told her. “She just took both of my hands and started praying, and it was really powerful.”
Craniopharyngioma is a type of tumor that grows near the pituitary gland at the base of the brain. Although these tumors aren’t cancerous, they can grow quickly and put pressure on crucial structures in the brain. Treatment is essential to avoid serious complications like vision loss and hormonal disruptions.
Hamilton underwent gamma knife radiosurgery. At the time he was diagnosed, this procedure was of the mainstay treatments for craniopharyngioma. Gamma knife isn’t really surgery, and it doesn’t actually involve a knife. Instead, it focuses intense beams of gamma radiation on the tumor to shrink it. “Nuked it, baked it, knocked it out. Back to life,” Hamilton says of his procedure.
Back to life
His tumor receded, Hamilton returned to life as a husband and father. He also devoted himself to his cancer foundation, Scott Hamilton CARES, and started training for a return to the ice. In January 2008, Tracie gave birth to a second son, who they named Maxx.
In 2010, Hamilton was performing at a Christmas show in Nashville, when he caught the edge of his skate on the ice. “I went flying and I landed on my hip and I thought, ‘That really hurt,’” he says. “Then I tried to put my guards on when I got off the ice, and my shoulder didn’t work very well.”
An MRI revealed a pretty serious shoulder injury. As he was undergoing physical therapy for his shoulder, Hamilton discovered that his vision had grown fuzzy again. He returned to the Cleveland Clinic, where doctors told him his brain tumor was back.
His reaction this time was different than it had been when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer and the first brain tumor. “I just thought, ‘This is it. We’ve come to the end of the road.’” he says. “I didn’t see past this one.”
Doctors were more optimistic. They performed a minimally invasive procedure, going up through his nose to reach and extract the tumor. It was a minimally invasive surgery that normally had relatively low risks. But the surgeon nicked an artery along the route into his brain, which led to an aneurysm — a potentially deadly weakening of a blood vessel wall that can cause internal bleeding.
Hamilton awoke in a hospital hallway with his anesthesiologist hovering over him screaming, “Let’s go! We’ve got to get him up there now, now, now!” The elevators had broken down, and they needed to get him to ICU right away. His body was so cold that he began to shiver and spasm violently.
Was his premonition coming true? Was it the end of the road for him?
Suddenly a feeling of calm washed over him. “It was the craziest thing. I just stopped and I said, ‘This too shall pass. This too shall pass.’ And my body calmed down. I was able to stop shivering and spasming.”
Doctors treated the aneurysm, healed his shoulder, and removed his tumor. Hamilton had 10 surgeries in total during the spring and summer of 2010, but he survived.
As Hamilton was recovering from his second brain tumor in Cleveland, more than 1,600 miles away the world had turned upside down. Haiti was hit with a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people and displaced 1.5 million from their homes.
News of the earthquake hit his wife, Tracie, especially hard. “She’s been to Haiti 26 times,” Hamilton says. “She loves it down there, and we’ve met some extraordinary people.”
In the wake of the tragedy, the couple decided to expand their family, welcoming Haitian brother and sister Jean Paul and Evelyne into their home. “So now we’re a family of four. Multicultural family… multiracial family,” he says.
When you’ve lived through cancer and two brain tumors, screening for a recurrence is essential. Like other survivors, Hamilton returned to Cleveland Clinic on a regular basis for checkups to make sure his tumor hadn’t returned.
In August 2016, his doctors noticed something odd on his MRI. “It looked like a black apostrophe,” he says. They thought it might be a leak in his aneurysm, and scheduled a cerebral angiogram — a test that uses x-rays and contrast material to visualize blood vessels in the brain — to double-check. A more detailed MRI a couple of weeks later confirmed it wasn’t an aneurysm. His tumor had returned for a third engagement.
Each of his previous diagnoses had brought a new reaction, and this time was no different. “From the first one, which was prayer, to the second one, which knocked us down, this one was like, ‘Hmm, oh well.’ It was kind of like, ‘Interesting,’” he says. “When he told me it was back, all I heard was ‘Get strong.’ That’s all I heard in my mind was, ‘Get strong.’ And I go, ‘Ok, I’ll get strong.’”
A beautiful miracle
Hamilton became obsessed with getting healthy. He hit the gym regularly and eliminated all sugar from his already nutritious diet.
In the six years that had passed since his last diagnosis, treatment options for craniopharyngioma had expanded beyond surgery and radiation, to include a class of drugs called BRAF inhibitors. Hamilton’s doctor told him he could go on the drugs right away, but he instead opted to wait. He stayed healthy and prayed for his tumor to recede.
When Hamilton returned to the Cleveland Clinic for a follow-up visit a few months later, his doctors discovered that his tumor had shrunk. They had no explanation for it. “These tumors grow. Sometimes they’re stable. But they don’t shrink,” they told him. “So I really feel like I’m the recipient of this really beautiful miracle.”
On the possibility of his tumor returning in the future, Hamilton is resigned, but accepting. “If it starts to grow again, I’ll experience whatever I need to experience when I need to experience it. So be it.”
July 03, 2017
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA