Brain Tumor Survivor Puts a Positive Spin on Treatment

Written By:Stacy Simon

Howard Tolchin figured if he had to spend every other week in the hospital getting chemotherapy for a brain tumor, he was going to make the most of it. With help from friends, he decorated his room each time with balloons, flowers, get-well cards, and Hawaiian-themed decorations. Other patients took notice and Tolchin says the party-like atmosphere lifted their moods, too.

“A positive mental attitude is so important,” says Tolchin. “You’ve got to be positive.” Even having to postpone a trip to Hawaii – twice – didn’t get Tolchin down. “I’d rather be here getting treatment than scuba diving and having a seizure,” he said.

Hawaii on hold

The first time Tolchin and his wife Merle postponed their trip was in 2008 because she was diagnosed with breast cancer after a routine mammogram. She had surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. After her treatment and recovery, “all was fine and wonderful,” according to Tolchin, and they re-booked their trip. But a year later, their plans fell apart again.

In September 2009, Tolchin lost the use of the entire right side of his body. Doctors suspected a stroke, but a series of tests, including brain scans and biopsies, found something else – a 3 ½ centimeter tumor pressing on the left frontal lobe of the brain, which controls movement in the right side of the body. Tolchin’s tumor was a CNS lymphoma, a type of cancer that starts in the lymph system in the brain and tends to grow quickly. He would have to start treatment right away.

For the next several months, Tolchin underwent chemotherapy, radiation, and physical therapy to regain movement on the right side of his body. In November 2009, he celebrated his 64th birthday in the hospital.

‘A full box of Kleenex’

Tolchin says it took a lot of hard work, but gradually he regained the movement he had lost. Through months of exercises, with his wife by his side to help him, he re-learned to use his arm and his hand, and to walk normally again. In addition, tests showed his tumor had begun to shrink. By June 2010, doctors could not find the tumor on scans at all. “That was a full box of Kleenex,” said Tolchin. “Happy news always makes me cry.”

That fall, the Tolchins finally took their long-awaited trip to Hawaii. But that was not to be the end of their story.

In 2012, the lymphoma came back in 2 places on Tolchin’s back – an instance so rare for his type of cancer that Tolchin’s doctors published his case in a scholarly journal. He went through surgery, several more rounds of chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, and by the end of the year, a PET scan confirmed the treatment was successful. Once again, scans showed no sign of the lymphoma.

However, a scan did show that a small tumor in Tolchin’s lung, first spotted in 2009, had grown slightly. A biopsy found it was a type of lung cancer called adenocarcinoma, the most common type of lung cancer seen in people who don't smoke. Tolchin had surgery in January 2013 to remove part of his left lung.

‘Listen to your body’

"If you saw me right now, you would never know I had any type of problem. A cancer diagnosis is NOT a death sentence. My wife and I are living proof. I had a brain tumor, I had lymphoma, I had lung cancer, and I'm still here."

Howard Tolchin

Now, Tolchin says he and his wife are both doing fine. Three months after his lung surgery, the Tolchins took a Mediterranean cruise. Today, Tolchin lives an active life, playing racquetball, weight training, swimming, walking, and bike riding. “If you saw me right now, you would never know I had any type of problem,” he said. “A cancer diagnosis is NOT a death sentence. My wife and I are living proof. I had a brain tumor, I had lymphoma, I had lung cancer, and I’m still here.”

According to Tolchin, research and studies funded by the American Cancer Society contributed to the treatments that saved his life and his wife’s. He shares that message with people he meets at American Cancer Society Relay For Life events near his home in Arizona.

Last year, he walked the survivor’s lap at Relay For Life of Paradise Valley & Arcadia. “It was very emotional,” said Tolchin. “None of us holding the banner ever thought we’d be there.” The experience inspired him to volunteer as a Survivor Speaker, and in April 2015 he spoke at the Paradise Valley & Arcadia and the Scottsdale events. His message: “Keep positive and listen to what your body’s telling you. Listen to your body if it’s not quite doing what it should do. Listen to your body. And ladies, get your mammograms.”

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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