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To find happiness, turn losses into wins

In “The Great Eight,” gold medal Olympian Scott Hamilton reveals the secrets to happiness that helped him through his battle with cancer. In this excerpt, he writes about how each of life's challenges can be a gift.

Chapter three: Make your losses your wins There is no delicate way of describing one of the cruelest facts of life, so I will just come right out and say it: life can really stink. Or, to quote what some wise philosopher once said: stuff happens.

I think we can all agree that sometimes life just comes up all lemons. These sour sodas are fed to the rich, the poor, the good looking, the not-so-good-looking, the famous, and the everyday unfamous. Bad things happen to people in huts in Bangladesh as well as those in Malibu mansions. There is no escaping the rough stuff of life. Many misguided substance abusers have thought they could dispose of their garbage through a drug or a drink or whatever vice gave them a temporary sensation of pure joy — only to find out that whatever they were seeking to escape was still there when they came off their trip. The truth is, we’d all like to live in a perfect paradise, that dreamy fantasy place where no one ruins our day, traffic is never bad, bosses never annoy us, bills never need to be paid, children never cry, spouses never cheat, the stock market never goes down, and you can do no wrong.

But, of course, there is no such place. Neverland simply doesn’t exist. What does exist is another definite fact of life and a key to finding happiness: what you do with the uncontrollable junk in your life is totally under your control.

The 1980 Olympic Speed Skater Eric Heiden once said, “It’s not the events in our life that define our character, but how we deal with them.” Coming from an athlete who achieved the greatest individual Winter Olympic feat in history (an unprecedented five Gold Medals, including four Olympic Records and a World Record) at the Lake Placid games, I think Eric knows what he is talking about. And I couldn’t agree more. It’s how we deal with the things in our lives that creates our character. That is how you define yourself and figure out who you are.

I have learned firsthand how heavy life can be, and I have also experienced how hard but liberating it can be when you lift those burdens.

Surviving one loss then another
When I moved to Los Angeles in the late 1990s, I was totally in a wilderness phase of my life. I wanted to get away from everyone. I had been given so many wonderful opportunities to perform for an audience — the Olympics, the World Championships, Stars on Ice — and I was grateful to be part of these events. But when I would step away from the spotlight, away from those professional achievements, I struggled personally. I struggled with decisions I’d made and the kind of life I’d been living, and I’d suffered through so many things. When skater Sergei Grinkov died at age twenty-eight of a heart attack, his death hit me hard. We were very close friends, and his sudden passing devastated me. And then the next year, I was diagnosed with cancer.

It seemed like one tragic thing after another. Friendships had gone away, relationships had failed, and I felt guilty. I felt guilty that I wasn’t a better son to my father. I was always a mama’s boy, and my dad basically died alone in the hospital while I was on the air broadcasting the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway. I was working, of course. Why? Because I was always working! And I felt guilty about how my mother sacrificed so much for me but never got to see any of my greatest successes. I carried all this heavy stuff with me every single day.

So although my fans might have thought I appeared happy and successful, the truth is that there was a huge portion of my life I didn’t enjoy at all.

Don’t get me wrong. Throughout my life, I was always trying to turn my losses into wins. But I had come to believe that no matter what level of happiness I found, I would soon be hit with a tragedy again. I was convinced that I would get injured, someone dear to me would die, I would get fired, I would be betrayed, or I would be stricken with yet another illness. I was riding an emotional roller coaster, and the lows were much deeper than the highs. I was just surviving from one doom to the other. I lived in fear of the next calamity that would strike me, which gave me a constant sense of anxiety and stress.

And then came June 2, 2002. The day when I realized I had been looking at the patterns in my life entirely wrong, that, in fact, I had been looking at the events of my life backward. And my life changing insight came to me though the words of a thirteen-year-old cancer survivor.

Inspired by a survivor’s story
Following my cancer battle, I did a lot of speaking engagements across the country, speaking at fund-raisers and various cancer charity benefits. Typically, I would serve as the keynote speaker and tell my story, hopefully inspiring others to keep up the fight and not let cancer win. That’s exactly what I had been invited to do when I was invited to speak at the University of Chicago Hospital’s Thirteenth Annual Cancer Survivors Day celebration.

