The worst of it, thought Scott Hamilton, would be telling his wife. When Tracie arrived at his hotel room in Cleveland's Ritz-Carlton last Nov. 4 and asked, "How's everything?" he decided he might as well just say it. "You know how I haven't been feeling so well?" said Hamilton. "Well, I have a brain tumor."
Both knew what that meant for Hamilton: another fight for his health. Diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1997, the scrappy skating champ and 1984 Olympic gold medalist underwent chemotherapy and other treatments and made it back to the rink within a year (he is considered cured). Now Hamilton, 46, must battle craniopharyngioma, a rare, noncancerous tumor near his pituitary gland that, if left untreated, could leave him blind. Learning of the illness was "tearful," says Tracie, 35, a former nutritionist who married Hamilton in 2002 (their son Aidan is 1½). "We asked God to help us deal with our fears and guide us through this."
Although Hamilton's tumor was benign, it was in a place that made it difficult to treat without removing part of his skull. He opted to treat it with a Gamma Knife, a noninvasive but risky procedure that bombards the tumor with high, pinpoint doses of gamma radiation. If not performed perfectly, it can cause brain damage. Last week Hamilton learned that the procedure—performed last Dec. 13 by doctors at the Cleveland Clinic—had virtually destroyed the 1-in. tumor. Now the danger is the cyst that held the tumor; doctors must monitor Hamilton to see if the fluid inside the cyst is harmlessly dispersed or swells and continues to affect his brain. "We're early in the process, but I'm cautiously optimistic," says Gene Barnett, the neurosurgeon who performed the operation. "I don't know if we can expect a 100 percent recovery, but his symptoms will likely improve."
Hamilton had just decided to take a year off from skating with the Smucker's Stars on Ice tour (he still produces the show) to be a full-time dad to his infant son when, around August 2004, he began feeling tired and listless. "In the morning I didn't care if I got out of bed," he says. "That wasn't typical of me." He started lifting weights to beef up his 130-lb. frame, but then he had trouble reading and focusing. At first doctors found nothing wrong, but a CAT scan revealed a tumor pressed against his optic nerves. "That's when I got scared," he says. "I thought I had licked cancer the first time, I had a phenomenal wife and baby, I was loving life. And suddenly I was hit with this."
His close friends in the skating world were shocked by the diagnosis but heartened by his resolve. "Scott's been through so much, and I was mad that something like this would happen to him," says former Olympic champion Kristi Yamaguchi. "But he didn't back down when he had testicular cancer, and he won't now." Hamilton says he wasted little time bemoaning his luck. "I could have looked at this as, 'I'm doomed, I'm cursed,' " he says. "But I decided I was going to fight again. Round 2 was about to begin."
Even so, Hamilton knew the fight would be tougher this time: "With the cancer, skating was my main focus in getting my health back. But now with my marriage and my new son, the stakes have gone up. I could be completely incapacitated mentally." Weakened by the radiation, Hamilton spends most of his time with Tracie and Aidan in their five-bedroom French-classic home in Sherwood Country Club, a gated community west of Los Angeles. To help build his strength Tracie keeps him on an organic diet—"colorful vegetables, meats, eggs," she says. Although his peripheral vision is still blurry, Hamilton can see well enough to drive and watch movies. And while he hopes to have enough energy to skate recreationally sometime soon, he knows that without perfect vision he may never be able to perform again. "I don't think so, but we'll see," he says. "Never say never."
In the meantime Hamilton will rely on his secret weapon: his upbeat attitude. "Apart from the tumor and treatment, I can honestly say this has been one of the most positive experiences of my life," he says. "You think you love your life, but you're just scratching the surface. Now I look at my son and I realize I may not be able to spend much time with him. So my level of appreciation for what I've got now has gone to a whole other level."
Alex Tresniowski. Lorenzo Benet and Ron Arias in Los Angeles
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