For colon cancer survivor Mike Neeson, any day on the golf course is a great day.
Neeson says he has always been a positive person. “But getting a little dose of your mortality is not necessarily a bad thing,” he adds.
Neeson, a 45-year-old husband and father of two, had barely been to a doctor in his life before the spring of 2008. That year, scans uncovered a large mass in his lower colon. Neeson’s doctor referred him to University of Minnesota Health Colon and Rectal Surgeon David Rothenberger, MD. Rothenberger confirmed that the mass was colon cancer—and that it had spread to Neeson’s seminal vesicle, prostate, and lungs.
Over the next seven years, Neeson underwent radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and numerous surgeries—including a colostomy and a urostomy. Through it all, he remained optimistic. After beating cancer, he decided to express his gratitude to his M Health care team by volunteering to speak to other cancer patients facing the same procedures he experienced. He and his wife, Patty, also help to raise money for colon cancer research at the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota.
Masonic Cancer Center research is behind many success stories for patients like Neeson. And behind that research is a legion of steadfast supporters, who organize events like the Killebrew-Thompson Memorial Golf Tournament in Sun Valley, Idaho. The tournament has helped raise nearly $8 million in research funding for the Masonic Cancer Center over the past 40 years—money that has by leveraged to draw even greater federal and industry support.
The Killebrew-Thompson Memorial event has supported many Masonic Cancer Center research efforts, including a studying exploring the potential of a natural killer cell–based therapy. Natural killer cells are important mediators of the body’s natural anti-cancer immune response. Researchers Daniel Vallera, PhD, and Jeffrey Miller, MD, who is also a University of Minnesota Health Cancer Care hematologist/oncologist, have discovered a way to enhance natural killer cells’ effectiveness using a drug called TriKE, so that the cells can target and destroy cancer.
Scaling up production of TriKE for pre-clinical and Phase I studies is very expensive, and federal funding doesn’t cover the cost. For those reasons, the extra funding afforded by the Killebrew-Thompson Memorial is essential for Vallera and Miller’s research.
The researchers are initially targeting blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma with this new therapy. Eventually, they plan to expand the work to include solid tumors like colon cancer. And that’s great news for those people following in Neeson’s footsteps.
Neeson himself is back to golfing with his buddies—who first ask how he’s doing, then ask about his golf game.
“I’d say, ‘It’s perfect! I haven’t hit a bad shot all year,’” Neeson quips. “Then they’d kind of roll their eyes. I try to tell people, it could go in the sand trap, it could go out of bounds, it could go in the water—there are no bad shots."