By Scott Hamilton
September 08, 1997 12:00 PM

“I’d be at an appearance, and the first thing people would ask me was, ‘How’s Scott?’ “says skater Kristi Yamaguchi, who’d been touring with her friend Scott Hamilton in his Discover Stars on Ice show in March, when he received the devastating diagnosis of testicular cancer. “It was amazing to me how many people wanted to know how he was feeling and to see him back on the ice.”

Perhaps it shouldn’t have been cause for amazement. Ever since Hamilton won the 1984 Olympic gold medal, Americans have felt a particularly personal bond with the diminutive, perpetually upbeat ice-skater. Maybe it was his scrappy triumph over a hard-luck start—as the scrawny kid who spent much of his early childhood in and out of hospitals with the malabsorption syndrome that stunted his growth—or perhaps his work more recently as one of the most engaging skating commentators on television. Says actor Kevin Nealon, a close friend of Hamilton’s since meeting him at a White House function several years ago: “Scott has a special connection with the audience.”

Now there seems to be good news for all the fans who have been rooting for the 39-year-old skater, including the 55,000 who sent get-well wishes (among them Nancy Reagan). After a grueling course of chemotherapy and a subsequent operation, it’s beginning to look as if the Bowling Green, Ohio, native will be among the 80 to 90 percent of testicular cancer patients to fully recover. (The disease strikes about 7,200 men in this country annually.) “Scott’s chances for cure are excellent,” says Dr. Eric Klein, who treated him at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. “He set his mind to it, and he will get through this.” Observes Nealon: “Cancer picked the wrong person in Scott Hamilton. His willpower and winning attitude should be an inspiration to anyone.”

On Aug. 14, a few days after returning to the ice for the first time since his diagnosis, Hamilton talked with correspondent Lorenzo Benet. Sitting in the cozy kitchen of the spacious suburban Denver home he shares with longtime girlfriend Karen Plage, 28, he spoke of the illness that threatened his life and career.

On March 15 everything hit the fan. I was in East Lansing, Mich., on tour with Stars on Ice, and during practice I was feeling crummy. For the last few weeks I had been losing my appetite, and I’d begun feeling pain in my abdomen. I just figured it was an ulcer and my stressful lifestyle catching up with me. But that afternoon my back went out, and I couldn’t hit any jumps. I went to see our physical therapist. She felt my abdomen and said there was a real tight mass in there. “Scott, this isn’t muscular,” she said. “You need to have this checked out.”

After the show that night I was in such pain I couldn’t stand up straight. I got on my tour bus and headed for Peoria, Ill., where we were scheduled to perform next. In the morning I felt better, but I went to the St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria to be checked out. The doctors decided to run a battery of tests, including CAT scans.

Early that afternoon the ER doctor gave me the bad news. They had found a tumor in my abdomen. He told me, “If it were me, I would take care of this situation immediately.” A million emotions were running through my mind. At first I was in denial. It had to be just a pocket of gas, I told myself. But I couldn’t explain how that mass had gotten there.

Everybody in the Stars cast was concerned. I really didn’t know what to say, so I said everything was fine. I thought of what a friend of mine with cancer, comic Mack Dryden, had said during a performance. He said, “When you tell someone you have cancer, you give it to them.” It’s true in a way, because I think anytime you have a life-threatening illness, it’s easier on you than everyone around you. So I didn’t tell anybody and just did the show.

When I got on the ice that night, the reality of the situation was setting in. I was frightened because I didn’t know what was growing inside me. And I was depressed because I knew this could be my last show of the year. Then I thought that if this thing was serious, this could be my last show ever. I actually skated great.

That night, after the show, I had a beer with some of the skaters, including Kurt Browning, Rosalynn Sumners and Paul Wylie. I told them I was going to Cleveland to get checked out. Later, during the all-night ride, I called my girlfriend, Karen, in Denver and told her what was going on. She cried—and then she realized the worst thing she could do was be scared and weak. She knew I would absorb that. After the shock wore off, she said she would come and be there with me for the tests at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, one of the top cancer centers in the country.

