After a few weeks of increasingly concerning symptoms, I checked into the emergency room at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital on Dec. 21 for what led to an ultimate diagnosis of stage 4 metastatic lung cancer.
Since October, I was having sharp, darting pain in my shoulder, forearm and armpit, weird unstretchable aching in my hip, swelling in my glands, and numbness in my ring and middle finger. For a while I ignored these symptoms, chalking them up to being 58 years old, the flu and playing too much tennis. After noticing that I was feeling badly on the tennis court, Dr. John Freedman of Chilmark urged me to head down to the ER.
What will stay with me forever, is the very astute care of Dr. Katherine Stedman, who wisely ordered a CT scan of my neck and then delivered a very sullen and serious message. Her bedside manner revealed an appropriate level of concern with the consequences of what I would soon face.
Thankfully, the first call I made was Dr. Phil Kantoff of West Tisbury. I knew him as “streetball” Phil and we had become very friendly over his junk ball tennis slice and good net game. What I soon found out was that Dr. Kantoff was a “legend” in the field of oncology, having made advances in prostate cancer (the kind that impacts countless lives and yet we don’t even know who is the person responsible), and having served for more than 30 years at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Memorial Sloan Kettering. He is one of the doctors most responsible for creating their outstanding culture of care. Dr. Kantoff sprung into action, notwithstanding the upcoming holidays, setting up an appointment with the lead lung oncologist at Dana Farber for two days after Christmas.
Immediately, we would find out what that truly outstanding level of care (for which we are very grateful) consists of through an amazing team of oncologists, surgeons, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and support staff. After my first biopsy did not yield any results, I enlisted our friend Dr. Chris Gilligan (a seasonal Aquinnah resident and chief anesthesiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital) whose family are regulars on the Chilmark summer tennis scene. Dr. Gilligan was able to expedite a second biopsy, and by Jan. 11 I had a full diagnosis and treatment plan that would include regular chemotherapy infusions and possible immunotherapy (Dana Farber has made incredible advances in this field in recent years).
Closer to home, I was able to lean on the tremendous support I have received from emergency physicians and good friends, Dr. Jeff Zack and Dr. Jeff Horenstein, both of Chilmark. I had also met the two of them playing tennis at the community center (I’m not sure Dr. Zack has much tennis game, but his wife Patricia Bacon is fierce) and Dr. Horenstein, a tennis zealot who rekindles his youth USTA tennis career (and pinball wizardry) battling up against the MVRHS tennis players.
Though neither is my primary care physician, Dr. Zack had a look at my early symptoms and tracked my chart as test results started coming in — he was responsible for recruiting Dr. Stedman to Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. Dr. Horenstein has provided an alternative analysis of my diagnosis and rolled up his sleeves to gather further opinion from other medical colleagues. Physician assistant Aubrey Ryan, of West Tisbury, greeted me at the ER to let me know I was in good hands. She is also a Chilmark tennis friend.
In my view, keeping doctors, nurses, physician assistants and nurse practitioners on the Island should be a main objective of the hospital. Their support has been incredibly available and invaluable.
As I am sure readers know, the Island is a special place when adversity and difficult news hits home — the people on the Island show up. Before the holiday season was out, our community of friends had offered meals, farm vegetables, teas, greens and firewood delivered to the house, extra blankets, places to stay in Boston when I have treatment, further medical options and emotional support, local wellness recommendations from yoga to acupuncture, massage, even astrological readings. All true expressions of comfort, compassion and love.
A good number of these friends I had met through tennis in Chilmark, including Eddie Stahl, the tennis pro, who was the direct conduit to those relationships. He has spent the better part of the last 25 years dedicated to creating a year-round community of players. We start playing in March and he’s out there every day in 30-degree weather to hit with all comers. The lesson is still the same — enjoy the game and provide support for neighbors and friends. Now there is a chance those relationships could save my life.
This up-Island tennis community has become even more vibrant in the recent years since Covid. We celebrate milestones together, the occasional latte and, unfortunately, the depths of despair over losing a spouse, needing a kidney transplant or just the regular daily difficulties we face.
I have come to realize more tenderly the deep pain others feel and it’s part of my mission going forward to be available as a source of strength for others. Naturally, the thoughts of mortality are more raw for me now. What I also know, though, is that all of us face these fears. I beat cancer once in my 20’s, and with the loving support of family and friends I am determined to do the same again. But I know I can’t do it without them.
For the past several years, I have had the good fortune to serve as the elected representative from Chilmark on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. Part of the commission’s charge is to protect and conserve the truly exceptional natural beauty of the Island and its surrounding environment, which is our obligation. But what may equal or exceed that need is to preserve, protect and conserve our Island community.
Yes, the sunsets, ocean, sand and water are beautiful, but what is really breathtaking and life-giving are the people of this Island.
Jay Grossman lives in Chilmark.