Bobby Hamilton spoke out today on his ongoing battle with head and neck cancer; the first public communication by the former NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion in a number of weeks. His Public Relations Director, Lori Shuler, was kind enough to forward his thoughts to us, and we are happy to be able to share them with you. They are, in my opinion, very powerful stuff.
"It’s amazing how much one word can change your life. When you hear it, feel it, bear it, and breathe it that one word changes your entire view on the way you see every single aspect of your life. I will never be the same person I was before I found out I had cancer. I am now a better person for what I have endured just as all the millions of people in our country who feel the same way after battling cancer.
It has literally changed my life. I went from being a guy who was a rough neck, red neck person that raised myself in the most unbelievable conditions and at times thought of myself as indestructible -- to getting my legs knocked out from under me in the blink of an eye, and having it done time and time again battling this terrible disease. My whole life has been a bit of turmoil. I’ve been pretty proud to do what I’ve done because I’m a survivor. I was out on the street at 13-14 years old. Ended up doing what I did and got a chance to race with the best race car drivers in the best racing in the world. Now I’m an owner and employ right around 60 people. It’s like Garth Brooks’ song “The Dance:” “I could have missed the pain, but I would have missed the dance. I just thought that part was hard – until I was faced with cancer. Ask anyone who’s been there.
It all started for me last year when I had a wisdom tooth on the right-lower part of my jaw that abscessed. Since the area they needed to operate on was so close to the nerves in my cheek, they decided to wait until the end of racing season to pull the tooth. Right after Thanksgiving, I had the tooth pulled. Everything was much better in my mouth after that, but my neck was swollen. I went to another doctor, who told me that it was an infected lymph node and it should go down. Well it didn’t. So I went back after a couple of weeks and told him that we needed to leave for Daytona in one week, and I needed the lymph node removed now.
The very next morning, Dr. Warren at UMC Medical Center worked me in for surgery. He slit my throat open to remove what we all thought was a lymph node, only to find tumors there. He removed a large tumor and a couple of little ones that had spread around in my neck. He sewed me back up, and waited to break the news. When I woke up, he walked into the room and looked down at the floor. Right then I knew something was up. He waited until Lori came in the room before he explained what he had found. My mind went to how to be strong for Bobby Jr., Lori and the guys at the shop. How was everyone going to handle this and what was the game plan? We had a lot to mull over.
First things first, we called my son and his wife. They came straight to the hospital for us to explain what we had just been told. I had cancer. No one believed what they heard at this point and all of us were completely caught off guard. What’s next – testing, testing and more testing. In the meantime, I had the season opener and one of the biggest races of the season to prepare for.
My neck healed in a few days, and I left for Daytona and never said a word. We agreed amongst us four that it was not time to say anything until we had all our ducks in a row. So off to Daytona we went, with our mind on the game. Immediately after that race, it was one test after another. My kidneys were clean; my lungs were washed for testing and came up clean. Then I had a biopsy done on my tonsils, tongue and random parts of my throat and mouth. And the next day I left for race number two.
Now I had a couple of weeks to figure out a plan. We did some research, and found out that Dr. Murphy at Vanderbilt Medical Center was highly recommended in this type of cancer. So we made an appointment for March 6th to meet her. Instantly, I knew she was the right doctor for me. Her calm disposition helped me with what I was facing, and encouraged me.
We made my next appointment with her on March 20th for the first round of chemotherapy. I needed one more race, and to get my message across about cancer, my new battle in life. I spoke with Dodge and they were still with me. Then I spoke with Fastenal, and they were very open to letting Bobby Jr. be their new driver. Everything was in place, now I just needed the guts to say what I had to say.
It came to me, I don’t know how but it was there. I blew the entire industry away; no one expected what I said. In NASCAR, we pride ourselves on our close knit family, and how we all stick together. But if we told one person before that time, it would have been a moot point. So I pulled my team together five minutes before the press conference and told them as a whole. They handled it pretty well, but none of us knew what to expect. Then I did the walk into the media center.
