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Saturday, December 16, 2006
Cancer survivors share experiences

By George J. Tanber
Special to ESPN.com

The announcement Saturday by Boston Bruins rookie Phil Kessel that he had surgery for testicular cancer Monday adds the 19-year-old center to a lengthy list of athletes who have had the illness. Most of them have resumed productive careers.

Particularly notable is Lance Armstrong, who won the Tour de France seven consecutive times, from 1999-2005, after he recovered from testicular cancer.

In the past several days, ESPN.com has conducted exclusive interviews with several athletes diagnosed with testicular cancer during their playing careers. Former figure skater Scott Hamilton, Tampa Bay Buccaneers punter Josh Bidwell and PGA tour member Billy Mayfair spoke candidly about their experiences and offered advice for Kessel.

Hamilton, 48, of Franklin, Tenn., a four-time U.S. and world champion and winner of the Olympic gold medal in 1984, was diagnosed in 1996. After surgery and treatment he returned to produce and perform in Stars on Ice, which he directed for 15 years before retiring. Hamilton helped develop the Scott Hamilton CARES Initiative, a cancer-awareness education and fundraising effort directed by the Cleveland Clinic. Despite his illness, he became a first-time father at age 45.

Bidwell, 30, of Eugene, Ore., a University of Oregon graduate, was diagnosed at age 23 during his rookie season with the Green Bay Packers. Following surgery and treatment, Bidwell missed his first season. He then played four seasons with the Packers before joining Tampa Bay in 2004. He has maintained a career average of 42.2 yards per kick.

Mayfair, 40, of Scottsdale, Ariz., was fortunate. His cancer was discovered in July and was completely contained, allowing him to forego further treatment following his Aug. 2 surgery. Fourteen days later, Mayfair, a five-time PGA Tour winner, teed off in the PGA Championship. He shot a 3-under-par 69 in the first round, putting him in contention, before fading on the weekend and finishing 40th. He finished 65th on the money list this year, earning $1.3 million.

Based on your experience, what would you say to Phil Kessel right now?

Scott Hamilton
Retired figure skater Scott Hamilton, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist, started a program at the Cleveland Clinic's Taussig Cancer Center to match cancer patients with survivors.
Hamilton: If you're forced to choose a cancer, this is the one you'd want to choose. At 19, and the condition he is in, he should be able to endure the treatment.

Bidwell: Doctors have such a great grasp on this disease. If you catch it early, you have a 100 percent chance of recovery. With some hard work, you'll be right back to where you were.

Mayfair: I think the biggest advice is, listen to your doctors. Whatever they tell you to do, do.

What was your reaction the moment you heard your diagnosis?

Hamilton: I had been feeling lousy for a long time. When I learned it was cancer, it was frightening. I thought, "This only happens to others." You don't know if it's five minutes, or five seconds or a nanosecond, but that fear is [quickly] replaced with a power that you are going to defeat it.

Bidwell: It was kind of a weird situation. We had just finished the third preseason game out of four and I got a call on a Sunday telling me I was going to be the starting punter. [That] Wednesday I discovered a lump. I had no idea what testicular cancer was. Within six hours, I was diagnosed, operated on and released. I was shell-shocked. I felt nothing [beforehand]. I was as strong and healthy as ever.

Mayfair: My first thought was my son, Max, who is 7. I thought I wasn't going to be around much longer to watch him grow up. You go to a golf tournament, a hockey match, or run a race, you're so focused on that task. All of a sudden you get this news and those things don't seem very important. It was scary.

How accurate, in your case, was the perception that an athlete's self-image doesn't leave much room for the vulnerability of cancer? In other words, did you feel sort of "invincible" in any way before you were diagnosed?

Hamilton: The image athletes project as conquerors comes from enduring and rising to the challenge, and sacrificing a lot to achieve their goals. This is another goal, but the stakes are higher. I was fine until the chemotherapy. Then I almost gave up. It was so physically draining. It wears you out and starts to defeat you. But then round four came up and that was when I could see the finish line.

Bidwell: I spent my entire life trying to be the strongest and healthiest I could be. But I found out there was nothing I could do to prevent it. I was just starting my [professional] career. I was a 23-year-old kid. That was hard to take.