By the next morning, when it was time to go, I was in a lot of pain. I took a full physical, had blood workups and a biopsy. Later I told Karen, “I don’t mind all the needles, but I don’t want to deal with a lot of pain.” That was my biggest fear. My mom, Dorothy, died of breast cancer when I was 18. I saw how much she suffered when the cancer spread to her lungs and her other vital organs, and she was the toughest woman I ever met. I didn’t want to deal with the pain she’d experienced.

The next day we met with the doctors. They said I had a germ-cell tumor, a big one caused by a drainage of cancerous cells from my testicular region. And it was malignant.

The doctors were very earnest when they gave me the news, so I said, “Is that all it is?” I was kidding. They seemed shocked and said, “No, Scott, it’s very serious. This is something you have to deal with.” Then they laid out their treatment plan. In order to shrink and kill the cancer, they would use chemotherapy. They told me they would have to remove the tumor and, probably, my right testicle. I didn’t find out until after my third chemo that the tumor had been twice the size of a grapefruit. I felt better after talking to the doctors because they said my cancer was curable. Everything I heard about this cancer was that it was something I could beat and should beat.

The treatment included four cycles of chemotherapy, each one of them spread over five days, with 16 days off between cycles. I put total faith in my oncologist Dr. Ronald Bukowski, who would be in charge of shrinking the tumor. Dr. Eric Klein would perform the surgery later on. They told me they wanted to start chemo right away.

On March 19, the day after I was diagnosed, I got together with the Stars cast. After they’d been told, the dozen of them decided to bus up from Dayton on their day off to have lunch with me. It meant more to me than they’ll ever know. We had a hysterical time. Every joke was at my expense. They even composed a Top 10 list of what I was going to do with my potentially discarded body part. My ability to produce children should be fine. But the doctors did tell me that there was a fifty-fifty chance chemotherapy could harm my sperm. So, since I want to be a father someday, I had some frozen and put away in a sperm bank.

My first chemo took place March 21. It was nothing like what I had expected. Instead of my being in a big room, surrounded by huge machines, I had a private room with wooden furniture. It was homey. When therapy began, I remember asking my nurse why she was putting on thick rubber gloves. “Well,” she said, “these chemicals eat skin.” I said, “And you’re putting this inside my body?” She said the chemicals would work like a forest fire—they would burn up everything they touched, but the healthy cells would recover.

During each five-day chemo cycle, the chemicals were injected from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. I got a break till 11 p.m., then I returned to the hospital to sleep—at which point they hooked me back onto an IV to keep me hydrated. Although many chemo patients suffer from nausea, surprisingly I had cravings for fast food, and I was going out for chicken, burgers and Chinese.

The chemotherapy bloated my abdomen. I would put on 8 to 10 pounds from all the liquids they pumped through me. If anything comes out of my talking about this, I want people to understand that while chemo is different for everyone, I didn’t find it to be horrible. My expectations of being sick, listless and having no energy didn’t happen all the time.

Karen, who is studying acting and singing in Denver, was there for me 24 hours a day. She would run out and pick up fast food or rent videos. She kept all the billing straight for the insurance and stayed in close contact with the doctors. She knew more about what was going on with me than I did. At home in Denver, she kept the medicines straight, cooked me meals and made sure I ate because the antinausea medication I was taking depressed my appetite. I always tell everybody she’s much better than I deserve.

After the first cycle, I returned to Denver on March 25. Three days later I received the first of six Bleomycin treatments at the University of Colorado Cancer Center. It’s a powerful cancer-fighting drug that made me more ill than all the chemicals combined. After the injection, I’d get chills and a high temperature and just stay in bed all day.

