Maine head coach Shawn Walsh returned home Wednesday evening, five days after surgery to remove a cancerous kidney.
“It’s good to be home,” said Walsh. “I feel terrific, and as soon as I can get these darn staples out, I’ll be better. I am very grateful for the outpouring of support I have received from my family, friends and the hockey community. I am getting stronger everyday, and I am sure that being at home with my family will only speed up my recovery.”
Walsh, however, is not out of the woods. The cancer spread to the lymph nodes under his chest, and he will need aggressive treatment to fight the disease. He will take the next few weeks to decide a course of action.
Walsh’s surgeon, Dr. Gennaro Carpinito of the Boston Medical Center, said the decision on treatment is ultimately up to Walsh.
“He needs to decide which protocol he wants to subject himself to, and in what part of the country,” said Carpinito.
Walsh is considering three different treatment options, including a radical gene therapy. This type of immunotherapy, which uses the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer, is as opposed to chemotherapy, which can destroy healthy cells in the process of destroying cancerous ones.
Each option comes with different side effects, and would take place in a different part of the country, giving Walsh plenty to think about.
“The gene material would be transferred into the cancer cells, to see if it could manufacture (antigens) locally, and destroy the tumor,” said Carpinito. “This has the biggest potential side effects.”
Meanwhile, ex-players have rallied to support their former coach, and the word is spreading. Former defenseman Jeff Tory heard the news from former goalie Blair Allison, and plans on seeing Walsh when he travels back to Maine sometime in the next couple of weeks.
“One of the big things [Walsh] talked about when I was there was, ‘Adversity makes you stronger,’ ” Tory said. “He thrives on that. With all the support he has there, everything will work out for him.
“It’s a family attitude. The players and coaches keep in touch. When Jeff Libby had his eye surgery, everyone rallied to support, so I’m sure it’s the same thing.” Libby is a former defenseman who had his eye knocked out in an AHL game after leaving Maine.
Walsh originally went to the doctor for a chronic cough, and a chest x-ray and CAT Scan led to findings of enlargements in the lymph nodes under his breast plate. Further tests led to the discovery of renal cell carcinoma, or cancer in one of the kidneys.
Renal cell carcinoma is the most common type of kidney cancer, affecting about three out of 10,000 people, according to drkoop.com. There are about 18,000 new cases in the U.S. per year, with about 8,000 deaths per year in the U.S. from the disorder. It most commonly occurs in men over 55 years old.
According to drkoop.com, the five-year survival rate, in general, for kidney cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes is 5-15 percent. If it has spread to other organs, the survival rate drops to less than 5 percent.
At this point, Carpinito remained optimistic that the cancer did not spread further.
“The tumor was large, but it hasn’t spread to other parts of body,” said Carpinito, “so the immune system is actively involved in protecting him at this point. That’s a reason why he has good chance of beating it.
“Part of [the operation consisted of] removing some of the lymph nodes in the back where kidney resides. We removed several, and all came back negative for cancer. The key here is the masses under the breastplate. We have to proceed with future therapy.”
While Carpinito wouldn’t put a figure on Walsh’s chances, he did say, given the circumstances, that he remains optimistic.
“Given the state of the art today, his chances in my opinion … I’m taking the approach that I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Carpinito. “Enough studies have been done in the last 10-15 years that have been optimistic, that he has a significant chance of beating this disease.”
Carpinito said that attitude means a lot in these situations.
“I’m really impressed with his approach to this,” said Carpinito. “Given my experience with this disease, it’s easy for patients to call it a day. But he’s strong-willed, a fighter, and he loves his Black Bears. The interaction I’ve seen with his ex-players, the positive effect he’s had on these people says a lot.
“He has a wife and young kids. He has a lot to live for, and that’s very important.
“I expect him to be behind the bench for the Black Bears this year and in the future as well.”