Obstacles Into Opportunities: Scott Hamilton & Suleika Jaouad

How two individuals faced their own health challenges and what they learned along the way about both themselves and the power of touch.

May 15, 2015

For both Suleika Jaouad and Scott Hamilton, these moments came early in life with a diagnosis of cancer. Today, unfortunately, many people will recognize the struggle. Even if it’s not a personal challenge you’ve had to face, most everybody knows somebody whose life has been changed by a cancer diagnosis.

Following, you’ll learn more about how these two individuals faced their own health challenges, as well as what they learned along the way about both themselves and the power of touch.

Fight Fear

For many, one word can describe the first feeling they remember having when faced with one of life’s challenges: Fear. The difference is being able to move beyond the initial shock so one can stop fear from putting a stranglehold on their determination.

And it was no different for either Hamilton or Jaouad.

Hamilton, an Olympic Gold medalist and four-time World Champion in figure skating, clearly remembers fear being his first thought when he heard he had cancer, closely followed by a fierce determination to not give up. Having lost his mother to cancer when he was 18, Hamilton understood what he was up against. “Then, like the flick of a switch, something awakened in me that made me brave,” he says, “totally engaged in what was next, and completely clear in my purpose to fight the cancer with everything I had.”

Only 22 when she was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome and acute myeloidleukemia, Jaouad too remembers being scared. But she found some of that same focus and motivation from a childhood hero. “When Frida Kahlo was 18, she got into a terrible accident that left her bedridden for months. Her mother made her a special easel so that she could paint from bed, and that’s where she began making her famous self-portraits,” Jaouad says. “Frida’s story came back to me often during those months after I got sick. It challenged me to dream up ways that I too could find my voice and start a career from my hospital bed.”

That career Jaouad started dreaming up from her hospital bed has led her to a place she may not ever have imagined: an Emmy Award-winning New York Times wellness columnist and health advocate.

Finding Community

When the fear subsides and the fight starts in earnest, the one constant mentioned by both Hamilton and Jaouad as essential to facing life’s challenges is community. Family, friends, health care professionals, community groups—finding space where you are understood and supported makes you feel less alone. “There are challenges you can’t change, so you accept them,” Hamilton says. “My cancer was made easier with the love and support of friends who selflessly gave of themselves to help me through.”

For Jaouad, finding someone who was walking in her shoes and understood what a cancer diagnosis meant was a turning point in her journey. “At first, I bristled at the idea of a cancer community. It was enough to have cancer, did I also have to share my experience with a group of strangers?” she recalls. “Then something surprising happened. I met Kristin Howard, a fellow young adult cancer patient, in the waiting room of the oncology unit. She has since become one of my best friends.”

Facing the Future

Facing serious health challenges also brings a commitment to maintaining health and wellness into sharper focus. Both Hamilton and Jaouad find ways today to stay healthy that include paying attention to diet and fitness, as well as regular massage therapy.

“I love to work out, but without eating healthy, I would definitely have a different quality of life,” Hamilton says. For him, breakfast is a must. “I eat a good breakfast with fruit every morning,” he says. “I use almond milk that is high in protein along with fruit that is high in antioxidants.”

Jaouad sees a direct correlation between how active she is and how much energy she has, so is vigilant about staying fit with aerial yoga, Pilates and light weight training. One of her main sources of wellness, however, comes in serving as the caregiver for her rescue dog Oscar, whom she adopted six months after undergoing a harrowing bone marrow transplant. “The task of caring for him every day was no small challenge,” she recalls. “For the first time since my diagnosis, I had to be accountable to someone other than myself. After years of sitting in the patient’s chair, it was empowering to be a caregiver for a change.”

The Power of Touch

Though Scott Hamilton and Suleika Jaouad came to massage therapy via different paths, they agree that regular massage therapy is integral to their health and wellness regimens today.

As a professional figure skater, Hamilton used massage therapy throughout his career, crediting his massage therapist with adding years to his career. “He was a genius at getting my body to move properly,” he says. “He was also great at getting my ankles to operate normally after the pounding I gave them every night.”

Today, Hamilton uses massage therapy on a weekly basis to maintain his quality of life. “I didn’t know how badly I felt until I started going to this massage therapist,” he says of his current practitioner. “After the trauma my body has been taken through with chemotherapy, radiation and multiple surgeries, getting my body to work properly is key to my current quality of life.”

Jaouad agrees, though admits to being skeptical at first, having only previously used massage for special occasions, like her birthday or graduation. That all changed when a massage therapist walked into her hospital room and asked if she’d be interested in getting a massage.

Her intensive chemotherapy had left painful sores in her mouth and throat, making eating and drinking nearly impossible. “The nausea I experienced was so intense that I remember pretending to be a statue, lying as flat and still as possible with the hope of calming my rolling stomach.” Although getting a massage didn’t immediately appeal to Jaouad, she agreed to try it. “The massage therapist showed me acupressure points on my wrist to help lessen the nausea. She taught me a few self-massage techniques I could use to ease the pain in my joints and limbs,” she says. “Then she set to work gently and carefully kneading my shoulders and back. I could feel the weeks of stress and anxiety and fear evaporate from my body. For the first time since my diagnosis, I felt a sense of peace and calm wash over me.”

From that point, massage therapy became essential for Jaouad. “Massage therapy became not just a highlight but a necessity in the ongoing years of cancer treatment that followed,” she says. “It’s been a lesson in the power of touch.”