Two weeks after undergoing a stem-cell transplant at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md., Maine head coach Shawn Walsh is “feeling stronger every day” and continuing to make progress in his outpatient treatment.
His most recent round of treatments involved a week of chemotherapy, which began May 10, to suppress his immune system in preparation for the transplant, and the actual stem-cell transplant, May 17. Walsh was formally released from NIH this past Sunday, May 27, and underwent his first outpatient testing Tuesday. He will continue to undergo blood tests at NIH every Tuesday and Friday for several more weeks to monitor how his body is accepting the stem cells.
“One of the biggest things to me has been that this process usually involves 21 days in the hospital, but by day five (May 22) I was able to come home [his brother Kevin’s home in nearby Annandale, Va.] each afternoon and not return until the following morning,” said Walsh. “I’ve been able to keep up with the Stanley Cup, see my wife Lynne and enjoy some home cooking. It sure beats hospital living.”
Walsh compared his current treatment to the immunotherapy he underwent at UCLA’s Jonsson Cancer Center nine months ago, saying, “It is not as intense, but is more of an endurance test. Fatigue is clearly the biggest by-product of all the chemotherapy they’ve given me, but each day I’m feeling better. My weight got down to 159 pounds during the first few days of chemotherapy, but have gained 12 pounds back already. I was able to walk a mile and a half this morning, and I hit some golf balls at the range two nights ago, so things are coming around.”
Coach Walsh was more interested in talking about hockey than his current medical treatments.
“I’ve been able to keep in contact with my office via the fax and phone. It has been different for me, experiencing life at a slower pace,” said Walsh. “It has given me a lot of time to think about and plan for next season. It’s been hard for me to contain my excitement for this coming season.
“I need to stay in the [Maryland-Virginia] area for a while, but I am hoping to get back to home for our hockey alumni weekend in early July, and be back in Maine for good by August 1.”
This past Tuesday provided even more excitement for Walsh as former Black Bear standout Bob Corkum scored the pivotal game-tying goal in the New Jersey Devils’ 2-1 Stanley Cup game two defeat of the Colorado Avalanche. In a live interview with ESPN following the first period, Corkum said, “Coach Walsh, I hope you’re watching. That one was for you.”
“It’s been fun to talk to Bobby throughout the playoffs,” said Walsh. “I actually talked to him that afternoon. I told him to quit playing safe, and see if he can give them a lift. And, what a lift he gave them! It certainly energized me when Bobby said what he did on national television.”
Dr. Richard Childs of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and Dr. David Schrump, Head of the Thoracic Oncology Section of the Surgery Branch of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), are overseeing Walsh’s treatment while at NIH. Childs is the primary investigator of the stem-cell study, which is a collaboration of the NHLBI and NCI.
Walsh successfully underwent surgery March 29 at NIH in preparation for the stem-cell procedure. The initial surgery, known as debulking, included a left pneumonectomy (removal of his left lung), and removal of cancerous tumors located under his breastplate. The debulking surgery Walsh underwent was essential in preparation for the stem-cell transplant because the number of cancer cells present at the time of the transplant is directly related to the success rate of the procedure.
Walsh, originally diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma in early July of last year, underwent these procedures to eradicate cancer cells that have spread to his left lung and his sternum.
Stem cells are immature cells that develop into blood cells. If the transplant is successful, new cells will grow, multiply and attack the cancer cells. The procedure involves transplanting stem cells from someone who is cancer-free and a very close genetic match into the cancer patient. Walsh’s brother Kevin was the stem-cell donor for the procedure.
Prior to Walsh’s arrival at NIH for the stem-cell procedure, he remarked about his brother’s contribution, “The average person has 50-70 stem cells per measure of blood. Kevin has 290, which is by far the highest count my doctors have ever seen. My doctors were jumping with joy when they saw the count.
“What this means is that I will have the advantage of more cells to fight my cancer,” said an excited Walsh. “I’m ready and excited to get this process started.”
Expressing his excitement at being selected to be part of this treatment program, he cited the stem-cell transplant procedure as “the one treatment out there that has a better than 50 percent success rate.”
Walsh also expressed his optimism in his doctors, and noting that with the research being in its second phase, a lot of the problems encountered with the first group of patients have led to improvements that will further increase his chance of success.
Walsh had surgery to remove a cancerous left kidney at the Boston Medical Center July 7, and underwent immunotherapy cycles at UCLA’s Jonsson Cancer Center in August and October.
After missing the first three games of last season during the second round of treatments, he returned to guide Maine to the NCAA quarterfinal game in which the Black Bears lost to eventual national champion Boston College, 3-1.