Billy Mayfair
Golfer Billy Mayfair, shown at practice for the Masters last April, was diagnosed with testicular cancer in July. He had surgery Aug. 2 and returned two weeks later for the PGA Championship.
Mayfair: I think a lot of people who watch athletes perform think we are indestructible. But everyone knows someone who has had cancer. So when someone like me [is diagnosed] it puts fans and athletes on a level basis. We're talented, yes, but we're just as vulnerable. We're all human.

If you felt any sense that, "This couldn't be happening to me because I'm an athlete," how possible is it that you might have waited longer than you otherwise would have to begin treatment? How much of a danger is that for an athlete?

Hamilton: I think men, generally, are terrible when it comes to paying attention to their health. You feel you can endure. I have friends who haven't been to a doctor in 20 years. What's up with that? In fact, it's a sign of strength and responsibility to know what's wrong with your body.

Bidwell: The only thing I noticed was that I was losing a little weight. But it was hot and humid during training camp, so I didn't think anything of it. I actually punted the day of my surgery, before I knew. Now that I have gone through seven training camps, I know better.

Mayfair: When I was diagnosed, I was trying to make the Ryder Cup team. I had played four tournaments in a row. Even after I heard [I had cancer] I thought, "I wonder if I can get by this next month" [before having surgery]? Your brains are so focused on the task at hand. I was tired at the end of July, but I was in Arizona and it was hot. Then, while taking a shower, I discovered a lump. I looked at myself in the mirror and realized something was not right. It scared me.

As a high-profile athlete, how much, if at all, did you feel patronized by the doctors and nurses helping you through the treatment?

Hamilton: The doctors at the Cleveland Clinic were extraordinary. But I doubt that they treated me different than any other patient. I was at the peak of my career, and there was a lot of attention drawn to it, so there probably was some concern about security and things like that.

Josh Bidwell
What pulled Tampa Bay punter Josh Bidwell through his diagnosis and treatment? "Without a doubt my faith in Christ," he says. "I knew when I had cancer I would be just fine."
Bidwell: I was treated in Eugene, Oregon, at the same place as Lance Armstrong. He was there for a checkup and stopped by to say hello. I was thrilled. I was struggling with the chemo at the time and he spent more time talking to my girlfriend. He told me I was in great hands. It was a high-profile situation because I went to college there. [But] I didn't have any insurance. I was a week away from qualifying. I was stuck with $100,000 in medical bills and no way to pay for them.

Mayfair: My doctor knew my situation; he is a golfer himself. They just all wanted me to get well. I discovered the tumor on a Monday, flew home on a Wednesday, and had surgery on Thursday. By the time the news got out, I had already had the surgery.

How much, if at all, did your training as an athlete help you attack the treatment and rehabilitation process?

Hamilton: I was 38, which is late. But because of my conditioning, I was able to bounce back and was able to withstand a lot of the negative effects of the treatment. Logic says that if you take care of yourself and eat well, in general, if something is going on you're better equipped to handle it.

Bidwell: It definitely helped. Being younger and being a professional athlete, you body is used to recovering. The younger you are and the better shape you're in, the easier it will be to come back. I was out the entire first year. I came back the following year strong, but didn't have the stamina the last part of the season. The next three years were as good or better than any I've had.

Mayfair: It made a tremendous difference staying in shape. It really helped me recover quickly. I was scared of the cancer. I had never had surgery before, and I was scared of [that]. Then, after they told me they got it all and that I was ready to go, I think my mental [toughness] helped me play the PGA Tournament.

What pulled you through?

Hamilton: Cancer loves negativity and pessimism. [So] a lot of it was treating the cancer with an enormous lack of respect. We filled my room with a light-hearted atmosphere and kept everything joyful and positive. You can look at as a curse or a blessing. I'm grateful I went through it. It put me in touch with my being in a way I never would have.

Bidwell: Without a doubt my faith in Christ. I knew when I had cancer I would be just fine. The people he put in my life, such as my girlfriend, who is now my wife, made a huge difference, as did my doctors. They have saved a lot of lives. They told me I might not be able to have children. But we have an 11-month-old son and are expecting another child. Miracles can happen.

Mayfair: My girlfriend, Tami Proctor. She took an aggressive approach. She made all the phone calls for me. She lined everything up. She made all the difference in the world. [And] then, to get a standing ovation on the first tee at the PGA, that really meant a lot to me. I never experienced anything like that.

George J. Tanber is a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at george.tanber@iscg.net.