For ESPN anchor Stuart Scott, private cancer fight is also public
03/12/2014 2:10 AM
02/15/2015 10:41 AM
Inside the mixed martial arts studio, Stuart Scott lifted the black T-shirt that read, “Everyday I Fight.” Beneath was a foot-long scar that bisected the ESPN anchor’s washboard abs.
“It’s a sign of life,” he said, though it is the spot where cancer surgeons have opened his abdomen three times to remove parts of him.
Scott’s fight continues. He has had 58 infusions of chemotherapy. He recently switched to a pill, but the drugs have not fully arrested the cancer that struck first in 2007, when his appendix was removed. It returned four years later. And it came back again last year. Each recurrence seems more dire, and yet after each, Scott has returned to his high-profile work at ESPN, ensuring that his private fight also has become a public one.
Friends, family, colleagues and strangers ask how he is faring. Yet Scott, 48, says he does not want to know his prognosis.
A return to a regular routine, like Scott traveling to a “Monday Night” location or grappling in an MMA gym, is a significant marker in a cancer survivor’s life.
“I never ask what stage I’m in,” he said recently over lunch, with his girlfriend, Christin, sitting beside him. “I haven’t wanted to know. It won’t change anything to me. All I know is that it would cause more worry and a higher degree of freakout. Stage 1, 2 or 8, it doesn’t matter. I’m trying to fight it the best I can.”
Scott’s approach once puzzled Sage Steele, a fellow ESPN anchor and one of his closest friends.
“I’ve asked him on two occasions: ‘What does this mean? What do the doctors say?’ ” she said. “And I’m nervous asking it, but after hearing his answer for the second time, I choose not to ask again. I don’t know if I could do it the same way.”
Scott’s sister, Susan, says she understands her brother’s psychology.
Hired in 1993, Scott, who attended North Carolina and worked in 1988-90 as a news reporter at WRAL-TV in Raleigh, soon became one of the signature anchors on “SportsCenter” and on the network’s NFL and NBA programming.
“I think he can only live with this by not even incorporating the potential end of it,” she said in a telephone interview from North Carolina. “It’s too weighty. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t think about it, but to let it in starts to validate it and gives it more heft.”
But, she added, “Every time I get a call that Stuart’s in the hospital, I have to think about what this means for his mortality, and is this the time?”
Scott’s absences from ESPN are noticeable because he remains one of the network’s most familiar personalities. “SportsCenter” stars like Keith Olbermann, Dan Patrick and Rich Eisen left the network over the years, but Scott remained.
He has always projected a cool vibe, blending hip-hop language and pop culture references with sound effects and catchphrases like “Boo-yah!” and “Cool as the other side of the pillow,” and he has delivered highlights and commentary in youthful outbursts and in the cool, brooding form of a poetry jam.
Recently, during the NFL scouting combine, he used the debate over Johnny Manziel’s quarterbacking future as grist for an antic, one-on-one conversation with himself.
“I don’t need to do that to keep myself engaged,” he said. “I think it’s unique and part of who I am.”
On the air, Scott seems unaffected by three bouts with cancer. His demeanor on “SportsCenter” is unchanged: excitable, energetic, creative, even a bit wild. But his face looks thin, and his colleagues are concerned.
“There are some days when I say, I don’t know how he’s doing it,” said Mark Gross, a senior vice president for production who has known Scott for two decades.
On the night he returned to “Monday Night Countdown” last November in Tampa, Fla., Scott received a text from his sister, who calls him the crown prince of their parents’ four children. It included a quotation from Arthur Ashe: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
“I wasn’t trying to bring him to tears, but I felt, as a family member processing this, each time is scary,” she said. “The last time was really scary.”
Soon after returning from his last surgery, Scott frequently needed to lean back in his chair and relax during commercial breaks, often not hearing much of what his producer said.
Steele said that for years Scott had masked his pain when the cameras came on.
“I’ve visited while he’s been getting chemo; it shook me up,” she said. “But then I’d put the TV on at 11 that night, and he’s still Stuart Scott.”
Thin but muscular, Scott uses mixed martial arts and high-intensity cross-training workouts to restore the energy that chemotherapy saps from him.
Dressed all in black for a recent workout, he popped in a mouthpiece inscribed with the initials of his daughters, Sydni, 14, and Taelor, 19, and then walked onto the blue and gray padded floor to face Darin Reisler, the sculptured owner of the gym. For 90 minutes, they battled and sparred.
Despite his weakened condition, Scott is skillful, quick and graceful. His breathing grew labored as the workout progressed, but he was happy to be back. He needs the physical contact, he said, the jolt of competitiveness.
“Jab! Cross! Hook! Jab!” Reisler shouted. Scott’s punches shot out in quick combinations that smacked off Reisler’s hand pads, echoing in the nearly empty gym.
The kicks came next – three in rapid succession. Then Scott leapt and delivered a flying kick at Reisler. “You kick like an ox,” he told Scott.
Scott and Reisler moved on to chokeholds and arm bars – sometimes both stopped to explain their submissions as if teaching a class – and wrapped up by fighting in a steel cage.
“God, that felt good,” Scott said as he pulled off his custom-made blue helmet and left the cage.
Still, there are indignities and frustrations. After his third surgery last September, his wound did not close for more than two months. During the last few weeks he was attached to a wound VAC, which drained the surgical site. It is “a pretty interesting contraption if it’s not attached to you,” he said.
He was forced to wait five months, until late February, so his abdominal area would not be vulnerable to the kicks, punches and grappling of the Muay Thai and Brazilian jiujitsu he practices. So far, Scott said, his cancer has not spread beyond where it was found. But he would not give a doctor permission to speak about his condition or provide further details. “My colon has been resected,” he said. “But it’s not colon cancer. No doctor has ever said that it has spread to my kidneys or lungs.”
Paul Mansfield, an appendiceal cancer specialist at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, said the disease has various forms that range from benign to very aggressive.
Although he could not comment directly on Scott’s case, he said the oral drug that Scott recently switched to, regorafenib, “is fairly toxic.”
Mansfield said: “It doesn’t really create a response in patients but may stabilize things. It’s pretty far down the list of what we’d use.”
Scott said he had continued to be flexible about the course of his chemotherapy, even considering experimental treatments.
“We’ve talked about doing a clinical study,” he said, “which I might do at some point. We’re going to see what happens with this new drug. And I guess I could go back to my old regimen. There is some evidence that it did some help, but chemotherapy is not an exact medical science. I heard an oncologist say that in the world of oncology, two and two doesn’t equal four, it equals five or six or three.”
Scott speaks frequently about his daughters, with pride and melancholy. He is divorced from their mother and they share custody. Taelor, the 19-year-old, is in college.
When he first learned he had cancer, the girls asked him a lot of questions. Taelor once asked if the cancer would kill him, he recalled. “I said: ‘It could, and that’s why we’re doing everything we can. That’s why I’m taking every medicine I can and that’s why I keep working out so we can keep traveling the way we do, and so I can act silly and goofy and keep embarrassing you.’ ”
Now the girls ask fewer questions. He figures they are typical teenagers who prefer not to discuss what scares them.
“I know they worry about it,” he said, “probably more than I want them to.”
As he drove from his recent workout to lunch, he turned on a video of Sydni, the soloist in her school choir, singing the pop song “Skyscraper.”
“I watch this once or twice a day,” he said, as Sydni’s strong, mature voice filled the car’s interior. “She doesn’t like me to play it for people, but I said, ‘Dude, I got bragging rights.’ ”
He listened, almost in silence, until she sang the last words.
“The end,” he said, “gives me chills.”
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