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Lessons from the Baseball Diamond Help a Patient with Throat Cancer

Gary Weinstein, on vacation in Costa Rica, poses with a young family friend.

Lessons from the Baseball Diamond Help a Patient with Throat Cancer

A lifetime of coaching and playing baseball has taught Gary Weinstein many things.

The 63-year-old Takoma Park resident knows it’s important to train well, stay positive and follow the advice of coaches. And he knows that no individual can succeed without support from a talented team.

So when life threw Weinstein a curve ball in the form of a frightening throat cancer diagnosis, he brought the philosophies he honed on the baseball diamond to Suburban Hospital. There, he found a supportive and dedicated team led by Brandi Page, assistant professor of radiation oncology and molecular radiation sciences for the Johns Hopkins Radiation Oncology Department at Suburban Hospital.

Weinstein, known on and off the ballfield as Coach G, was diagnosed in January 2019 with cancer in his throat. More worrisome still, it had spread to surrounding tissue and lymph nodes.

“I was scared and bummed out, but wanted to learn all I could about what to expect,” Weinstein says. “Dr. Page explained clearly why she felt positive about my diagnosis, and approached every aspect of me and my treatment with an extremely positive mindset. She clearly cares about me and my wife, and makes it a priority to understand my needs, goals, concerns and everything else important.”

Page fitted Weinstein with a radiation mask made of a thermoplastic material and marked high-dose and low-dose radiation regions. For seven weeks, Weinstein made daily trips to Suburban for 20-minute treatments of head and neck radiation. He also had a four-hour chemotherapy infusion once a week.

Because care lasts several weeks, “we can take the time to be very personal,” Page says. “All of our nurses and staff, we truly care about the person behind the patient.”

For Weinstein, that meant learning about his baseball career and how that shaped the way he approached treatment. Weinstein, who grew up in Baltimore, was a high school standout who almost went pro. Starting in 1990, when his son Zak was young, the now-retired legal editor has been a frequent coach and organizer of baseball and softball leagues in Montgomery County in Maryland, and Washington, D.C.

In 2001, he suffered a traumatic brain injury from a line drive, but never gave up on his health or his love of the game. With his characteristic optimism, he says the near-fatal incident had a bright side: It helped prepare him for throat cancer.

“I knew from past experience that I could improve my chances for a successful outcome and endure the treatment and side effects by following my doctors’ instructions and suggestions, by being good to my body and soul, and by trying to make the best of the situation,” he says.

Head and neck radiotherapy is one of the most challenging cancer treatments, Page says. “Coach G kept going and going, and getting back up again, even when that treatment became very hard.”

He exercised daily, taking walks, lifting weights and using an elliptical machine for 20 minutes a day, which Page says almost no one does during this treatment. The physical activity, she says, helped with blood flow, mood and endurance, which complemented the benefits of chemotherapy.

At the advice of Page and other providers, Weinstein increased his protein and calorie intake to promote healing. He also practiced the swallowing, speech and language exercises his Suburban Hospital doctors and therapists recommended.

“There’s no ‘I’ in cancer, and the head and neck cancer program here is no exception,” Page says. “One of the reasons I love being a radiation oncologist is we always function as a team.”

And that team doesn’t get benched when treatment ends. “What we care about is not only treating the cancer,” she says, “but making sure each person is living a happy and quality life.”

Thanks to a positive outlook, a resolve to follow advice even when it’s difficult, and the efforts of a caring team, Weinstein is now cancer-free.

 
graphic shows information about oral cancer, including risk factors and prevalance
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