Like his signature backflip, Olympic figure skater Scott Hamilton’s vision for supporting patients with cancer is bold and unique.
SCOTT HAMILTON returned to the ice in 2010 — reviving his famous backflip — during An Evening With Scott Hamilton and Friends, a fundraiser for the Taussig Cancer Institute at Cleveland Clinic. [PHOTO BY MICHAEL GOMEZ PHOTOGRAPHY]
CANCER HAS PLAYED a large role in the life and career of Scott Hamilton, the champion figure skater who is best known for his Olympic gold medal, long career as an exhibition skater and television commentator — and, of course, his signature backflip.
Long after seeing his mother through her battle against breast cancer, Hamilton survived testicular cancer. Now, he’s deeply involved in patient advocacy efforts.
Hamilton started out as a mediocre skater during his childhood in Ohio, and nearly quit when his mother’s diagnosis made the family’s funds tight. But the decision that he would skate for only one more year took the pressure off and, with his mother sitting in the stands, her left breast recently removed and her head covered in a wig to hide her chemotherapy-induced baldness, Hamilton won a Junior National title and the sponsorship of wealthy couple Helen and Frank McLoraine, who paid for his skating going forward.
“When she died, I didn’t know how I could do any of this without her,” Hamilton said of his mother when he told his story at a launch event for Hengrui Therapeutics, a Princeton, New Jersey-based biopharmaceutical company that is developing cancer immunotherapies. “But then I realized that I could just bring her with me wherever I went. I could live for her and be accountable to her and be the person she always thought I could be. From then on, everything changed.”
Just a few short years later, Hamilton qualified for the 1980 Olympics, where he was chosen to carry the U.S. flag in the opening ceremony and came in fifth. In 1984 he went back again to win the gold medal.
In 1997, almost exactly 20 years after his mother died of cancer, Hamilton received his testicular cancer diagnosis, and it was then that he decided to become an activist. Today, he is the founder of the Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation, dedicated to funding world-class research and quality care to improve cancer survivorship.
The foundation’s initiatives include the 4th Angel Mentoring Program, which brings patients together with survivors of the same cancers, and ChemoCare.com, a resource for those undergoing chemotherapy. He is also working to increase the availability of proton beam therapy, a type of radiation treatment that uses protons rather than traditional radiation to treat cancer. Construction of the first Scott Hamilton Proton Therapy Center is expected to start this summer in Franklin, Tennessee, where Hamilton lives.
CURE: What did you learn from your cancer journey that has shaped your activism?
Hamilton sat down with CURE during the Hengrui event to explain more about his advocacy and cancer journey, and about what drives him to keep fighting to further cancer research.Hamilton: When I had cancer, I couldn’t get information that wasn’t written in twelve-syllable words, four to a sentence. That information wasn’t for me — it was for physicians. I wanted to understand what my body was doing. Back then, the Internet didn’t really have anything for me, so we needed to create it. We created Chemocare.com, which is written in eighth-grade-level English and Spanish. We thought if we got 3 million hits a year that would be a massive home run; we are now doing 3 million hits a month, and it’s growing. It contains everything you need to know about chemotherapy, how it works, what the drug is, what it is designed to do and how to manage side effects.
What are you most excited about on the horizon in cancer research right now?
The other issue is the isolation people feel when they get cancer. I felt it. I was flying blind, and when you are flying blind there is a lot of fear. So we created the 4th Angel Mentoring Program. The idea is that there are three angels in your life when you are going through cancer. There is your oncologist, angel number one; there is your oncology nurse, angel number two; and your friends and family are angel number three. There needed to be a fourth angel, someone who has been there and done that, has survived and is on the other side. They can be your life coach and your role model. They are where you want to be. They have a lot of knowledge of the psychological aspects of cancer that probably no one in your circle really understands. The survivor has the same cancer, same treatment and same everything as the person going through cancer. It is an extraordinary relationship. This program is really growing. We’ve matched 150 patients, which means there is a great need for it.I am really learning that there need to be more treatment options that hurt the cancer but spare the patient. This is my whole platform now for my Scott CARES Foundation. I am here because of chemotherapy, I am grateful for it, but the statistics show that, 20 years after chemotherapy, things may start to happen that wouldn’t necessarily otherwise happen: the late effects. I really like immunotherapy, and I like purely targeted drugs. That is what companies like Hengrui are doing, and I want to help move that forward.
I’ve also become part of the proton therapy world. [The technique is being tested in clinical trials in a number of cancer types to determine whether it is more capable than other forms of radiation of directly hitting cancerous tissue while sparing healthy tissue, and whether it might cause fewer side effects.] I learned that proton therapy has been around since the 1960s and that there are only 20 proton centers around the country; in contrast, there are 1,400 traditional radiation centers around the country.
What is your advice for people going through cancer?
I am working with a group in Knoxville, and we are going to start building proton therapy centers where doctors can come and practice. We are breaking ground on a proton center at the end of the summer, and we are going to open it in probably two years.Instead of just reacting with “Get this out of me now,” get as many opinions as your brain can handle and make an informed decision. You have to be your own advocate.
The joy of the Internet is that there are a lot of different voices out there getting connected now, a lot of ways of sharing your data. When people come to me, I tell them to get all of their medical records in a form where they can share them electronically, and I send them to my connections so they can figure out who the best person is to treat them, and if they are getting the right treatment.
What drives you to keep doing all of this?
A lot of people just go with the status quo. But there are amazing ways that people can have a good quality of life and manage their cancer and live their lives.I am all about lifting up those new options and shining a light on them. The cancer community is really underserved. There are a lot of foundations out there, but how do you change the conversation? That is a big part of what we are trying to do. We want to align with people and we want to create an army. The more people we can get on board, the better. Let’s raise the bar.
The logo for my foundation is an upside-down ribbon — because I spent my whole career upside down, but, beyond that, because we want to turn cancer upside down. I want to create enough media and get enough information out there that, when people find out they are diagnosed with cancer, they can educate themselves and find out what is going on, and not just be scared that they are going to die. I want people to know how to get treatment in the best way possible, not just the first way possible. That is kind of where we are right now. We link arms and we ask questions, and we try and get behind people that have great ideas, and we try and make it better for the next person.