During my 16-day breaks in Denver, Kristi Yamaguchi and Katia Gordeeva stopped by. In Cleveland my agent Kevin Albrecht visited every day for the first three chemo rounds. My younger brother Steve also came to the hospital, but I talked my other relatives out of it. They were upset and felt I was acting selfish. But I wanted to keep this period in my life as private as possible. Still, I knew people were reaching out to me, and from all walks of life. My publicist Michael Sterling brought me my letters—they were unbelievable. They reinforced my optimism.

My hair began coming out in small clumps after the first chemo. So before I began the second round, on April 11, Karen shaved my head. At the end of that cycle, I remember thinking it was a breeze. “I’m good at cancer, I can do this,” I thought. But I would feel worse during the third and fourth cycles.

Back in Denver, I relaxed at home doing house jobs and playing golf. Karen and I changed the flowers in the backyard. Skating was out because the doctors feared the chemotherapy could affect my balance. Then in April it started snowing again. So I took off to Los Angeles to get some sun. One day I was playing golf with some friends, including my agent. I asked him, “How many strokes are you going to give me?” He said, “The usual.” I joked, “Kevin, I’m dying of cancer. You have to give me something.”

By my third chemo, on May 2, I was tired of being sick and tired all the time. There’s this great poster in the cancer center in Denver, where I’d get my Bleomycin. It reads, Life Isn’t Fair. It lets you know that cancer is not evil, just something that happens. The doctors had warned me the third treatment would be the worst, and they were right. By the third day I was lethargic and puffy from the liquids. I was a slug. On June 22 I flew back to Cleveland for my surgery. I was scared out of my mind, but I had faith in Dr. Klein. When they wheeled me into the operating room, rock music was playing, and I instantly relaxed. I realized in 10 minutes I would be out cold. And in about four hours I’d be awake again and on my way to getting my health back.

The tumor was located behind my intestines. The chemo had reduced it to the size of a golf ball. Dr. Klein made an incision from just below my sternum to two inches above my groin. Besides the tumor, they took out the surrounding lymph nodes. Another incision was made in the groin area. From there they removed the bad boy that caused the problem—my right testicle. My doctors told me later the testicle showed no sign of cancer. For reasons that are unclear, the cancer had died. My left testicle was totally healthy.

I stayed in the hospital for eight days. I wasn’t allowed to eat solid food the entire time because my intestines weren’t functioning yet—they had been pulled aside to make room to get at the tumor. My system was in shock. The day after surgery the pain kicked in—like Pow! I couldn’t sit up.

Since the surgery my appetite is way off, and my energy is down. I’ve got a long way to go. I weigh 118 now, and my goal is to be 125 pounds of muscle weight. My doctors say I have to be patient and it could take a long time to come back. I probably won’t feel 100 percent for a year, but I could be at a decent level of performance by January. In fact, on Aug. 9 I skated again for the first time since that night back in March. I was in Simi Valley, Calif., working with my choreographer Sarah Kawahara. Man, I realized my legs were gone. My body just didn’t want to work. I tried to do a spin, and three turns in I got real dizzy.

I was embarrassed, even though I knew Sarah understood. But it had only been five months since my last performance, so my mind felt that I could reach back and yank out a triple lutz. But it wasn’t happening. The second day was better. By the fifth day I did several double jumps, but my balance was still shot. I’ve got to keep pushing it. I plan on starting a rigorous weight-training program to help me get back in shape for Stars on Ice. By October I want to be ready to skate in a benefit for the Cleveland Clinic on CBS. It will be my first performance since I got sick.

That month I’m due back in Cleveland for a CAT scan, chest X-ray and blood work—to see if I’ve got any critters in there. I’m not thinking about a recurrence. If my blood count does go through the roof again, I’ll be back on chemotherapy. I got through it once, I can get through it again.

My motivation to come back is that I don’t want my illness to be the reason why I don’t skate. If I’m going to retire, I want it to be on my terms. If I miss this year, it means the cancer has won again. My goal is to defeat this thing on every front. I got it out of my body. And now I’ve got to get back to where I was. When I do that, I win.

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