2007 should have been a great year for Derek Fisher.
A valued teammate on the Utah Jazz, the basketball star was enjoying family life with then-wife Candace and their 10-month-old twins, Tatum and Drew.
Fisher tells PEOPLE he was at practice one day when he got a call from Candace.
“She told me she’d taken [Tatum] to the doctor and the doctor recommended that we go see a specialist because something wasn’t quite right with her eye,” he explains.
The specialist ended up diagnosing Tatum with a retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer that rapidly develops from the immature cells of a retina and is almost exclusively found in young children.
“I didn’t know what that word meant,” says Fisher, 43. “It wasn’t until I called the head athletic trainer … his reaction is what crystallized my reaction. I think I was still numb to the whole thing and when he reacted to hearing ‘retinoblastoma,’ that’s what ended up scaring me more than I’d ever been scared before.”
What followed was years of painful tests and procedures as they fought to keep Tatum from having to lose her left eye completely.
“The fear is that the cancer will travel from the retina to the brain, but they told us there was a chance to keep the eye with aggressive treatment,” says Fisher, whose daughter went through intra-arterial chemotherapy.
“It was so challenging to watch her suffer and go through all of the scans and the number of times they had to take her blood and find a vein for an IV. I felt helpless as a dad watching her be so uncomfortable and in so much pain,” he adds. “I felt like there should have been more I could do so she wouldn’t feel the pain and be in discomfort, but I knew it was something she had to go through to get cured.”
Getting his daughter the best treatment possible also meant relocating his family (Candace has a son and Fisher has a daughter from previous relationships) to Los Angeles, where Tatum could visit Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and be emotionally supported by Candace’s family.
That move also meant leaving the Utah Jazz (and the multi-million dollar contract he’d signed).
“Ultimately, the decision was easy once I decided my child and my family came first and what was best for the team and what people were going to think was irrelevant,” Fisher says of the decision. “It just became what I felt like any father would do in a situation where they want to make sure their child is getting the best care possible. If that means you have to leave your job, if that means you have to take a hit financially, that’s what you do and you figure the rest out later.”
“It definitely caused stress because that was our financial security that was basically gone,” he continues. “But we just had to have faith that things were going to work out and not allow money to impact my decision making when it came to the safety and security and health of my family.”
Fisher and his family navigated Tatum’s treatments and followups for over five years. She’s now 11 and though she only has 50 percent vision in her left eye, Fisher says there’s “almost no chance” the cancer will return. And he feels blessed she has lived to see him win two championships with the Los Angeles Lakers.
“There have been a lot of milestones and special moments. My daughter was able to experience going to the games and being at the parades,” says Fisher, who went on to coach the New York Knicks in 2014 and retired in 2016. “There was definitely an upswing of positivity after going through such difficult times and making very challenging decisions. There was still a great life to live after that.”
And now Fisher is excited to be able to share his family’s story on Dancing with the Stars Monday as part of Most Memorable Year Week and hopes to inspire others who may be going through trying times.
“DWTS has been a journey of self-discovery and has opened up this vulnerability that I’ve never shown before. I think it’s great for all of my children to see a side of me that they maybe haven’t seen before,” says Fisher, whose marriage to Candace ended in 2016.
“I think it’s hopefully setting an example for them that despite adversities and ups and downs, you can wish you did things differently but you have to find a way to keep going and stay positive and celebrate your life. You can’t focus so much on the negative that you forget all the positive, wonderful things that life presents for you. That’s my focus and I’m so grateful that all of my kids are here to see it.”
Dancing with the Stars airs Mondays (8 p.m. ET) on ABC.