Tom Hamiltons battle cry was born of despair, nurtured by hope.
The battle cry and three guardian angels protected Hamilton during a time of greatest need.
The battle cry?
Thats usually the first thing Hamilton, a 68-year-old salesman and former Chester County councilman, will tell you if you ask about his cancer.
Like many who get cancer, he didnt know much about the disease before he was diagnosed.
But he remembers every second of the journey that started when he answered his cell phone five years ago while walking down the back steps of his home on West End Street.
Every cancer patient, Hamilton said, remembers that phone call.
When you get the word, you immediately go into shell shock; youre numb. You quit listening; you cant absorb this stuff.
Hamiltons call came from Dr. Ben Paysinger, an ear, nose and throat specialist in Columbia. Hamilton had been sent to see a specialist when a swollen cheek didnt respond to treatment.
Reflecting back on that moment, Hamilton realized the first of the three guardian angels had protected him. The swelling was the result of an early-morning fall in his bedroom.
He had tripped, falling forward. His eyes, teeth and nose missed the corner of the treadmill. His right cheek slammed into the treadmill and swelled.
I looked like a raccoon, Hamilton said.
Had it not been for his guardian angel, Hamilton said, he could have hurt himself more seriously. More importantly, he said, the angel who tripped him led him to Paysinger, who examined Hamiltons nasal and sinus passages.
Paysinger discovered a growth the size of a grape underneath Hamiltons left eye.
A biopsy was taken and tested.
N-A-S-O-P-H-A-R-Y-N-G-E-A-L cancer, Hamilton said, deliberately pronouncing each letter like he was at a spelling bee. You learn to spell those words when you have this crap.
Not only did Hamilton have cancer, it was a rare form.
Nasopharyngeal cancer affects about 5,000 people each year. Its proximity to the brain and other organs can make it deadly. It can easily spread through tissue and be transmitted by the lymph system and the blood system.
Enter guardian angel No. 2.
Hamilton and his family grappled with the diagnosis. His daughter shared the diagnosis with a friend whose sister is an oncologist and cancer researcher, Dr. Joanne Weidhass at the Yale School of Medicine.
Weidhass called Hamilton, asking if she could ask about his treatment.
She told him he had just one chance to beat this cancer. Weidhass then got Hamilton an appointment with Dr. David Brizel of Duke Medicine in Durham, N.C.
She is my second guardian angel, Hamilton said. She taught me, Get a second opinion!
It was at Duke that Hamilton saw a nurse wearing a button that said, Cancer Sucks.
Hamilton is emphatic he stole the message, he didnt borrow it.
The message, combined with Brizels treatment plan, gave Hamilton hope.
Hamilton a graduate of the Citadel and former member of the Army National Guard viewed Brizels treatment as a battle plan.
Armed with a battle plan and a battle cry, Hamilton decided, Ill beat this; Ive got a sledgehammer in my hands.
For six weeks, Hamiltons treatment alternated between chemotherapy and radiation both designed to kill the mutinous cancer cells.
Hamilton was fitted with a face mask that looked like a combination of a hockey goalies mask and a giant nylon net. The netting allowed doctors and technicians to pinpoint the location on his cheek and bombard the cancer cells.
Pinpoint treatment is essential, because chemotherapy and radiation dont discriminate between good and cancerous cells.
They attacked the cancer from 14 different directions, he said.
On one shoulder was hope, he said, and on the other was despair. He recorded the emotions of his journey, carefully in script in a small notebook.
Hamilton entered the name of the people who helped, especially his wife, Gail, and his children, Trey and Beth.
Each went to Durham during his treatment. Their understanding of what was happening was crucial, he said.
You have to have a team to battle cancer, Hamilton said. All they initially knew was, its cancer and its horrible.
By being at Duke, they understood the treatments and it eased their minds.
The understanding and support Gail gave to her husband, makes her Hamiltons third guard angel. He is convinced she is a key to his recovery.
The treatments resulted in sores in his mouth. He dreamed about what he wanted to eat when the treatments were over. First on the list was a tomato-and-mayonnaise sandwich but not just any tomato.
It had to be a home-grown tomato from his garden.
After six weeks of treatment, Hamilton arrived at Duke one November day, fatigued, but bearing thanks. He had two cakes one for the people in radiology, the other for the people in chemotherapy. Both had the same inscription: Cancer Sucks.
He left a picture of lilies blooming in the snow, Dukes way of saying, Youve beaten it. Youre blooming.
When Hamilton returned to Chester, he confronted cancer rather than shrink from it. His experience taught him that the cancer patient and his friends need honestly in approaching the disease.
People are afraid to say what kind of cancer they have, Hamilton said. They need to say the word cancer and the type they have.
Too many people, he said, think of it as a stigma, not a disease.
Friends also need to know how to react, Hamilton said. When he returned to Chester during his treatments, he said people avoided him when they ran into him while he was out shopping.
They didnt know what to say, Hamilton said.
That hurt, he said.
All Hamilton wanted was for people to say they care, that they were praying for him.
And to understand that, indeed, cancer sucks.
Don Worthington 803-329-4066