Grabbing cancer by the helm
Survivor invests in brain tumor research
Against the San Francisco skyline, Scott Winneker vigorously tacks the jib aboard the Gemini just as the warm Bay breeze catches its sails.
“I feel it, I love it,” he says, settling back at the helm of his 1970 Ericson 35 sailboat.
Nine years ago, when Winneker was diagnosed with brain cancer, neither he nor his physicians imagined he would still be thrill-seeking on the San Francisco Bay. Now 58, Winneker has not only beaten very grim odds but has become a passionate supporter of causes he cares about, including the work to better understand glioblastoma cell formation at UC Davis Health System and Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“For whatever reason, I’m still here,” says Winneker, in happy disbelief.
Winneker’s brain cancer journey began when he was working as an air traffic controller and had a routine annual physical as required. At the time, he sensed that something was wrong with his visual perception. Further tests revealed a stage 4 glioblastoma multiforme brain tumor, the most common and most serious malignant brain tumor in adults.
Based on prior medical studies, “doctors gave him a 20 percent chance of surviving two years,” says Julie Rader, Winneker’s significant other and the UC Davis Health Sciences Development business manager.
The prognosis was devastating, and Winneker feared he would not live to see his two sons graduate from college, get married or buy their first homes.
“I had to tell myself that things would be OK,” Winneker recalls. “I had a lot of people helping me and giving me good vibes. I’ve been very fortunate with people, with God — it’s a good thing.”
Voyage to survivorship
Winneker underwent a craniotomy, and surgeons removed the tumor. He then had six months of simultaneous chemotherapy and radiation therapy, then more chemotherapy. Winneker’s physicians monitored him and, when a small growth appeared at the tumor site, they performed a gamma knife procedure. He recalls his head being placed in a metal harness, then receiving high-energy gamma rays shot directly at the tumor. Winneker light-heartedly relates the procedure to a scene in the science fiction movie Back to the Future.
Winneker’s humor and positive attitude have been a driving force along his voyage.
“I don’t remember getting mad at the situation because, to me, cancer is a part of life and you’ve got to deal with it the best you can,” Winneker says.
Winneker survived some major setbacks. Following an additional surgery at a Bay Area cancer center, he contracted a staph infection, requiring intravenous antibiotics 24 hours a day for six months.
“That was an extremely difficult time for us, but we got through it,” Rader says.
The infection ultimately led to removal of his bone flap, which left him with a permanent soft spot on the back of his head. Winneker also developed Parkinson’s disease, aphasia (difficulty speaking), short-term memory problems and a loss of peripheral vision — the result of years of cancer treatments.
But he has slowly been weaned off of his monthly chemotherapy, and his medical condition is considered “stable.”
And he is happy to report that both his sons graduated from college, got married and have their own homes.
“Scott is an inspiration to everyone who has helped him through this journey,” says Rader.
An anchor for giving
Winneker’s journey to survivorship sparked his philanthropic activities. He began giving to the UC Davis Health System when he purchased 12 paintings during the Children’s Miracle Network’s fundraising gala “Painting for Miracles.” The works decorate the walls of his home.
When informed of important research into the causes of his own disease, Winneker made a $25,000 gift to Paul Knoepfler, UC Davis associate professor of cell biology and human anatomy. Knoepfler’s research aims to understand why glioblastoma forms and to find new ways to treat the disease by killing the cancer cells.
Winneker doesn’t plan to stop there.
“I was very blessed with my career as an air traffic controller, and I wanted to give back,” he says. “I felt UC Davis was a good place to do that.”
Winneker plans to earmark a portion of his estate to support scientific research at UC Davis in perpetuity.
“Any gift to UC Davis is a meaningful investment in our programs and our leading-edge research initiatives,” says Jeffrey Fischer-Smith, the cancer center’s senior director of development. “A planned gift is the perfect way for a donor to contribute to a specific program or area of research and to receive assistance in the estate planning process to ensure their wishes are carried out.”
Riding high on the waves of retirement
Now six years into retirement, Winneker continues his active lifestyle playing Ping-Pong, riding his stationary bicycle and keeping his 1973 Dodge truck in perfect running condition. Winneker and Rader also enjoy spending time at home together, cooking, dining and watching Winneker’s beloved Seattle Seahawks.
“I do my own thing for the most part, but I find a way to make things work with the help of my friends,” says Winneker.
But his greatest thrill is still behind the helm of the Gemini with the San Francisco Bay breeze in his hair and the cool spray of white-capped waves upon his face.