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Guts and Grace: Colon cancer patient establishes research fund to help others

Danna Mezin has established the Mezin-Koats Colon Cancer Research Fund and has inspired gifts totaling $125,000 to advance cancer research.
Danna Mezin (right), a former executive at UnitedHealthcare, hopes the colon cancer research fund she has established will help advance treatments and outcomes for colon cancer patients.

Update, March 25, 2015
Sadly, Danna Mezin passed away on March 22, 2015, several weeks after the publication of this article. University of Minnesota Health wishes to thank her and her family for their willingness to act selflessly to help others. 

For a person going through Stage IV colon cancer treatment that’s exhausting at best and grueling at worst, Danna Mezin is surprisingly energetic.

Mezin, 53, a former executive at UnitedHealthcare, is now laser-focused on advancing research on treatments for the disease that has overwhelmed her life since she was diagnosed in September 2013.

“Every step forward helps somebody,” Mezin said. “That keeps fueling me. When you don’t have any control over your own destiny, you think, ‘What can I be doing instead of just saying there are no options? What can I be doing to make a difference?’ And while I probably won’t be able to make a difference for me, I am hoping that what we’ve started is something that will keep going and will be able to make a difference for a lot of other people.”

What she’s started, with her husband, Dick Koats, is the Mezin-Koats Colon Cancer Research Fund at the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota. Since April 2014, they’ve inspired more than 300 gifts totaling $125,000 and have disbursed $25,000 to each of two promising Masonic Cancer Center research efforts.

“We have been so overwhelmed at the amount of support,” says Mezin. “It’s just incredible, and we are very appreciative.”

Make a gift to the Mezin-Koats Colon Cancer Research Fund.

All roads

The day her cancer was diagnosed, Mezin’s physician referred her to University of Minnesota Health Colon and Rectal Surgeon Robert Madoff, MD. The chief medical officer at UnitedHealth Group also recommended him.

“All roads led to Dr. Madoff,” Mezin said.

Madoff then referred her to Oncologist Anne Blaes, MD. Mezin said she has been continually impressed by the “over-the-top” compassionate care she has received as well as the depth of talent and knowledge at University of Minnesota Health.

“I’ve been in health care for 25 years, and I can’t say I’ve experienced care the way I’ve seen it at the U,” she said.

Moving forward

The first research project receiving Mezin-Koats Colon Cancer Research Fund assistance is led by scientist Tim Starr, PhD, and aims to understand how genes work together to cause colon cancer. His goal: designing targeted treatments. The second, led by physician and scientist Emil Lou, MD, PhD, seeks to discover better information about how colon cancer cells communicate and become resistant to treatment.

Mezin knows the reality of research: it takes a lot of money and a long time to make significant progress. But she wanted to provide meaningful support to projects that stand to make a difference in her lifetime—however long that might be.

Starr hopes that the Mezin-Koats funding he’s receiving provides the seed needed to prove that his idea works. “Because we are developing new methods, most granting agencies are not willing to give money for our research because they deem it too risky,” he says.

For Mezin and Koats, that’s the point—taking risks to make progress faster. “We are driven by people who have colon cancer today,” Mezin says. “We appreciate what colon cancer patients go through and how important research really is.”