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Mitch Cooperman

Cancer, Karate and Recovery

Holy Name Cancer Patient stories - Mitch Cooperman

Mitch Cooperman just finished mounting new brackets for some shelves when he took a break to explain how his life was upended about a year earlier. He had started cancer treatment and there were times when taking a sip of water was impossible, days when he didn’t think he would make it.

Mitch had a type of head and neck cancer, specifically, tonsil cancer. He found it after returning from a trip to Okinawa, Japan, when a sore throat and swollen glands wouldn’t heal. He went to see his physician, Dr. Carla Germinario, an internist at Holy Name Medical Center, who sent him for a biopsy.


“When I found out I had cancer, I was shocked – I’m young and in really good shape,” Mitch said. “I was beside myself, crying. It was a really scary time.”

Not only was Mitch facing a cancer diagnosis but it was the type that could leave him unable to talk. A martial arts teacher, he realized this could cost him his career.

Mitch, 62, has been using Holy Name for a host of medical concerns through the years – a busted shoulder, broken collar bone, kidney stones, and other emergency conditions – so he reached out for a Holy Name physician for his cancer. He met with Dr. Peter Wu, a radiation oncologist.

“Dr. Wu explained my treatment plan and I felt very confident with what he had to say,” Mitch said. “Though there was a chance I could lose my voice, he gave me a very good prognosis. He told me what to expect and was with me every morning I had treatment – 5 days a week for 33 treatments.”

For a while, Mitch was able to tolerate the radiation treatments really well. Then it started taking a toll and his throat became too sore to eat. Dr. Wu had warned Mitch this would happen and helped him prepare by ordering a feeding tube.

“There were times I just didn’t want to eat but Dr. Wu was available whenever I needed to talk to him,” Mitch said. “If I was really weak, he would have me come in for an infusion of liquids and that really helped.”

In total, Mitch dropped more than 60 pounds on his 5’7” frame and plummeted to 120 pounds. He had three rounds of chemotherapy during his radiation treatment, and on some days, could barely get out of bed.

Finally, Mitch finished treatment. “But radiation and chemo are like driving a boat; when the boat stops, the waves keep going. The radiation and chemo were still in my body.”

With the support of family, friends and the staff at Holy Name, Mitch wouldn’t give up. And ever so slowly, he started getting stronger. The feeding tube came out and he put back some of the weight, albeit at a glacier pace. He was also ready for some physical activity and longed for some social interaction.

COVID had hit, and his visitors were limited. But he saw the proliferation of karate classes being taught online and realized he could become more active. He bought a Lay-Z-Boy chair and started teaching karate to his own loyal students online.

“The kids kept me strong – I was up to 13 half-hour lessons a day – and they helped me more than they’ll ever know,” Mitch said. “Then I started giving lessons outdoors. It was great.”

Mitch’s recovery progressed – he put on more weight and expanded his teaching schedule. But he had one issue that wouldn’t resolve – the left side of his tongue wasn’t healing. It had been burned from the radiation and wasn’t responding to several different types of medications and therapies.

Dr. Wu suggested he visit Holy Name’s Institute for Wound Healing, which has a hyperbolic chamber used to help heal lingering sores. The chamber enables patients to breathe 100 percent oxygen in a pressurized environment with a non-invasive, painless therapy.

“I went every day for 2 hours and the staff was great about working around my teaching schedule,” Mitch said. “I was so surprised – it worked! I’m back to eating and drinking normally again.”

Mitch said he doesn’t expect, nor want, to gain all his weight back but he’s feeling strong again, teaching full time and living his normal life. Performing household repairs, living life at full force and setting an example of fitness for others.

“You’d never know by looking at me what I’ve been through – in fact, I’m back to being in such good shape that many people say they want to look like me,” Mitch said. “I’m very blessed to be six feet up and not in the ground. I owe everything to Dr. Wu and Dr. Germinario – they saved my life.”

Learn more about head and neck cancer treatment at Holy Name