Toughest opponent to date

A.W. Hamilton instructs his Eastern Kentucky University men’s basketball  team during a game in 2019. Hamilton, named Ohio Valley Conference coach of the year this past winter, revealed Tuesday that he underwent surgery for melanoma this summer.

From a state championship at Scott County High School to a national prep title as coach at Hargrave Military Academy to a rapid rebuild of the Eastern Kentucky University men's basketball program, A.W. Hamilton is a proven winner.

This summer, as documented in an emotional, seven-minute video released by the EKU athletic department on Monday, Hamilton faced and conquered his most daunting opponent to date.

Hamilton, 39, announced that a routine physical in June led to the discovery of stage two melanoma, the most virulent and life-threatening form of skin cancer.

He is cancer-free, but the journey to that point left visible scars while transforming Hamilton on the inside as well.

“July was probably the longest month of my life. I have three kids. I have a wife. I have an unbelievable job I consider a dream job, and all I could think about was am I gonna be able to raise my kids?” Hamilton said. “Am I gonna see my two little girls get married one day? Am I gonna be able to teach my son how to play basketball? Do I have to say goodbye to my wife, to my parents, to my friends? Just all those thoughts (were) going through my head.”

Given a clean bill of health after surgery to remove a tumor and lymph nodes near his right ear and full-body scans to gauge the cancer’s potential spread, Hamilton resolved to use the experience for good. That means encouraging others to be vigilant about their health.

“I don't have cancer. I survived cancer. I hope now with my story, I can help (people),” Hamilton said. “Get a physical. Go see your dermatologist. You never know what a simple mole could be turning into.”

For Hamilton, whose hoop dreams first started coming true with the 1998 state title his senior year at SCHS, the harrowing journey began when his brother-in-law and one of his best friends, Steve Lepore, suffered a stroke in early June.

Lepore, a college teammate of Hamilton's at Wake Forest, also is one of his assistant coaches at EKU. He is only a few months older than Hamilton.

The medical emergency was traced to a small, congenital hole in Lepore’s heart.

“He's probably the healthiest guy I've ever met in my entire life,” Hamilton said. “That day, I called my doctor in Georgetown and I set up a physical. And I'm gonna be honest with you, I haven't had a physical since 2004, when I was playing at Marshall University.”

The traditional battery of tests included blood work and an examination of Hamilton's heart. At the end of the appointment, Hamilton asked the doctor to look at a mole on his ear, one that had been there since childhood.

As a precaution, Hamilton was given a referral to a local dermatologist. He said the specialist removed the mark but told him that he didn't find it overly suspicious.

“The next Tuesday, I get a phone call from the dermatologist,” Hamilton said. “He says, 'Listen, I'm shocked to tell you this. I could not have predicted this, but you have stage two melanoma.' All I could think about was I had a cousin who died of melanoma when he was 13 years old.”

Only a few days later, Hamilton found himself in an oncologist's office. The conversation was brutally honest.

“Melanoma's one of the scariest cancers you can have, because it's unpredictable,” Hamilton said. “He kind of lays out what's next for me, but before he did that, I couldn't help but ask him, 'Doc, what does this mean? What's the best-case scenario? I'm 39. I'm healthy. I feel great. What's gonna happen to me?'

“He said best-case scenario, you're gonna have a major surgery, we're gonna remove your tumor, and hopefully you never see me again. And then he says, worst-case, melanoma is an unpredictable cancer. You could be in a box in six months.”

Treatment was quick and aggressive. Hamilton underwent a positron emission topography (PET) scan to survey major organs and tissue. Surgeons took out the a tumor along with the adjacent lymph nodes. The latter was necessary to determine if the disease might have traveled elsewhere in his body.

From there, Hamilton endured a tumultuous, 10-day wait for the results. It was the age-old story of a man's life flashing before his eyes.

“I have some of the craziest goals you can imagine. I want to win a national championship. I want to write a best-selling book. I want to be a nationally known motivational speaker,” Hamilton said. “I (also) want to strengthen my relationship with God. And during this time, I'm thinking, I have all these goals on my mirror, but is my relationship with God strong enough? Have I done enough? It made the whole month of July incredibly hard.”

The call eventually came, and with the best possible news.

A notorious goal-setter who has said he sleeps only four or five hours a night, Hamilton resolved during his ordeal to use the experience for good.

“It's been tough, but I can tell you this. The only thing I knew to do was sit down and write a new goal, no matter what was gonna happen to me,” Hamilton said. “That was to beat cancer, tell my story, and save somebody else's life like somebody saved my life.”

Lepore also is doing well. The coaches appeared together in a separate video Tuesday for the Richmond Register, urging the newspaper's readers to be proactive with their health.

Hamilton bears a five-inch incision as evidence of his trial. He has been told that numbness in the reconstructed ear likely will never go away.

He counts those small prices to pay for a new lease on life, and now he hopes to pass that gift along.

“Take care of yourself. Count your blessings every day, and take time to focus on you, your health and your family,” Hamilton said. “God is great. He's got a plan for all of us, and I hope my plan, whatever He has in store for me is for me to help one person out there that's listening to my story.”

Kal Oakes can be reached via email at sports@news-graphic.com.

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