Living with gratitude
Minnesota couple gives back in gratitude for lifesaving cancer care after a devastating diagnosis

At age 45, Mike Neeson was in great physical health, enjoying a life of golf and adventure with his wife and their two young sons. Back then, in 2008, the Stillwater, Minnesota, resident’s biggest concern was that he might need to try out a new diet.

“I had started having some digestive problems,” Neeson explains. “I went to my local doctor here and explained the symptoms, and he said, ‘I think you’re lactose intolerant.’”

Despite dietary changes, his symptoms persisted, so his doctors recommended that he have a colonoscopy. When Neeson came out of the sedation, his doctors revealed a grim discovery: an inch-and-a-half-long mass in his colon. 

Soon after, Neeson learned that he had Stage IV colon cancer that had spread to his lungs, a devastating diagnosis that is often fatal. Mike Neeson’s wife, Patty, said that her husband’s diagnosis was a life-changing realization that cancer can happen to anyone. 

“For me, the blinders were removed and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is life,’” Patty Neeson says. “It was kind of the first time that I thought that I was not in control.”

Expert care close to home
The Neesons were determined to find the best care team to support Mike’s upcoming journey. Their search led them to David Rothenberger, M.D.—who has since retired, but at the time of Mike’s diagnosis was a field-leading colorectal cancer surgeon at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center and a professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Surgery. 

“When Dr. Rothenberger’s name came up, more than once [in our search], I was told, ‘Hey, you’re really lucky,’” Mike Neeson recalls. “One of the best colorectal surgeons in the country was actually here in our backyard.” 

Almost immediately, Rothenberger and his team filled the Neeson family with hope by offering them concrete information and attentive, thoughtful communication. 

“From that moment on, we knew they had a plan,” Patty Neeson recalls.

After two surgeries, 62 weeks of chemotherapy, and 40 radiation treatments over the course of three years, Mike Neeson was declared cancer-free. However, that incredible feeling of relief was tempered by the lingering physical effects of his grueling treatment. He now lives with a colostomy and urostomy, as well as kidney issues that require ongoing management.

“Even as a survivor, a lot of times there’s collateral damage,” Neeson says. “I golf, we ski, we travel and everything, but every 55 days I’m in [the hospital] for four hours, going on 12 years now. And it will continue.” 

An advocate for others
Despite the vigilance required by Mike’s condition, the Neesons are determined to live life to the fullest. The family still loves to travel and leads an active lifestyle, and Mike dedicates a substantial amount of his time to raising awareness about colon cancer. 

“If someone had ever told me that I was going to change my ostomies at seminars and conferences, literally in front of 200 people, I would have told them they were crazy,” he says.

Today, University of Minnesota Medical School and M Health Fairview experts see Neeson as an invaluable patient advocate, sending current cancer patients his way to discuss their own health journeys. Neeson says this work allows him to both channel his gratitude for beating cancer and offer hope to other people and families affected by the disease. 

“I do have a real passion for helping people,” Neeson says. “These folks have their medical team, they have their friends, but [I’m here to say], ‘Hey, I’ve walked a mile in your shoes.’”

The Neesons also show their appreciation for the lifesaving care that Mike received through philanthropy. They support the Mezin-Koats Colon Cancer Research Fund at the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota. They also have included the Masonic Cancer Center in their estate plans and raise additional resources and awareness through their annual St. Croix Cruise for a Cause riverboat fundraiser. 

The couple says that it’s inspiring to know that their gifts have helped Masonic Cancer Center researchers like Timothy Starr, Ph.D., Emil Lou, M.D., Ph.D., and Subree Subramanian, Ph.D., pursue bold research initiatives and fuel the next phases of their work. 

“If we can make a small impact so that the next generation doesn’t have to go through that major surgery that Mike had to do, I think just that little bit would make a huge difference,” Patty Neeson says. 

Mike Neeson says that he feels incredibly lucky to continue to live a joyful life with his family, thanks in large part to his M Health Fairview care team. They hope their support will help not only create a better future for those affected by colon cancer, but will also serve as a testament to their gratitude.

“Fifteen years ago, the U came into our life, and we were very grateful for the care,” Patty Neeson says. “I think the University is part of our family.”

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