Figure Skater Links Cancer Patients To Survivors

By LAURA JOHNSTON, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - When figure skater Scott Hamilton was treated for cancer, he felt surrounded by angels -- his doctor, the nursing staff and his family.

He just needed one more: a mentor who had been through what he was facing. So the 1984 Olympic gold medalist started a program at the Cleveland Clinic's Taussig Cancer Center to match patients to survivors.

"Who better to help someone with every issue, this new life they're dealing with, than someone who's gone through it?" Hamilton (pictured skating, above) said.

Cancer centers around the country also offer mentoring programs, though the method of matching differs at each. 4th Angel pays special attention to the specific demographics of the match -- age, sex, family situation and diagnosis.

Mentors share advice, usually over the phone, to patients who have just been diagnosed or are going through chemotherapy.

Hamilton and the clinic hope to eventually expand the program to hospitals nationwide. The Chicago-based Kidney Cancer Association began using 4th Angel in July.

Hamilton, 44, is a four-time U.S. National Champion and four-time World Champion from Bowling Green. He is a television commentator and produces skating shows.

Diagnosed with testicular cancer five years ago, he underwent chemotherapy and surgery at the Cleveland Clinic and says he is now cured.

Hamilton is among the approximately 80 mentors in 4th Angel.

Fifty matches have been made since the program began in April 2001, coordinator Denise Seyranian said.

Jane Hedal-Siegel of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, which pairs patients with survivors in its Patient-to-Patient program, said mentoring programs are effective because they give patients hope.

"For many patients, it is extremely comforting to visualize someone who has gone through it and survived," she said. "The mere presence of a survivor is potent because -- there they are."

The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston matches cancer patients and survivors through a support line run by the Anderson Network, the center's volunteer organization.

Leslie Levy of Aurora, a Cleveland Clinic patient, depended on a friend who had had breast cancer to help her through her own treatment.

So when Levy finished her treatment last year, she became a mentor, regularly speaking with three patients over the phone. She met Rose Rini for the first time on Saturday, when Hamilton performed in an ice-skating exhibition to benefit 4th Angel.

"It's a very lonely road to walk down," Levy said. "Even when you've gone through all the treatment, you don't get back on the road of life. It's a heck of a lot easier if you have someone alongside with you."

Levy and Rini have talked about everything from family relationships to how chemotherapy makes food taste metallic.

"It really just kind of filled in the gap," Rini said. "Nobody else knows what you're really going through, and that to me makes a big difference."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)