ORONO, Maine — Maine coach Shawn Walsh will undergo surgery on Thursday to remove his left lung and as many tumors as possible in preparation for a stem-cell transplant three or four weeks later. Had Maine defeated Boston College in the NCAA quarterfinal last Saturday, the Black Bears would have gone on to the Frozen Four without him.
The procedures, which will be performed at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Md., are the latest attempts to combat the kidney cancer first discovered last summer.
Walsh had a kidney removed in July before undergoing two rounds of immunotherapy in August and October. While the tumors did not grow after
the treatments, they also did not go away.
As a result, his doctors will perform a stem-cell transplant, following a recuperation period after the lung removal. Walsh’s brother Kevin will be the donor. The two are a close genetic match so the hope is that the stem
cells will be accepted by the body and then attack the remaining tumors.
According to the Sept. 14, 2000 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, which includes Walsh’s doctors as authors, three of 19 patients treated with stem-cell transplants had complete remission of the cancer and remained that way 16, 25 and 27 months after the treatment. Another seven had a “partial response” in which there was some regression, although two subsequently suffered a relapse.
— Shawn Walsh
The treatments are not without their own dangers. In addition to those who it did not help, two of the 19 patients died as a result of transplantation-related causes.
That said, current patients undergoing the procedure are likely to experience improved outcomes over the initial patients because of information learned from that group.
“They’re taking out my left lung, which has most of the tumor cells in it, and are attempting to de-tumor me or de-bulk me of the tumors,” said Walsh. “What they’ve found out with the stem cell transplant — they’re now up over 60 patients — is that there is a clear correlation between the success of the transplant and the least amount of tumor cells that the transplant has to go against. It’s like a fight and the less cavalry you have [to go against the better].
“So they’re trying to get rid of as many tumor cells as they can, including taking out some selected tumors that they can get at. Then in three or four weeks, they’ll have the stem cell [procedure]. They’re very excited and encouraged about that perhaps eliminating everything for me. That’s my goal.”
As for the dangers, Walsh isn’t focusing on those chances.
“I can’t control the negative possibilities,” he said. “I can only put it in the hands of the doctors and these are the best in the country. I’m not worried about a five percent or two percent chance of a fatalistic problem. You can have that concern flying an airplane.”
If the treatments are successful, Walsh expects to resume coaching in his accustomed fashion.
“They told me that I could play basketball,” he said. “I could jog. When I did the tests the week of the Hockey East Final Four, they found that 90 percent of my lung function was already being done by the right lung.
“I said to my doctor, almost joking but also wondering, ‘My voice volume is a factor in my coaching. Is it going to be dwindled?’
“He said it won’t change one bit. I think you’re going to see the same fire you saw [last weekend],” said Walsh, referring to his ejection from the BC-Maine game.
In an ironic twist, Walsh’s doctor has a son who plays hockey.
“He tried to get into the University of Maine hockey school last year and got closed out,” Walsh said with a laugh. “He was all excited that he got his application in on time this year.”
And if the treatments are successful?
“He may get some extra ice time,” said Walsh.