NEW YORK — Jeremy Abbott was taken aback when the nurse returned his cell phone. The screen displayed the top of his head. A bald spot with 13 staples.
“This Frankenstein picture,” Abbott said, recalling it two months later in an interview Sunday.
The four-time U.S. champion and two-time Olympian tossed it on social media.
Abbott told the figure skating community that he was diagnosed with and underwent surgery for the least malignant and most common form of skin cancer — basal cell carcinoma.
It is very treatable. Abbott, a 32-year-old who retired from competitive figure skating in June, could return to workouts and performing in ice shows a week after the surgery.
He spoke Sunday after performing at a pop-up, outdoor lower Manhattan rink (where he did his trademark backflip), one day after an appearance in Cincinnati. He’s headed to China for Stars on Ice next week.
The cancer story goes back to June. Abbott, whose mom had two carcinomas and a melanoma, had a regular skin-care check-up.
“Just by happenstance, [the dermatologist] was like, ‘Do you have any other questions?’ as I was walking out the door,” Abbott said. “I was like, ‘Well, actually, I do. Will you just take a look at this?'”
Abbott gestured to a nodule on top of his head. Something he first noticed a year or two ago, but it had not grown or bothered him.
“I would pick at it or play with it,” he said.
He compared it to a mole. The dermatologist believed it was a benign cyst but popped it out and ran a biopsy to be safe.
Abbott didn’t hear anything for weeks. The next month, he got a phone call while vacationing with his sister in Idaho. It was the doctor’s office.
“We got the results of your biopsy back, and, verbatim, she was like, ‘And, you have skin cancer,'” Abbott said. “I was like, OK. She was like, yeah, you have a basal cell carcinoma.
“She asked, do you have any questions? I was like, I’m sure I do, but I can’t think at the moment so I’ll have to call you back.”
Abbott did some research and learned that only in very, very rare occasions does it actually spread.
“This isn’t a big deal,” Abbott said. “But just hearing cancer, it stopped me in my tracks.”
So minor that it wasn’t a problem that Abbott’s travel schedule and the surgeon’s availability didn’t line up for another two months. The earliest he could come in was in September, two weeks before the Japan Open exhibition event.
“I didn’t want to go to Japan Open bald,” Abbott joked. “You know, the important things.”
Put it off another two weeks. He flew straight from Japan to Colorado and had surgery two days after the exhibition. Twice, they took a layer of skin and tested it for other cancer cells.
The whole process, including a wait between the two procedures, took maybe two and a half hours. Abbott didn’t think much of it until he saw the Frankenstein photo.
“This was a lot more invasive than I was expecting,” he said. “I ended up having four internal stitches and 13 staples for something that I thought literally was going to be small pieces of skin.”
He got the staples out the next week and returned to skating.
Abbott actually calls it a blessing. He wasn’t planning on being in Colorado that day.
His maternal grandmother was not doing well. He visited her the night before his surgery and saw her one more time that afternoon. She died that night.
“If this hadn’t happened,” Abbott said of the skin cancer, “I wouldn’t have been there.”
The U.S. Figure Skating Championships are in four weeks. If Abbott makes it to San Jose, it will be as a spectator (he would like to go, but made the decision recently and last-minute accommodations aren’t simple, even for a four-time champ).
Abbott hasn’t competed in nearly three years — and he’s at peace with retirement — but admits to some FOMO.
“Olympics was my favorite,” said Abbott, who was ninth in 2010 and 12th in 2014 with a team-event bronze. “It wasn’t my best competition, but it was definitely my favorite both times.”
Abbott remarked that there are three U.S. men in this week’s Grand Prix Final, the largest U.S. contingent since 2009, when it was him, Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir.
That led to an obvious topic — 18-year-old Nathan Chen, who could follow Abbott as the U.S. champion heading into the Olympics and follow Lysacek as an Olympic gold medalist.
In 2010, an 8-year-old Chen shared the ice with Abbott at the post-nationals gala. Abbott was the senior champion headed to his first Olympics. Chen the novice champ already eyeing the 2018 Winter Games.
“From the time he was 9, it was like, this kid’s going to save men’s figure skating,” said Abbott, a late-bloomer who won his first U.S. senior title at 23. “I’m sitting there like, don’t count on it. He’s 9. You can’t judge what someone’s going to do when they’re 19. But he’s definitely lived that.”
In summer 2016, Abbott remembered skating in Colorado Springs, still considering returning to competition for one more Olympic run.
Chen was at the rink, too, returning from January left hip surgery.
“He just pulled off quad [Salchow] and quad toe [loop jumps] like he had never been hurt,” Abbott remembered. “I was like, this kid is insane. What is going on? Then, two months later, there’s video of him doing quad flip and quad Lutz. It blew my mind.”
These days, Abbott is very involved in the sport. He does four-day seminars in places like Australia and Scotland, teaching kids the basics and musicality.
He choreographs. Abbott just did an exhibition program for 2010 Olympic bronze medalist and world champion Daisuke Takahashi.
After next week’s trip to China, Abbott has a Stars on Ice show in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 30. Then his own show, which benefit’s Parkinson’s research, in Aspen, Colo., after nationals on Jan. 13.
“I’m busier and I’m traveling more than when I was competing,” he said. “It’s funny, people are like, ‘I miss seeing you skate.’ I’m like, how do you miss it? I’m skating everywhere.”
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