Three years after being diagnosed with brain cancer, Jonathan Benson stepped onto the NCAA championship basketball court to play in a once-in-a-lifetime game alongside his doctor.
The doctor is University of Minnesota Health Neuro-Oncologist Elizabeth Neil, MD. The event was the INFINITI Hardwood Heroes Basketball Game, which took place on Friday, April 5. The location was U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis—just before the start of the NCAA men’s basketball finals.
“It’s a little overwhelming, but exciting,” Benson said as he warmed up before the game.
In 2016, Benson was in a car accident caused by a first-time seizure. While hospitalized, a medical scan revealed a mass in his brain.
“There was a point I was told there was nothing they could do. But I didn’t accept that,” Benson said. He sought the opinion of Neil, and that is where his road to treatment began. University of Minnesota Health Neurosurgeon Matthew Hunt, MD, FRCS, FAANS, removed the mass. After the procedure, Benson received the diagnosis of a high-grade primary brain tumor.
Next, Benson underwent radiation combined with chemotherapy, followed by several cycles of chemotherapy. His oncology care was coordinated by Neil with the support of the multidisciplinary brain cancer team at University of Minnesota Medical Center. Benson’s most recent brain-imaging scan showed no evidence of any cancer recurrence.
“I am so grateful for all of [Neil’s] help and guidance,” said Benson.
The Hardwood Heroes game on April 5 was an exciting opportunity for both Benson and Neil—and offered a unique way for them to partner outside their time in clinic. The game not only raised awareness for cancer and the importance of cancer research, but served as a fundraiser for Coaches vs. Cancer, which partners with the American Cancer Society (ACS). ACS funds $8.5 million for cancer research at institutions across Minnesota, including the University of Minnesota.
Neil is an assistant professor in the Department of Neurology at the University of Minnesota Medical School, and a member of the Masonic Cancer Center. She knows the importance of clinical research. Organizations like the ACS help make her research endeavors possible.
Before she became a neuro-oncologist and a cancer researcher, Neil earned a Division I college basketball scholarship.
“Growing up, I dedicated a lot of time to become a good basketball player. I not only learned how to hone my game skills, but also developed a deep appreciation for teamwork and the benefits of having a strong personal drive,” Neil said. “These attributes have helped me become the physician that I am today.”
Hardwood Heroes was a chance for her to raise awareness for something that drives her professional cancer-fighting career by doing something she deeply enjoys—playing basketball.
Two teams comprised of both cancer patients and cancer care providers competed under the direction of two legendary, retired NCAA coaches: Bo Ryan and Jim Calhoun. Assistant coaches included Minnesota Vikings player Kyle Rudolph and sports talk radio host Doug Gottlieb.
Neil wasn’t the only University of Minnesota Health care provider on the court. Joining her were fellow cancer care experts:
The significance of the event wasn’t lost on Benson or the other players."I'm glad she's on my team, just like she's on my team in real life," Benson said regarding Neil during an interview with KARE 11.