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Scott Hamilton Turns Tragedy Into Gold

May 11, 1999

It was the last thing Olympic Gold figure-skater Scott Hamilton needed on tour: abdominal pain.

It was an ulcer, he told himself. After 30 years of performing, he'd probably earned an ulcer.

But the pain became so intense he could no longer skate, much less "do the jumps" he loved, Hamilton told guests at the Founder's Brunch staged last week by Circle 1000, a support group of the Hoag Cancer Center in Newport Beach. "It hurt so much I couldn't stand up straight."

In his first public speaking engagement since he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1997, Hamilton told the 500 women at the Four Seasons hotel in Newport Beach that he approached the disease with the same discipline he employed during his competition at the 1984 Olympics: "No would-haves, no could-haves, no should-haves."

It wasn't easy.

"When you're told you have cancer, a thousand things go through your mind--[such as] fear, denial," said Hamilton, whose cancer is in remission. "And I thought: "I don't have time! It's not on my schedule! I'm booked! This is just going to have to wait until it's much more convenient."

Even worse than the timing was the idea that he had cancer there. "My first thought was: 'Give me cancer twice, but don't give me cancer there, OK? Because, if I'm going to approach this with any kind of courage, then--later on--when I'm through with it, I'm going to have to talk about it."

Not to mention that "[testicular] is a tough word to pronounce," Hamilton deadpanned. "That was another whole issue--learning how to say what I had."

Testicular cancer--which most commonly affects men between the ages of 20 and 45--is on the rise in the United States, oncologist Robert Dillman said during the reception that preceded the brunch.

"But it is also the single cancer we have impacted most because we can find it early," said Dillman, director of the Hoag Cancer Center. "Even if it has already spread, it's one of the most curable because the cells tend to be very sensitive to chemotherapy."

Chemotherapy.

"It's the first action they book," Hamilton told the women, many of them cancer survivors. "I thought they took you into a room full of machines and replaced all of your bodily fluids.

"I thought it was going to be a horrible, awful, frightening experience. But it's just a bag [of chemicals they hook you up to]. 'Chemo' stands for 'chemical therapy.' "

His nurse explained that chemotherapy worked "a little like a forest fire."

"She said it destroys everything in its path--but the good stuff grows back and the bad stuff stays away forever."

In a recent survey of 500 chemotherapy patients, "40% said they feared chemotherapy and its side effects, and 32% said they feared death. I was shocked," Hamilton said. "It showed me that people don't understand [the philosophy behind] chemotherapy. Sure, it's tough . . . but you have to fight for your life every way you can every single day."

Chemotherapy, Round One: "a walk in the park," Hamilton recalled. "I thought, 'I'm good at cancer. This is so easy, I can't believe it.' "

Round Two: "Well, my hair's been falling out for years anyway."

Round Three: "It hit me hard. . . . I got depressed. This is where friends are very important."

Round four: "If someone tells you this is the last time you have to do something, you can do anything. I got happy because I could see the finish coming."

With chemotherapy reducing his tumor from the size of a grapefruit to that of a golf ball, Hamilton underwent surgery to have it removed.

These days, Hamilton faces each new challenge with gratitude and optimism. "I'm grateful for every day," he said. "The bottom line is--I hate to lose. The whole focus of my life has been to . . . look at every day as a bit of a competition, to take each challenge with the attitude of: That's all you got?"

Sharing his experience with cancer has been one of those challenges.

"But I told myself: 'I'm going to learn to say 'testicular,' and I'm going to talk about it," Hamilton said.

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