Several hundred doctors and patients and their family members packed into a downtown hotel ballroom to hear from an afternoon’s worth of speakers, with little old me, who had just gotten cancer into remission, being the last to speak. I normally would get nervous before speaking at these events, so, per the norm, I was pacing in the back, minding my own business and listening to the other speakers. Since it was a celebration, my goal was to keep my talk light and upbeat and deliver a pep talk to all the patients, caregivers, and family members. I couldn’t have predicted what would happen next.

The speaker before me was a thirteen-year-old named Shawna Culp. Shawna, a competitive athlete, had lost a leg to cancer, but she confidently stepped up to the podium with a prosthetic right leg and barely a limp. She had a shock of red hair and an absolute glow to her. I stopped my nervous pacing and listened to this charismatic young woman.

Shawna spoke into the microphone and told the audience, “The worst thing that ever happened to me is cancer. The best thing that ever happened to me is cancer.”

From the rear of the room, I could see just about everyone nodding their heads in agreement, connecting to her seemingly paradoxical statement. The place burst into applause.

There I stood, totally blown away by her words, by her incredible survivor’s story. I was touched not just by that profound statement, but by everything that she shared that day — about the devastation initially of not being able to play sports, of losing her gorgeous head of hair, of having her childhood innocence ripped from her by cancer. But then she also told how she turned all those curses into the greatest teachers of the meaning of life, how cancer made her a better athlete, a better human being. In a five-minute speech that was probably the first of her life, she touched me in a powerful way.

Within a few years of that speech in Chicago, Shawna went on to play on the US Women’s Wheelchair Basketball team as well as other competitive sports. She didn’t sit around and mope about her tragedies. Instead, she turned cancer into the most positive force in her life. As of this writing, her cancer is still in remission. Shawna not only won that cancer battle, but she won the war that I hadn’t yet won — that is, the war my mind was still waging with itself.

I don’t even remember what I said to the group that day. What’s for sure is that it was nowhere near as profound as Shawna’s message. From that day on, I looked at what I believed to be “curses” as blessings, and I now realize that the ability to do so makes one a champion more than landing a perfect triple lutz does.

I had applied this outlook to my skating with some success. But when it came to my personal life, I had wallowed in self-pity. If I suffered a sore groin, I would look at it as a challenge, a positive motivation to overcome the pain and focus even more on winning. If I had stumbled on a landing, then during my next performance, I would see to it that I skated twice as well to make up for the error. I tried to live by Eric Heiden’s wisdom — remembering that it wasn’t the circumstances that defined me but my response to them — and it brought me gold medals and accolades and worldwide celebrity.

But while sports can be a great laboratory of life, it also is merely a dress rehearsal for real life. I had a hard time applying those principles to my off-ice reality.

A new battle to fight
In the spring of 1997, I was starring in the national tour of Stars on Ice and had started feeling lethargic, nauseous, and just not quite myself. My stomach hurt constantly, like a torn abdominal muscle that just wouldn’t heal and no amount of ibuprofen could alleviate. So I had some tests done, and on St. Patrick’s Day as I lay in the emergency room at St. Francis Medical Center, resting my exhausted body before a performance in Peoria, Illinois, the results came back:

I had some form of cancer. Dr. Jon Carroll said, “We have found a mass. We don’t know if it is benign or malignant. If it were me, I would take care of this right away.” Two days later at the Cleveland Clinic, I was diagnosed with stage three germ-cell testicular cancer and a tumor twice the size of a grapefruit growing in my abdomen.

I began my cancer battle with the kind of positive focus that I had practiced on the ice all those years. I broke it down like a challenging and complex program that needed to be perfected, and I was determined to win. This was my new battle to fight. I took leave from the skating tour and headed straight to my arena of choice: Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic.

The diagnosis brought back memories of my mother and how she bravely fought through her breast cancer with strength, humor, and dignity. I was just a teenager when she was diagnosed, and I watched her battle for three years before the cancer spread and finally took her at age forty-nine in the spring of 1977. She was working, going to school to earn her master’s degree, and raising three children, while going through chemotherapy. I was a year out of high school, amid my quest to make the Olympic team, and her death absolutely devastated me. But some twenty years later, my mother’s attitude — I will fight this cancer to the death! — now inspired me.

Mother set a great example, and I wanted to use every memory I had of her battle in my struggle. Even though she didn’t win hers, I was determined to win mine. With the advancements in cancer treatments over the past twenty years, I knew that at least I would have the fighting chance that she never did.

