‘Laker for a Day’
Maui lawyer with brain cancer receives VIP treatment from NBA team
A 36-year-old Maui man who’s defied his cancer diagnosis got the VIP treatment Sunday in Los Angeles, courtesy of his favorite professional basketball team.
Maui attorney Jamil Newirth got to be a “Laker for a Day,” an opportunity for individuals who’ve faced medical issues to take the spotlight at the Staples Center as a guest of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Newirth, a longtime Laker fan who was diagnosed with stage IV brain cancer in 2012, was chosen for the experience after his neurosurgeon at the University of California at Los Angeles recommended him. (UCLA Health partners with the Lakers to give patients the experience.)
“Basketball’s always been my top one or two sports,” Newirth said Monday after returning to Maui. “I’ve always been a big basketball player and fan, and I lived on the West Coast, so the Lakers were my team.”
Accompanied by his doctor and a friend, Newirth dined at the Staples Center’s private Lexus Club before the game. The group took a tour of the arena and got to stand by the tunnel as the teams came out for warmups. At halftime, Newirth was called out onto the court as a video detailing his story played out on the Jumbotron.
“I was a little nervous,” Newirth said. “But you’re there, you’re doing it, so you can’t be that nervous, I guess. Just wave.”
During the game, Newirth enjoyed courtside seats with a view of the Lakers’ bench. The Lakers lost to the Portland Trail Blazers, 97-81, continuing what’s been a rough season, but Newirth still relished his time at the Staples Center.
“Going out on the court was pretty exciting,” Newirth said. “I was waving and shaka-ing. People were yelling, and I looked up at the screen, like ‘Oh my God, . . . it’s so big.’ Everyone was super nice. It was a really good experience.”
After what he’s been through, Newirth is just trying to enjoy every day.
Born in Santa Cruz, Calif., Newirth and his family moved to Maui in 1989. He grew up in Ulupalakua and graduated from Seabury Hall in 1998. After high school, Newirth went back to Southern California to study at Pepperdine University. Law school wasn’t on his radar until he decided he wanted something “more challenging and rewarding” than his advertising job at Mercedes-Benz.
In 2012, Newirth graduated from the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law. He was studying for the Hawaii bar exam when he started getting terrible headaches, vomiting and seizures. At first, doctors thought it was just stress. But then they took an X-ray and found glioblastoma, a malignant brain cancer.
Glioblastoma is one of a number of cancers that forms from star-shaped cells in the brain called astrocytes, according to WebMD. Glioblastoma tumors are highly cancerous and make their own blood supply, allowing them to grow quickly and invade healthy brain tissue. Adults with aggressive glioblastoma who undergo treatment have a 10 percent chance of surviving five years, according to the American Brain Tumor Association.
Newirth’s tumor was in such a difficult location that a neurosurgeon in Washington state told him it wouldn’t be worth attempting surgery. Instead, he did a biopsy and gave Newirth 17 months to live.
“It kind of changes everything because you’ve got to just put everything to the side . . . and just focus on trying to stay alive,” Newirth said. “Everything I had planned, jobs I had lined up, ideas, I just had to let it all go.”
In a way, undergoing chemotherapy helped Newirth prepare for the bar exam, he said. Exhausted from the treatment and cooped up in isolation to avoid getting sick, he had little else to do and no temptation to go out. He studied daily, and it paid off. The year after his diagnosis, he took the grueling, two-day exam and passed.
Newirth said he’s lost track of the last four years of his life, a whirlwind of checkups and treatments. But after a surgery at UCLA, a year of chemotherapy and radiation and three years of clinical trials with DCVax-L (a glioblastoma vaccine being tested in the U.S.), most of the tumor has been removed. He still has portions of it attached to his brain that doctors can’t remove for fear of affecting other functions.
But his life goes on normally. He practices law at the R. Clay Sutherland law firm in Kahului, working on business, real estate and estate planning matters. Every couple of months, his brain has to be scanned, but so far he hasn’t had any recurrence of glioblastoma. He knows he’s “lucky.”
In February, Newirth founded UVSC, “U Versus Cancer/Us Versus Cancer,” with cancer survivor Ben Moon and Maui native Chris Thibaut, who lost his father Rob Thibaut to cancer in 1997. The nonprofit plans to fundraise for cancer patients and cancer research. It has launched a website, uvsc.org, and is preparing to help its first group of cancer fighters.
Newirth knows that the chances of glioblastoma recurrence are high and survival rates low, but he doesn’t focus on it. After years of “just sitting around” for treatments, he’s back doing what he loves: surfing, playing sports and enjoying the outdoors. In December, he completed his first marathon in Honolulu.
“I don’t think it’s beneficial to dwell and get wrapped up in being depressed about it,” Newirth said. “Be aware of it so you can try to do the best you can to take care of it.”
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.