I sat down in front of everyone and looked them straight in the face with what I had to say. I told them of the driver change, that this is my last race, and that I would be back. I had made a decision to fight this battle and get on with it. It was my only choice. At that moment, I vowed for no one to write my name as a cancer victim, that I was not one. I applauded the media for all their help over the years, and asked for their kindness in this manner. I care about my racing career more than most things in this world, and I will be back to start a truck again. It’s what I do. If it don’t have headers, a four-speed and slicks, I don’t do good with it.
That night, I started that race and got emotional at what my future would hold. Who wouldn’t? Every cancer patient and their family is faced with mortality. You can’t ever describe that feeling until you live it. But once that race began, I knew nothing except the speed. My mind was focused, and for that two hours cancer didn’t faze me.
We got an unbelievable amount of e-mails and cards that week. Race fans, non-racing fans, cancer patients, family members of patients, church members, and all different kinds took time to send us notes. Some were saying good luck, some were saying `do this' or `don’t do that' and some were emotional while others were pumping me up. We even had some people from race teams who took time to talk with me and explain what they had gone through in their personal or their family’s battle with cancer. It was overwhelming the amount of support we got and are still getting from people out there.
Then on Monday morning, March 20th, cancer fazed me. What do you expect, what happens each week, where do we go, how am I going to feel, so many questions ran through my mind in flashes. You see everything at that center from young to old, weak to strong, women to men and every race is there. Some people knew me, and others didn’t. Some were scared and some were just getting through it. I was just there.
My doctor didn’t know who I was, and frankly, I liked it that way. I love the fact that she treats me as she would any patient that walks into her door. She is there to try to save all our lives, and she does a fine job at that. I met with her, and then went off to chemo. As I sat on the table getting that first needle put into my hand, my emotions ran wild. Am I really going through this? Cancer, me? Yes I was.
I left that first day, and went straight to the race shop. I was fine; cancer hadn’t got me down yet. Yet that is. I went for the second, third, fourth and fifth chemo treatments, only to realize on the fifth time that my body was not responding as we hoped to the treatments. One more time I was blown away. Quickly, Dr. Murphy changed my regimen. I needed the stronger treatment. Why didn’t that surprise me? I would also start radiation on Monday, the 24th of April, a month earlier than planned.
Radiation is intimidating. I am very claustrophobic. The thought of putting a fitted mask on my face and locking it down on the table made me sick. I didn’t know how I would get through this part, but was kind of glad to be getting it over with. I had 33 treatments to go, every day Monday through Friday and the countdown began.
That weekend, we attended the race in St. Louis. I had five radiation treatments behind me, and six chemo treatments down. I didn’t feel taken aback at the time by any of my treatments, so I still tried to do as I wanted to. My mouth and throat were getting sore from the radiation, and my white blood count was down from the chemo treatments. I shook hands with fans, signed autographs and sat on the pit box in the cold weather. That was the wrong move.
By the next weekend, I had a fever and was very ill. I was admitted to the hospital for an excruciating six days of regulating medicines. While I was there, I had a feeding tube put in so I could continue to get nourishment. Even though I was in the hospital, the radiation still happened daily. My tumor was too aggressive, so a break was not an option.
I missed things like the race in Charlotte, the Craftsman for a Cure Charity event done in my honor, holidays and Victory Junction Gang’s Second Birthday Celebration. By now, I couldn’t be around a lot of people, or I could end up worse than the first time. I was pretty much secluded. I went to the race shop for meetings with people, and they sat all the way across the room from me. I walked around and kept everyone at an arm’s distance, because the last thing I needed was another infection.
My throat got worse; it was impossible to swallow. My neck blistered up like bacon. With what cancer does to you, it's phenomenal that people survive. That just shows how strong we are, that we do. Finally, my last treatment day came: Wednesday, June 7th. The next day, it was like someone had lifted weights off my shoulders. But the truth is, the healing is still happening. It doesn’t just stop in one night and go away. Wouldn’t that be nice.
The truth is, once you have been diagnosed with cancer, you always battle it in some form or fashion. Yes, your body heals, and life as you know it goes on. But cancer is always there. All I expect out of this is, if anybody has anything to say about what I’m going through, let’s just attribute it to everybody who’s going through it. I want to take my battle and use what little bit of celebrity status I have left and try to promote the awareness for this disease.
Cancer changes us all, and I have just learned that when you get a second chance, life becomes a different picture the next time around."