Usually when Scott Hamilton noticed a new ache or pain, he would attribute it to the routine stresses of his sport. But this time it was something different.
In March 1997, Scott Hamilton was in his late 30s, and he’d already faced a lifetime’s worth of ups and downs. He’d survived a life-threatening childhood illness, lost his mother to breast cancer, and rebounded from the tragedy to win Olympic gold.
Now he was touring the country as headliner of Stars on Ice, sharing the ice with other renowned figure skaters like Kristi Yamaguchi, Paul Wylie, Kurt Browning, and Ekaterina Gordeeva. Hamilton’s life — and career — seemed to be on an upswing.
Then, during the last leg of that 1997 tour, Hamilton developed an odd pain in his abdomen. For anyone who spends their days spinning and leaping on a pair of ice skates, minor injuries like strained muscles and inflamed tendons are normal — even expected. Usually when Hamilton noticed a new ache or pain, he would attribute it to the routine stresses of his sport. This time was different. The soreness wouldn’t ease up, no matter how many pain relievers he took.
“After 50 cities of a 60-city tour it was like, ‘Enough of this,’” he says. “I could barely get through the show.”
“We found a mass”
Before his next performance, Hamilton visited the emergency room at St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, Ill. After several hours of testing, the doctor sat him down. He told Hamilton, “We found a mass.”
Reactions to news of a potentially devastating diagnosis can range from shock to anger to fear. Hamilton surprised his doctor by laughing. “He goes, ‘What’s so funny?’ I said, ‘Look at me. Nobody’s used the word “mass” in a description of me before.’”
The mass in question was no laughing matter. It was a tumor that had grown to the size of a grapefruit inside Hamilton’s abdomen. Doctors at Cleveland Clinic soon confirmed the diagnosis. He had stage 3 testicular cancer.
“In that moment, almost 20 years to the day after I lost my mom, I realized I’m being diagnosed with cancer. And it was frightening,” he says. “I saw her diminished, and I saw her in pain, and I saw the surgeries, and I saw so much of the suffering she went through.”
Get to work
Hamilton saw something else, too. He saw his mother’s strength. And just as quickly as the fear had set in, it evaporated. He realized he had to attack his tumor with the same determination with which his mother had fought her breast cancer, and the same determination that had driven him to Olympic glory in the wake of her death. “All of a sudden, I went from this cowering person just smothered in fear to breaking out of it and going, ‘Let’s get to work. Whatever it is, I’m going to beat it back, because I got a tour to do in about six months, and I’m going to be there.’”
Back when he was training for the Olympics, his mother’s voice had been ever-present in his ear, urging him on and reassuring him that he’d succeed. Now he heard her words again — the way she’d managed to find the bright side during the darkest days of her cancer treatment. “Oh, this chemotherapy is wonderful, I finally lost all this weight!” he remembered her saying. “This chemotherapy is so phenomenal. I hated my hair and now these wigs are so much easier!”
Hamilton wanted to follow her example and find the humor in his own diagnosis. He set a rule for any visitors to his hospital room. If they didn’t make him laugh, they were banished. “I didn’t want to feel like I was sick,” he says. “I just wanted to feel like I was taking a pause and a little break, and I needed to get things turned around a little bit.” So they came — his friends and family — wearing oversized glasses and silly wigs, bearing funny movies to help him smile through his pain.
Comedy was the salve that helped him heal after intensive chemotherapy robbed him of his hair and sapped him of his strength. Humor helped him endure the surgery that left 38 staples down his midsection — a procedure he blithely refers to as “filet-o-dwarf.”
On the night Hamilton learned he had testicular cancer, he performed one more show in Peoria. The audience had no idea of the weight that was bearing down on him. He was as light on the ice as ever, executing one perfect triple toe loop, double axle, and backflip after another. “Fearing that it could be the last show of my life, the show took on more meaning than any single show ever had,” he wrote in his memoir, “The Great Eight.” “I decided that if this cancer was going to take skating, and perhaps my life, away, I was going to go out with a bang.”
There would be no dramatic exit. Hamilton conquered his cancer. Yet even with the chemotherapy and surgery behind him, there was no guarantee he’d skate again. The seam in his stomach was like a wall blocking his movement. Unable to bend, there was no way he could execute his signature backflips.
Over the next few months, Hamilton committed himself to retraining his body. Day after day, little by little, he regained his flexibility and found his legs on the ice again.
n October 29, 1997, Hamilton performed in front of an audience for the first time since his diagnosis. “I did a backflip. And it hurt like crazy, but it went up. It floated…. And it was a very powerful statement,” he says. “I told the audience, ‘I win. Cancer doesn’t win. I do.’”
June 12, 2017
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA