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VOL. 41 | NO. 41 | Friday, October 13, 2017

A unique spin on beating cancer

Olympic skater, Knoxville’s Provision Healthcare work together to find a cure

By Susan T. Leathers

Updated 9:31AM
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Almost four decades have passed since Olympic champion Scott Hamilton won four consecutive U.S. and World figure skating championships before topping off his amateur career with the 1984 Olympic gold.

He almost hung up his skates in 1977, devastated after his mother’s death due to breast cancer. Faith and friends helped the teenager rededicate himself to training. Once he did, he seldom experienced defeat.

Today the 59-year-old father, author, commentator and sought-after motivational speaker spends most of his waking hours training to defeat something he takes much more personally: cancer.

In 2014, with the help of Terry Douglass, founder and CEO of Knoxville-based Provision Healthcare, and with the blessing of the Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Center in his native Ohio, Hamilton set in motion the process of forming a national non-profit organization to help him in his battle.

The Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation held its first official event two years ago, on August 8, 2015. The move was a natural outgrowth of the Scott Hamilton CARES Initiative, a partnership Hamilton formed in 1999 with the Cleveland cancer center following his own much-publicized 1997 testicular cancer diagnosis and successful treatment.

While Hamilton’s CARES foundation encompasses cancer alliances for research, education and survivorship (thus its CARES acronym), research is key to winning the battle, says Hamilton, who has called Franklin home since 2006.

“All of the science exists, but the funding for it doesn’t,” Hamilton explains. “Money drives the science but science is light years ahead of the money. The more we can clear that gap, the more quality of life and length of life can exist.”

The foundation’s goal is to support and raise awareness of research that develops therapies that “treat the cancer and spare the patient,” he adds.

Three of the most promising, he notes, are proton therapy, immunotherapy and mathematical therapy.

If research is the foundation’s gold standard initiative, finding ways to detect cancer earlier – a key to better survival rates – takes the silver.

“A lot of people won’t take steps that would allow early detection because they don’t want to know,” Hamilton acknowledges, citing a study by an oncology nurse that revealed while 30 percent of cancer patients fear death, even more – 42 percent – fear treatment.

His ‘brother in arms’

Hamilton’s intense interest in and support of proton therapy was piqued several years by an almost random introduction to Douglass, a man he describes today as his “brother in arms.”

Unlike traditional radiation treatments that attack cancer cells but can also damage healthy tissue and organs in its path, proton therapy is an advanced form of radiation therapy that uses a single beam of high-energy protons. The protons target only the tumor. Because of its precision, patients often have better outcomes and fewer negative side effects.

Terry Douglass, left, CEO of Provision Healthcare with Scott Hamilton of the Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation and Mary Lou DuBois, president of Provision Solutions.

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When Hamilton was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor in 2004, he received traditional radiation treatment at the Cleveland Clinic. In 2010, he underwent surgery to remove a second brain tumor. In 2016, he was diagnosed with a third.

When asked if he would be a candidate for proton therapy, he answered, “Yes and no.”

“In 2004, I had a full dose of radiation, so I’m not a candidate for it any more. So yes, I would be a candidate if not for 2004.”

As to his current state of health, he quipped, “Well, I’ve never been this old before,” says Hamilton, who turned 59 on Aug. 28. More seriously, he adds, “I’m being vigilant and we’re keeping an eye on the brain tumor.”

Waiting for a sign

Hamilton’s friendship with Douglass began when Scott and his wife Tracie decided to grow their family of four to six by adopting two Haitian siblings Jean Paul and Evelyne.

Hamilton can still recall the day in 2012 when Tracie returned from a mission trip to the country ravaged in January 2010 by a 7.3 magnitude earthquake.

“I just feel like these are my kids,” he remembers her saying, adding that she “wondered out loud” if they should adopt them.

The self-described “older father of two” hesitated before committing. He decided to give it to God. At the time, the Hamilton’s’ sons Aiden and Maxx were ages 10 and 6, respectively.

“I prayed for a sign,” he adds.

The sign came when Tracie learned a Knoxville couple, Melissa and Norris Hill, planned to adopt Jean Paul and Evelyne’s older brother, Rivaldo, from the same Haitian orphanage.

Though it would be two long years before the children finally arrived in Tennessee, the two couples met in Knoxville to get acquainted.

Meeting the innovator

Knowing Scott’s longtime interest and engagement in cancer research and patient advocacy, Melissa introduced him to her father, Terry Douglass.

Douglass, now 75 with no sign of slowing down, created Provision Healthcare in 2005, the same year the first company he founded, CTI Molecular Imaging, Inc., sold to Siemens for $1 billion.

With a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from UT-Knoxville, Douglass and his CTI team developed and commercialized positron emission tomography, today known globally as the PET scan. While at CTI, Douglass also helped develop the PET cyclotron technology that now plays a significant role in proton therapy.

Hamilton and Douglass, who share a deep faith in God, a love of family and a singular dedication to improve cancer detection, treatment and survivorship, have had many “providential” moments since their first meeting in 2012.

“The two of us are absolutely out to change the world,” Hamilton points out.

A cyclotron is delivered this summer to Provision CARES Proton Cancer Therapy Center Nashville, which is now under construction in Franklin.

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In 2013, Douglass asked Hamilton to serve on the Provision Healthcare board. Provision Healthcare has several partner companies, including Provision Center for Proton Therapy, ProNova Solutions and Provision Solutions. The Provision CARES Foundation, Provision’s own nonprofit established in 2012, provides patient support and financial assistance to East Tennessee families dealing with cancer diagnoses.

When Hamilton officially formed the Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation, Douglass was among the first he asked to serve on his board.

New center in Franklin

Tennessee is now a leader in the advancement of proton therapy treatment. Of the 26 existing cancer centers utilizing proton therapy in the U.S., two already call Tennessee home, with a third nearing completion in Franklin.

Provision’s non-profit Provision Proton CARES Center-Knoxville opened in January 2014. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis opened the nation’s only proton therapy center designed exclusively to treat pediatric cancers in December 2015.

The $99.6 million Provision Proton CARES Center-Nashville, also a non-profit center, is being built on 11 acres off Carothers Parkway just north of Williamson Medical Center. “We plan to occupy the building in December and should be ready for our first patient in May or June of next year,” Douglass says.

Though published reports announced the new center would bear Hamilton’s name, Hamilton ultimately turned down his friend’s offer to honor him in that way. “Terry loves all I’ve done in the cancer community, and he just wanted to honor me. But the closer we got to it, I realized that the work I need to do is to focus on the foundation,” Hamilton explains.

Hamilton, who serves on the board of the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt among others, continually lends his support to many academic and research institutions, cancer support groups and other cancer-related programs across the country.

Hamilton and his small foundation staff were more than happy to accept Douglass’ offer of free office space in the new center. “Have you priced office space in Nashville recently? This is a huge gift,” Hamilton adds.

“We will also be able to live in a center where we can hear a bell ring every day,” Hamilton notes, explaining when a patient finishes his or her proton therapy treatment at Provision’s Knoxville center, a bell rings in celebration. The same will hold true in Franklin.

Yes, math can help

An early beneficiary of Scott CARES funds was the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, a leader in mathematical oncology studies. In May of this year, the center appointed Hamilton to its 32-member national board of advisers.

Mathematical oncology therapy uses mathematical modeling to determine the best treatment over time for individual patients based on their individual cases and histories, Hamilton explains. For instance, a typical radiation treatment may be reduced to enable the patient to receive additional radiation later.

Though still in its infancy, Hamilton says mathematical oncology therapies have great promise.

The third newer cancer treatment Hamilton says he believes has great potential is immunotherapy. The National Cancer Institute describes immunotherapy as a biological therapy and cancer treatment that helps the body’s own immune system – the white blood cells, organs and tissues of the lymph system – fight cancer.

Two patient-centered programs Hamilton helped launch in 2002 at the Cleveland Clinic today are key components of the CARES foundation – but on a much-larger scale.

When Hamilton underwent treatment in Cleveland, he discovered how hard it was to decipher complex medical information and terminology. He wanted to create a patient-friendly website that translates those terms into “relatable, less inimitable” language that allows cancer patients to become their own advocates and participants.

Initially, he hoped ChemoCare.com would get 3 million hits a year. “It now gets over 2 million hits a month,” Hamilton says, proudly. RadCare.org, a companion site for those undergoing radiation treatments, was among the first projects his CARES foundation under took, helped in part by generous start-up funds provided by Provision Healthcare.

The fourth Angel Patient & Caregiver Mentoring Program was a natural outgrowth of Chemocare.com. Hamilton explains that every cancer patient has three angels: their oncologist, their oncology nurse and their network of friends and family.

But “every patient needs a fourth angel to walk beside them, a mentor who has made the same journey they are going through.”

Today more than 800 cancer survivors serve as mentors to cancer patients across the country through the telephone-based program so that patients and mentors can be matched anywhere in the country.

She’s behind the scenes

While Hamilton is the foundation’s face and voice, executive director Karri Morgan works behind the scenes helping “Boss Man” – as she affectionately calls Hamilton – bring his vision to life.

The two met years ago in Memphis when Scott and Tracie sponsored the crafts room at Target House, St. Jude’s long-term residential lodging facility for its young patients and their families. Morgan served as Target House’s executive director for 13 years.

“He kept saying, ‘Do you think I could ever get you out of Memphis?’” Morgan recalls. Finally, when Hamilton decided to go all-in with the CARES foundation, she couldn’t turn him down.

Morgan spent her first months in Nashville helping Hamilton and the foundation board develop a strategic plan. The first initiative: Create a national peer-to-peer fundraising program immediately identified as the CARES foundation’s signature event.

The now-trademarked Sk8 to Elimin8 Cancer program’s name, Morgan says, was inspired by Scott’s birth date (Aug. 28, 1958) and the foundation’s official Aug. 8, 2015 launch. With support from the NHL, the U.S. Figure Skating association and clubs and ice facilities nationwide, more than 25 Sk8 to Elimin8 events will take place in 2017.

The events are a win-win for everyone involved, Morgan said. “We ask the host, ‘Who can we give back to?’” Twenty percent of funds raised at a local Sk8 event stays in the hosting community though the recipient must be vetted and approved by the foundation.

“This makes people feel they are benefitting as well,” Morgan adds. It also builds new alliances and builds awareness of what’s happening in the fight against cancer.

“We can’t fund a $50 million machine, but we can raise awareness for it,” Morgan adds.

Morgan is finalizing details of the second annual Scott Hamilton & Friends event in Nashville, planned at Bridgestone Arena on Nov. 19.

In total, the two-year-old foundation raised $1.3 million in its first full fiscal year, Morgan notes, with an objective to “fund the right things, which is not an easy responsibility.”

“Obviously, Scott wants to raise a gazillion dollars. Hopefully we’ll keep moving in that direction.”