May 26, 2012
When you ask Dr. Stephen Withrow to tell the story of his career as a founder of the field of veterinary oncology, he tells you he wants to focus on other people and the future, not himself.
People who know him would say his comment mirrors the man and his career – his work has always been about others and a better future.
The story of Withrow and the future of veterinary oncology are intrinsically intertwined.
Withrow, former director of the Animal Cancer Center at CSU, retires on May 26 after countless accomplishments. He’s built the world’s largest animal cancer center; created cancer treatments for animals and humans, particularly children with cancer; volunteered at a summer camp for children with cancer; and created the field of surgical oncology, an entire subspecialty of veterinary medicine.
Born in Ladysmith, Wis., Withrow is the oldest son of artists and, at one time, was considered an unlikely candidate for veterinary medicine. As a young man, Withrow had a job cleaning cages at a local veterinary clinic when his dog was hit by a car. As he watched veterinarians he worked for care for his dog, he recalls being awed with their skill and medical knowledge. Despite his high-school teachers telling him he wouldn’t succeed in college, he persevered. He was the second alternate into his veterinary class, coming in at the bottom – and arriving a few days after classes started – but ended up president of his freshman class.
That’s reflective, in some ways, of his career. He chose veterinary oncology when it was an unlikely field of study – very few professionals were interested in it or recognized its importance, yet Withrow has built an internationally known and meaningful program with clinical studies that are encouraged by the Children’s Oncology Group and whose work is funded by the National Cancer Institute.
He studied cancer at the Mayo Clinic, and while at CSU discovered the technique that is used worldwide today to spare the limbs of children and animals with bone cancer. Along the way, he created and perfected surgical techniques for treating cancer in veterinary patients. In 1975, he formed a lifelong friendship with M.D. orthopedic oncologist, Ross Wilkins, who has often asked Withrow to consult on human oncology cases. Genetically and clinically, many cancers in dogs are more like cancers in children than cancers in laboratory animals.
He has been honored too many times to list, including by CSU for teaching and research as well as by the American Animal Hospital, American Veterinary Medical Association, Colorado Veterinary Medical Association, and the American Kennel Club, to name a few. He was named Ronald McDonald House Volunteer of the Year in 2001, and became a University Distinguished Professor in 2004. The World Small Animal Veterinary Association honored him for scientific achievement in 2011, and he’s received several recognitions for lifetime achievement and career achievement from other national veterinary associations.
His 40-year career has spanned two countries, Canada and the United States, as well as changed – and saved – the lives of hundreds of animals and people with cancer. The Animal Cancer Center, which broke ground in 2000, now accommodates 5,000 patient visits a year, some of whom travel around the world for treatment. He’s treated thousands and thousands of cases of cancer in bears, dogs, cats, horses, snakes, cattle, and llamas. He’s taught 4,000 veterinary students about cancer and about being true to themselves, their families, their clients, their patients, their colleagues. And he’s touched the lives of human cancer patients and helped them try novel treatments, often successfully, against cancer.
His leadership style has always been to be in the trenches with his colleagues. Throughout his years as director of the Animal Cancer Center, he’s always set aside about half his time to be on clinics seeing patients.
“That’s the ‘why’,” Withrow says. “That’s where the problems are, and if you are where the problems are, you are where the solutions are. I didn’t want to be on a hill directing people.”
Still, after so many brilliant moments, this great scholar returns to simplicity and fundamentals, quoting from and living by his favorite book, All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, as well as other “Withrowisms” that summarize the rules he lives by.
Hope. Share. Play fair. Stick together. Be aware of wonder, because things have a way of coming together beautifully, so much so that Withrow says someday he’ll write a book about all of this and call it “You Can’t Make this Shit Up.”
And ask “WHY?” It’s Withrow’s pursuit of “why?” that created the field of veterinary surgical oncology and made translational oncology – how veterinary medicine and human medicine can be translated to each other to help people – what it is today.
Part of asking why also is knowing what to do with and how to find the answer. Above his computer is a framed napkin, written on by Norman Schwarzkopf during a dinner conversation years ago. It lists Schwarzkopf’s top 14 rules. Rules 1-12 are blank, rule number 13 is “Take charge,” and rule 14 is “Do what’s right.”
“If you get rules 13 and 14 right, the first 12 don’t matter,” says Withrow.
On the other wall in his office is another saying, which he looks at daily: Noblesse oblige. The Latin phrase means that leaders have a moral obligation to act with honor, kindness, and generosity. And that's something his team says he has mastered.
“I have been blessed to work with an incredible human being for more than 13 years,” says Lynda Reed, his assistant. “Steve challenges me every day. I know working with him has made me a better person. His passion is contagious. The team he has assembled at the CSU Animal Cancer Center makes a difference in so many lives every day. I am proud to know and love Steve Withrow. We are friends and will remain friends until we leave this life. Yes, I have been so lucky to be here to see the magic that happens. This is truly a center of hope.”
When asked what he’ll remember the most, Withrow remembers many patients and people. Bart, the movie star bear, whom he treated for cancer and whose owner helped fund-raise for the $10 million needed for the Animal Cancer Center before it was built, may have been his most famous patient, but he will always remember the unwavering courage of all of his animal patients and the faith their owners put in him and the Animal Cancer Center.
In retirement, Withrow will continue to give back; he’s already planning. He’ll spend time with his family – regardless of all his other accomplishments, he credits marrying Sue as the smartest thing he’s ever done; his two successful children who also are in the medical field; and his grandchildren. He’ll travel, pursue his love of fly fishing, and garden. He also plans to give much of his garden harvest and his time to the Larimer County Food Bank.
“No matter how he tries to deflect the spotlight, there is no denying that Steve’s at the heart of all of the events that shaped the creation of arguably one of the finest cancer centers in the world, and he’s done it with courage, compassion and a boldness grounded in a firm understanding of the why,” said Tony Frank, president of Colorado State University.
There is no question in Dr. Steve Withrow’s mind that he is leaving the Animal Cancer Center in the hands of an exceptional team that he believes will do a better job than he did. Even in handing over the reins, he remains focused on others and the future. And the team fills the shoes of a giant.
Contact: Dell Rae Moellenberg
Phone: (970) 491-6009