Source: Healio Interview
Disclosures: Weinstein reports no relevant financial disclosures.
April 15, 2022
5 min read
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Oncologist to run his 30th Boston Marathon with vision of ‘curing all children with cancer’

Source: Healio Interview
Disclosures: Weinstein reports no relevant financial disclosures.
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Besides making sure each foot lands in front of the other, there isn’t much you can do during a 26.2-mile run other than let your mind wander.

Howard Weinstein, MD, director of the pediatric hematology-oncology program at MassGeneral Hospital for Children Cancer Center, often thinks about each patient he’s run for at the Boston Marathon and the many others he’s treated during his career.

Howard Weinstein, MD, will run in his 30th Boston Marathon.
Each year, Howard Weinstein, MD, leads a team of runners in the Boston Marathon who each represent a patient at MassGeneral Hospital for Children Cancer Center. "I’ve had vivid memories of every single patient I’ve run for," Weinstein told Healio. Source: Massachusetts General Hospital.

“I’ve had vivid memories of every single patient I’ve run for,” Weinstein told Healio. “Many are long-term survivors now; unfortunately, some of them did not survive. Each year there is a very, very special memory that I tuck away and relive at times.”

Weinstein, who at age 75 years is set to run in his 30th Boston Marathon on Monday, needs very little motivation. He has helped raise more than $18 million for his program through the annual marathon.

“There are a lot of things that keep me going,” he said, “but the kids I’ve run for, the whole program (is paramount), knowing that what we’re doing is going to make a big difference tomorrow, and that tomorrow is always going to be better than today.”

A dedicated team

Weinstein arrived at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1996 to serve as the chief of the pediatric hematology-oncology division. Two years later, he founded “Fighting Kids Cancer... One Step at a Time,” a team of Mass General runners who participate in the city's popular spring event while raising money for their pediatric cancer program.

But this program has a twist: each runner represents and runs for an individual patient at the hospital.

In 1998, the team started with 10 bibs from partner John Hancock. Nearly a quarter-century later, Weinstein’s team receives more than 100 charity numbers and matches roughly 40 to 50 of its runners with patient partners.

“Prior to COVID-19, we had a pasta dinner the night before the marathon. Families of the kids and patients would come to the dinner, as well as the runners and their families,” Weinstein said. “We would have a ceremony on stage, and runners would present a specially made Boston Marathon medal to their patient partners. There was not a dry eye in the audience. There would be 40 or 50 kids on stage with their runners, and many of the kids would wear their marathon medal for days and weeks.”

An unlikely journey

Weinstein’s path to the starting line at the Boston Marathon probably wasn’t something he saw coming when he began his medical career. For one, he didn’t run in high school; he played tennis.

“I had mild asthma in high school and really couldn’t run much more than a mile,” Weinstein said.

His asthma disappeared in his late 20s and eventually he began running enough that he thought to himself, “I think I can do a marathon.”

At age 44 years, Weinstein ran his first marathon.

“The training definitely doesn’t get any easier, but I still love doing it,” he said. “I’ve probably injured every moving body part a couple of times, but they tend to heal.”

Although he admits 30 is a cool number for the amount of marathons he’s run, it pales in comparison to the other number: $18 million in funds raised to help children with cancer.

“Our outcomes in childhood cancers have improved greatly over the last handful of decades, but our research funding has never really been optimal to do what we wanted to do,” Weinstein said. “And there’s another component for use of those funds, and that’s to support kids and their families through treatment. It might be through art and music therapy or other aspects of overall care that are not really supported by the hospital or grants. I think it really is critical to have that sort of holistic approach so they can continue to get their care and try to maintain as normal of a lifestyle as possible.”

‘I have to get to Mile 20’

Thankfully for Weinstein, he doesn’t have too far of a journey from the finish line at the Boston Marathon to his couch for rest and relaxation. His home is about three houses away from Mile 20.

Mile 20 has become a go-to stop for him and the “Fighting Kids Cancer ... One Step at a Time” team. It’s where Weinstein’s wife, Ann Hochberg, and hospital staff, patients and families lead a spirited cheering section.

“If a runner has a patient partner, we ask that they stop at Mile 20 for a high-five or a hug,” Weinstein said. “I stop for 4 to 5 minutes, because my goal isn’t to improve my time every year. To me, I know I have to get to Mile 20, and I have to hug a dozen or more people. And that’s enough to get me to the last 6.2 miles.”

Mile 20 is also the site of another fundraising venture that began with the Weinstein family. About 20 years ago, Weinstein’s 8-year-old twins, Becca and Aaron, asked if they could run a lemonade stand.

The stand now raises anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 each year.

“People would give them a $10 bill and say, ‘keep the change,’ because there was a big sign that said, “Support Childhood Cancer at the Mass General Hospital,” Weinstein said.

After running the stand for 10 years, Becca and Aaron Weinstein have handed it off to other children of Mass General staff; Becca is now an intern in pediatrics at Mass General and Aaron is in business school.

‘Emotional’ and ‘inspiring’

Weinstein’s other kids, his patients, are what keep him running.

As his sneakers pound the pavement Monday, he’ll be thinking about both his current patients — including his patient partner this year — and the others he’s helped throughout his career.

For him, each step represents progress toward the goal of curing all childhood cancers.

Weinstein estimated the cure rate was around 70% when he ran his first marathon 3 decades ago.

“Now we’re at about 85% cure rates for childhood cancer; my vision is 100%,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll get there (or) if I’ll still be able to run marathons. But my vision is more based on curing all children with cancer rather than an exact dollar amount.”

It’s easy for Weinstein to have such a lofty goal when he sees all the people at Mile 20, including the parents of children who did not survive and the children who have, some of whom have joined his efforts on the Mass General Boston Marathon team.

"One year we had six former patients run on our team. They were all women, between mid-20s and early-30s," Weinstein said. "And it was so, so special and unique, to be able to run alongside some of my former patients. Just really, really — I can’t even begin to describe how emotional it was and how inspiring. Just super, super special."