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A Personalized Approach to Cancer Treatment

October 27, 2022

How do you survive cancer while continuing to operate a farm? In Dan Colhoun’s case, it took lots of determination and a bit of luck. But if you ask him, the key was finding the right oncology team.

Radiation Oncologist, “Dr. Geoffrey Neuner’s approach was very understanding of my goals,” he recalled. “I wanted to retain as much physical ability, to run my life and my farm as much as I could.”

Dan and Julia Colhoun bought their Baltimore County farm in 1960, the same year they married. Their family and the farm have grown over the years and Dan Colhoun embraced every opportunity to be a good steward of the land. Today, at 88 and 90, the couple manage some 200 acres, assisted by a full-time worker.

Committed to the land, Colhoun volunteered for and even helped launch some of the agriculture and conservation programs that have preserved 80,000 acres for farming in Baltimore County. He finds it rewarding “to see so much active agricultural industry alive and well in northern Baltimore County. It lets young people see a future for themselves in agriculture.”

Colhoun thinks a lot about the future, just as he did six years ago when he found a swollen gland in his neck and his family doctor recommended a biopsy. His wife had been successfully treated for breast cancer at GBMC years earlier so he visited GBMC’s Milton J. Dance Jr., Head and Neck Center for his biopsy. He was determined to find the best treatment there was long term, so he met with oncologists at all the prominent hospitals in the area to determine next steps.

Every one of them recommended surgery to remove the tumor at the base of his tongue and most suggested surgery to then be followed by radiation therapy. The oncologist at the Dance Center was the only one who told him he had time to consider his options.

He preferred a noninvasive treatment, one that would disrupt his lifestyle working on the farm as little as possible.

After doing this research, Colhoun returned to the institution where he’d felt most confident and most comfortable: GBMC’s Sandra and Malcolm Berman Cancer Institute. When he met with radiation oncologist Dr. Neuner, he found someone with an approach that was understanding of his own goals.

“He looked me in the eye, every time we met. And he thoughtfully looked out for my welfare,” he said.

Listening to the Colhouns describe their life and goals, Dr. Neuner suggested a plan that was the reverse of the one they’d been presented elsewhere. He recommended beginning with radiation therapy, then turning to surgery if it was necessary. The recovery path from surgery, particularly at 82, was likely to be steeper than from radiation. And it worked. Colhoun is now cancer free and never needed surgery.

Clinical studies of this approach have since confirmed its efficacy in treating cancers like Colhoun’s.

Treatment wasn’t easy, though – far from it. Colhoun found himself “demobilized” by exhaustion, and occasionally needed a cane to walk. The determination and grit he had sharpened serving in the U.S. Marine Corps kicked in.

“I decided I’m going to get up and go out and do the chores,” he recalled. “No matter what.

“I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. And I had Dr. Neuner’s encouragement. He’d tell me, ‘get out of bed if you possibly can.’ And I did.”

As much as he prefers moving forward, Colhoun has a full life to reflect on. He flew in the last propeller-driven attack aircraft the Marine Corps had and later ran a civil engineering firm that did work up and down the East Coast and Alaska. While the cancer itself is behind him, some side effects remain. Food doesn’t taste good to him, and he has added an afternoon nap to his daily schedule.

Yet this morning, Colhoun is out on the tractor, bringing in the field corn. Some will feed his own livestock; the rest will be sold. “Step-by-step,” he said. “I can see the fruits of my labors.”

For that, he says, he is grateful to Dr. Neuner and GBMC.

To support patients like Dan Colhoun, please consider a donation to the Berman Cancer Institute.

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