A week after the diagnosis, I was a patient at the world-famous clinic, beginning three months of intensive chemotherapy done in four rounds — five days on, sixteen days off; five days on, sixteen days off — until the chemicals destroyed the cancer cells. The doctors told me if my body could survive the chemical potion coursing through it over the repeated rounds, I had a fairly good chance of surviving. But, by the third round, I was ready to quit.

The treatment — daily IV injections of basically poison — was ravaging my body. Within a matter of a few weeks, I had gone from being in what I thought was the best shape of my life, performing in front of thousands of people every night and being surrounded by friends and my Stars on Ice family, to not having the energy to press the power button on the TV remote control in my hospital room. I was filled with chemicals that made all the hair on my body fall out. I was bloated and sick and worn down like never before in my life.

I already had a lot of practice at turning losses into wins in my life, but this was a challenge I wasn’t sure I could overcome. By my third round of chemo, I didn’t think I possessed the strength of character to overcome my cancer and was ready to call it quits.

Like a runner in the Boston Marathon, I had hit the wall. That third round was my Heartbreak Hill, the incline at the twentieth mile that was breaking my spirit to the point of wanting to quit. More than that, I told myself that I was ready to die. That’s what cancer does to you. It wants to break you down, tricks you into giving up just as the chemo has the cancer dying off and on its last legs. But at that later stage of chemo, it is not the cancer making you weak, but rather your chemical healing agent sapping you of energy while it beats down the cancer cells one by one. I made it through that third round on fumes and survived the fourth round only because I knew it was my last.

By the end of the last round of chemo, the doctors found no evidence that the cancer had spread, and the tumor in my abdomen that just three months earlier had swelled to double the size of a grapefruit had shrunk to the size of a golf ball.

Six weeks later, surgeons removed the remaining tumor, along with my cancerous testicle, leaving me with thirty-eight staples down the middle of my body. Although the surgery rendered my ability to father children uncertain (and assured me that I would never win a swimsuit competition), it also cut out the cancer ... so far.

Challenges can be a gift
I live every day knowing that today might be the day that my cancer returns. But rather than look at this as a horrific cross to bear, I call it my gift, a constant reminder of just how lucky I am to be healthy and alive. After all, what is joy without sorrow? What is success without failure? What is a win without a loss? What is health without illness? You have to experience each if you are to appreciate the other. There is always going to be suffering. It’s how you look at your suffering, how you deal with it, that will define you.

This truth was evident to me not only in the hospital but also on the ice. Without the humiliations, the losses, and the failures, the success I had in skating would have meant very little. Likewise, fighting cancer brought me tremendous pain, fear, anxiety, despair, and loneliness, and to come through that has given me an amazing perspective that reminds me of how precious and fragile life is. It allows me to appreciate the day. It is an odd blessing, and not one that I would ever choose, yet it is an amazingly powerful force that enhances my life. It is what survivors call the “gift” of cancer. Any challenge — be it romantic, physical, job-related, athletic, mental, financial — can also serve as a gift if we allow it to. Illness, like any setback, poses great challenges and immense rewards. It allows us to come in contact with a part of our being that we never would know existed without that battle.

I am no longer haunted by the image of swimming up to the surface and gasping for air, only to be sucked back down so I have to swim twice as hard to get back up to the top again. It’s never too late to learn the lesson that every apparent curse comes with a blessing. It wasn’t until I was forty-three years old and listening to a thirteen-year-old speak her truth that I realized my various roadblocks in life had been detours into a better direction.

This divinely scripted pattern goes back to the very beginning of my life when I was an unwanted pregnancy and was adopted by my parents. I went from being somebody’s unwanted orphan to being a prized child who couldn’t have had more love showered upon him. Then I suffered through my childhood illness, eventually discovering skating and being healed. Whenever I lost, I would find a way to win. I find that for every unbelievably horrible price I had to pay in life, something followed that was an equally great reward for responding to things the way I did.

Before Shawna’s inspiring speech, rather than looking forward to the next challenge, I would dread it — despite the fact that things always worked out better for me in the end, that for every curse, there was a phenomenal blessing.

Excerpted from “The Great Eight” by Scott Hamilton with Ken Baker. Copyright (c) 2008, reprinted with permission from Thomas Nelson.