Make It Count: Scott Hamilton Discusses His Cancer Journey

A world champion figure skater offers his spin on the blessings behind survivorship.

The only thing I remember about the day I found out I had cancer is the fear, a crippling fear that forced me to remember my mother in her last days. I honestly don’t think I was ever that scared in my life. Well, except when I would step onto the ice for a compulsory figure test, knowing that I wasn’t prepared. No one is prepared for a cancer diagnosis.

Then a truly crazy thing happened. The fear I felt, which forced me to think of suffering, diminishing and dying, was almost instantly replaced by the overwhelming drive to battle this illness with every ounce of strength I could muster. I was brave. I understood the mission. I would be the perfect patient. After all, whenever I listened to my coaches and performed a perfect routine, I usually won.

Then a very odd thing happened. Strong memories of my mother came back to me in a way I didn’t expect. My bravery was hers. She would say things like “Oh, this chemotherapy! I have finally found a way to lose all this weight!” or “I’ve wanted to quit smoking all these years, and with chemo, I have no desire” and “I’ve always hated my own hair. These wigs are so much easier.” She was teaching me how to go through my own cancer without even knowing she was doing so.

My survivorship started the very first day, with the biopsy, and followed me through several months of chemotherapy and a 38-staple surgery, in which the incision went from my sternum to my groin. I affectionately called it Filet-o-Scott.

After all that, it was back to life, but my life felt completely different. I strongly felt that my cancer was the result of how I had been living my life, and now I would live it differently.

My first year of survivorship included addressing different cancer groups as the newest member of the “club.” I knew what it felt like to fight for my life with everything I had, and life felt totally like a privilege. Now I had the opportunity to take this second chance and make the absolute most of it.

I skated harder and lived more “alive” than I did before. I desperately wanted to do life better this time.

It may seem hard to believe, but I am incredibly grateful for my cancer — every day! I wouldn’t have the family I have if I hadn’t first gone through the life reset from my cancer. Without the pain of the loss of my mother and my own knowledge of what it feels like to have had cancer,

I wouldn’t have the platform to honor her life and help the next person through their cancer.

I know things that can benefit someone else who is facing this disease. That is one of the reasons I founded the 4th Angel mentoring program ( located at Taussig Cancer Center at Cleveland Clinic.

I love to share this newfound wisdom with people each time I speak of cancer. Our bodies are incredibly fragile and vulnerable to many things, but they are also phenomenally resilient and, ultimately, temporary. We are fortunate to have life and obligated to live our days.

Since my cancer in 1997, I have been blessed with three brain tumors, all pituitary tumor recurrences of the one I was born with.

When I heard the news that it was a tumor I was born with, I was instantly taken back to the four years I spent in and out (mostly in) of children’s hospitals in the early to mid-’60s. There was no diagnosis then, and I am grateful for that because the options back then would have been devastating. No one knows why the symptoms went away after I started skating or can explain why those symptoms didn’t return until I finally hung up the skates.

Looking back on those stressful days of dealing with the tumors, I am reminded that without that undiagnosed brain tumor, I never would have started skating. The tumor stunted growth, so I wouldn’t otherwise be the perfect size for skating.

And I say with perfect confidence: I wouldn’t have the life I have today without those four long years of suffering from age 4 to 8.

So, here’s what I want you to know about survivorship: It’s obviously a true blessing and gift. Without the cause and reason to survive, our lives would look and feel a lot different, and probably not for the better.

Maladies and struggles are unavoidable and, in many cases, the most important episodes of our lives. They shape us, empower us and allow us to be the people we cannot be without them. But mostly, they give us a second chance at life. It’s what we do with that second chance that truly defines us. Make it count!