Survivor Spotlight: Olympian Scott Hamilton

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Survivor Spotlight: Olympian Scott Hamilton

Cancer doesn’t care if you have a gold medal.

Legendary figure skater Scott Hamilton has had it three times.

Hamilton, who won gold at the 1984 Winter Olympics, was diagnosed with stage 3 testicular cancer in 1997. It had spread to his stomach.

“When they told me, I was like, ‘I want it to be something else,’” Hamilton said. “But they said, ‘No, this is a good one to get, if you had to choose one,’ which is kind of crazy. But I’m grateful there was a proven treatment. I know many cancers don’t really have one.”

That proven treatment was cisplatin.

Cisplatin is often called the “penicillin of cancer drugs.” Discovered at Michigan State University in 1965, the chemical compound prevents the DNA in cancer cells from replicating, confusing them and causing them to die. It works best treating testicular cancer, boasting a cure rate north of 90 percent.

“The fact that I’m still here 21 years later is kind of awesome.”

An infusion of laughter

Treatment with cisplatin can be arduous. It’s long – often lasting more than six hours for each infusion – and its side effects can be harsh.

“My oncology nurse told me, ‘If you allow yourself to vomit, you’re probably not going to be able to stop.’ So, I used my Jedi mind trick to keep myself from going all the way there,” he said. “I grew up in athletics, having to build a level of focus and discipline, and that helped me overcome the idea of getting sick the very first time.”

Hamilton set some conditions around his chemo treatments: “No one was allowed to visit me unless they made me laugh,” he said. “I wanted to keep the environment light and joyful because I knew I was up against something.”

So, he watched movies – “A lot of Monty Python” – and he made sure his room was filled with laughter. Because of the lengthy infusion sessions, he sat still long enough to watch Tiger Woods win his first Masters golf tournament. “All of it took my mind off my physical condition,” he said.

The 12 weeks of treatment cured Hamilton’s testicular cancer.

“I'd tell anyone who would listen that the greatest gifts given are to those who may never know the origin of that gift,” he said. “I didn’t know Michigan State University developed cisplatin. It’s amazing. I can now go to the place and say thank you for giving my life back.”

Paying it forward

Incredibly, Hamilton has battled cancer twice more since 1997. Both times he’s had brain cancer. Both times he’s fought it successfully.

As a result, he’s driven to help others diagnosed with cancer in many ways. The Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation supports innovative cancer treatment research. He helped create, a 

comprehensive resource for cancer patients and their caregivers to learn about chemo drugs and side effects in clear terms.

“People didn’t understand chemotherapy, so they feared it,” he said. “They’d rather die than go through chemo. So, we created this website for people going through chemotherapy to better understand what they’re facing.”

Hamilton jokes he “negotiated” for his high school diploma – he wasn’t the best student.

“So, when I started learning about my chemo, I thought, ‘I’m not smart enough to be sick? The only thing for me to read is a paper written for a medical journal?’ That wasn’t acceptable.”

The website is intentionally written at an eighth-grade reading level. It’s approaching 3 million hits a month from people seeking chemotherapy information.

The butterfly effect

Hamilton attributes all his work helping cancer patients and survivors to his athletic background.

“It’s that whole competitive mindset,” he said. “The next treatment, the next drug has to be better. But it couldn’t exist without the one before it. Cisplatin created a foundation for many other drugs to be discovered, for many lives to be saved. There are now so many more ways to come at cancer, but none of those could have existed without the foundational drug cisplatin.”

Hamilton said if cisplatin hadn’t saved his life, he wouldn’t have been able to do the work he’s doing now.

“I’m grateful,” he said. “It’s great to celebrate its discovery. It’s right up there with penicillin, polio vaccines, all these great drugs that have saved all these lives – and what’s happened because of those lives being saved. It’s like the butterfly effect. You don’t know the ramifications of a discovery like this.”