— Maine coach Shawn Walsh
He had just completed over two hours of continuous one-on-one interviews with the media regarding his health, but Shawn Walsh showed not even a hint of fatigue. Instead, he waxed enthusiastic over Boston College’s national championship run.
“Good for them!” he said, showing his pure-love-for-the-game side that most rival fans never see.
Walsh then exhibited the good humor that has remained constant throughout his battle with kidney cancer that began last summer and lasted through the Interluken-2 immunotherapy sessions in August and October and the removal of his left lung on Mar. 29.
“If somebody tells you that they’re either going to take your kidney or your lung, give them the kidney,” he said with a rueful laugh. “Oh man! It’s been tough. It’s painful.
“There’s a lot more pain than I thought there would be because they took a rib out [along with the lung]. I don’t know whether it’s taking out the rib or the actual incision [that’s causing the pain]. My sense is that it’s the adhesions because I can really feel pain under my chest.
— Shawn Walsh
“Hockey has gotten me through it. The day I got back from the hospital was the day of the [NCAA] semifinals so I was able to watch those then watch the finals. [Since then] I’ve been glued to the Stanley Cup playoffs. It’s been my saving grace.
“But I’m still in the office every day by about 9:30. I work anywhere from six-to-eight hours a day just getting everything set because I’m going to be gone.”
Walsh returns today, Apr. 30, to the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md., where a month ago doctors removed his cancerous lung and “debulked” the remaining tumors in his breastplate. He will undergo a stem cell transplant, in which he will receive stem cells — immature cells that will develop into blood cells — from his younger brother Kevin, a very close genetic match. If the transplant is successful, the new cells will be accepted as Shawn Walsh’s own and then grow, multiply and attack the cancer cells.
“I’ll have a week of outpatient tests to get everything set up,” he said. “Then I’ll probably be admitted somewhere around May 9th. It’s about a three-week admittance period where the first week will be low-dose chemotherapy to suppress my immune system. Then the following 10-14 days I’ll actually receive the stem cells.
“They have to monitor your reaction to it until your blood counts get back close to normal and then they’ll release you. So it’s going to be the bulk of the month of May.”
The first round of stem-cell transplants, which were performed by Walsh’s doctors at NIH and reported on in the Sept. 14, 2000 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, included 19 patients. Of the 19, seven had a “partial response” in which there was some regression of the cancer and three had complete remission.
Subsequent improvements in the process and some encouraging details specific to Walsh’s situation spark optimism for higher success rates.
“A couple things have happened that have really excited the doctors in my case,” he said. “Number one, when they went into to take out my lung, they also removed all of the tumors that were present.
“This is the second phase of the stem cell transplants at Bethesda. What they found in the first 60 patients is that there’s a direct correlation between the amount of tumors present and the success ratio of the transplants. So by getting rid of all my tumors they’ve essentially got me back to square zero.
“Last week, my brother gave all his stem cells. The normal person has 50-70 stem cells in whatever measuring unit they use. [I think it’s] milliliters. He had 293! It’s the highest count they’ve ever seen in history. I’m not really stunned because he’s 6-11 and 300 pounds. He’s a monster of a guy. He’s a huge kid.
“The doctors were just jumping for joy when they got that count. So essentially the army that’s going to fight against my disease is a pretty strong army.”
The obvious question of what success percentage Walsh can expect is one that his doctors don’t answer in specifics.
“They’re reluctant to give a percentage and it’s not fair [to expect one],” said Walsh. “If you beat it, it’s 100 percent. If you don’t, it’s zero. But they’re very enthusiastic and encouraged.
“Let’s face it. This is the first treatment anywhere worldwide that has hit kidney cancer that has had a better than 50 percent success rate. That alone in the first phase excites me. When I add in that they were able to debulk my [tumors] and with the stem cell counts that my brother has, I like it.”
Walsh anticipates no impact on the hockey program from his absence.
“Normally, I take about a month [off] after the season before the Coaches’ Convention and go to Florida,” he said. “What I thought I’d do instead is use that month for when I’m down in Washington and just get everything set up [before I go].
“I’ve got our schedule done for the next two years. Our recruiting is fairly well finished. We have maybe one more slot we want to fill. But we’re in pretty good shape there.
“I’m anxious to get started. Right now, I’m more bored than anything. I just want to get it going.”
His wife Lynne will join him as soon as the outpatient tests are completed and he is admitted to the hospital. Their children will remain in Maine with Lynne’s family until school is out. Walsh won’t return to Maine until mid-July even though he expects to check out of the hospital by the end of May and hopes to be playing golf soon after.
“I’m going to have to be down there until mid-July because I’m on [NIH’s] protocol,” he said. “They pay for everything so you have to follow their rules. They test you every Tuesday and Thursday.
“So I’ll be living at my brother’s, working out of his house, basically bored stiff going to the Orioles games,” he said with a laugh. “Which is fine because I’m not needed around [Alfond Arena] much.”
Walsh has been encouraged by conversations with Roger Neilson, the assistant coach with the Ottawa Senators and former head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers who underwent a stem cell transplant roughly a year ago.
“He’s called me a few times during the year to let me know how he felt,” said Walsh. “He’s doing fine. He coached all year for Ottawa and looked good in the playoffs except that it was an early exit.
“He felt he could have been back coaching Philly within a couple weeks after [the transplant last year],” said Walsh. “So I think once I’m out of the hospital, I’ll be up and around. That’s the point where you’ll start seeing a better recovery.”
His role as a coach has helped Walsh stay positive throughout the ordeal.
“Coaching has really helped,” he said. “In coaching our job is to make sure that kids don’t get down. If you lose three in a row or go through a tailspin like we have the last two Januarys, your responsibility is to stay up. It becomes a given. It’s helped me because I haven’t had any scenario where I haven’t been up in this whole situation.
“I’m not worried. It’s a combination; it’s coaching and my renewed faith in God. That’s helped a lot. Roger told me that that helps a lot during this. I’ve been lucky that it’s been an easy thing for me attitudinally.”
Walsh’s positive outlook extends to next year as well. He has no doubts that he’ll be on the Black Bear bench come October.
“I’ll be stunned if I’m not there,” he said.