Racing Against Time : Optimistic as Ever, U.S. Olympic Star Steve Scott Looks Far Beyond His Cancer Surgery to Future Goals

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Early this afternoon at the Kaiser Hospital in nearby San Diego, a surgeon will drag a scalpel down the lower abdomen of three-time Olympian Steve Scott and begin a search for 15 possible cancerous lymph nodes.

For the perpetually cheerful Scott, 38, who describes himself as the original "glass-is-half-full type of guy," the lymphatic surgery is nothing more than a medical inconvenience. Already, he has made plans to resume his training schedule come Sept. 1 . . . or Oct. 1 if his urologist, Kevin O'Brien, decides chemotherapy is necessary.

Either way, Scott intends to compete again. He has spent the better part of 20 years doing exactly that, collecting six American records in the process, appearing in three Summer Olympics, being ranked in the top 10 for a decade and breaking the four-minute mile 135 times, a figure unmatched by any other runner.

"In my mind, I know everything is going to end up fine," Scott said Monday at his home.

This is typical Scott. Positive. Emphatic. Optimistic. He isn't so concerned about the surgery itself, as he is about the week's stay in the hospital. His body, cleansed by a cardiovascular dream diet and a 90-mile-per-week training regimen, is ultra-sensitive to the drugs used during hospitalization.

Scott knows this because it was only a few weeks ago--May 1, to be exact--that he underwent surgery to remove a cancerous left testicle. The tumor was discovered during a routine physical for a vasectomy, though Scott now says he suspected something was wrong even before the examination.

The cancer itself isn't altogether different from that suffered by Philadelphia Phillies' first baseman John Kruk, who returned to play not long after diagnosis and treatment. According to O'Brien, this specific cancer is highly predictable, treatable and enjoys a 95% cure rate.

Even so, Scott briefly considered keeping his medical situation as quiet as possible.

"But in the track world, things work more by way of rumor than by fact," he said.

So he went public, even allowing Azusa Pacific University, where he trains under Azusa Coach Irv Ray, to issue a news release on his condition. The way Scott figured it, his situation was better served by full disclosure than by whispers. It also served as a public service announcement of sorts, "that cancer is non-discriminatory," he said.

"You see this year, especially with John Kruk, (PGA star) Paul Azinger and myself, and you would think, 'They're all athletes, they're healthy, they shouldn't get sick, they shouldn't get a cancer,' " Scott said. "Especially me, being a miler. I could see a golfer, a baseball player--they're marginal athletes. But an endurance athlete, someone who watches what he eats, who is in the best cardiovascular shape of practically any athlete out there . . . coming down with a type of cancer. I think what it can show is cancer is one of those things that can affect anyone, anytime."

Scott's condition hasn't gone unnoticed. Since the announcement of his illness, the UC Irvine graduate has received cards, letters, faxes and phone calls from friends and admirers around the world.

World-class triathlete Scott Tinley called to check on his friend. So did Marty Liquori, the famed American miler who is battling leukemia. Eamonn Coghlan, the great middle-distance star from Ireland, sent a get-well fax.

But it was a letter from a little-known biathlete that especially caught Scott's attention. The biathlete had been found to have near-identical cancer and undergone the same lymphatic surgical procedure. In what amounted to a cancer diary, the biathlete took Scott through the process and recovery step by step.

If Scott is scared, he doesn't show it. If you didn't know any better, you'd think he was going in for a sprained ankle, not cancer treatment. He said he was more nervous in the days before the Olympic finals than he has been for the trip to Kaiser Hospital.

"When you hear the word, cancer, it's, 'Oh, my God, this person is going to die,' " he said. "That's what we've been taught. But it's not that way anymore. It's not a death sentence anymore."

Still, there exists the chance--95% cure rate or not--that the cancer could be fickle and cruel. The possibility has not been lost on Scott.

"The worst-case scenario is that I don't recover and die," he said. "There's not much I can do about it."

On the morbidly bright side of things, Scott said that the worst-case scenario does bring at least one advantage--or so he figures: He'd get to run in heaven with Steve Prefontaine, the American distance star who died in 1975.

"I think God's a track fan," said Scott by way of explanation.

Were he not undergoing the cancer treatment, Scott would be running 80-90 miles a week, all in the name of preparing for next month's outdoor nationals in Knoxville, Tenn. Instead, he has to wait until at least September before he can jog a single step.

"It's like stopping smoking after 20 years," he said.

But when he does return, Scott said his goals will be the same as before. He wants to resume serious training by the summer of 1995, to record the first sub-four-minute outdoor mile by a master and to qualify for the 1996 U.S. Olympic trials. You know, the usual.

Maybe it was an omen, maybe it wasn't, but Sunday night Scott had a dream. He said he was on the operating table, an IV in his arm. Rather than having him breathe anesthesia, Scott was given sleeping pills by a nurse.

"By the way," said the nurse in his dream, "Dr. O'Brien and Dr. Kaswick won't be able to perform the operation. A resident is going to do it, but he's in his second year, so don't worry."

This being a dream, Scott spit out the pills, jumped off the operating table and, surgical gown flapping, sprinted out of the hospital.

No word on his split times.

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