At first, Mike Hanson wasn’t comfortable talking about his 2019 cancer diagnosis.

Growing up in a conservative family, the 72-year-old Birchdale native didn’t want to broadcast he was undergoing treatments for rectal cancer. As a former Koochiching County Commissioner, Mike is very well known in the Borderland communities, and kept his health issues private.

Now, however, he knows sharing his story could encourage others to avoid the mistakes he made. The main one: delaying routine care.

“Rectal cancer is very personal,” Mike said. “But I want other people to know there are others going through what they’re maybe going through. Having people to talk to can help.”

Seeking care

Mike finally visited his primary care physician, Dr. Jay Knaak at Rainy Lake Medical Center, in the fall of 2019. During that visit, he decided to share details with Dr. Knaak that Mike knew would likely lead to a colonoscopy.

He was right.

Dr. Knaak had Mike see Dr. Daniel Margo, RLMC general surgeon, for a colonoscopy.

It was soon after that procedure that Mike learned he had rectal cancer.

“Dr. Margo told me the day my results came back what he thought would happen with my treatment and everything he said ended up coming true,” Mike said.

What surprised Mike was how quickly appointments were scheduled and how a course of treatment was determined soon after.

Care at home
Part of Mike’s treatment regimen was to receive 17 weeks of chemotherapy. At first, Mike admits he was unaware there were local chemo services available at the RLMC Chemotherapy and Infusion Therapy Department.

“Receiving chemo at Rainy Lake Medical Center made a huge, huge difference in my life,” Mike said.

Instead of having to travel a more than 200-mile roundtrip to receive care out-of-town, Mike was making the 80-mile roundtrip from Birchdale to International Falls, a route he says he knows so well, he could almost do it in his sleep.

“The center in the Falls is terrific,” he said, adding the experience came with any amenities he needed.

Mike especially hailed the care he received from Betsy Loop, RN at RLMC.

“Betsy would come in on Christmas Day if she had to,” he said. “I came in on Christmas in 2019, and she had everything ready for me.”

Don’t delay
Looking back on the experience following a cancer diagnosis, Mike admits he regrets delaying care.

“I was told my tumor was about 2 years old when (doctors) found it,” he said. “Had I gone in earlier, I wouldn’t have had chemo or radiation and I wouldn’t be wearing a (colostomy bag) for the rest of my life.”

Despite what could have been, Mike said he is thankful to be alive and enjoy life in northern Minnesota.

“I’m here,” he said. “And it’s another beautiful day.”

Generous donation

Rainy Lake Medical Center officials last May received a $15,000 donation that will be used to purchase new vital machines for a department serving some of its most critical patients.

Through the Sharing Success Program, North Star Electric Cooperative has partnered with CoBank, each donating $7,500 to RLMC’s chemotherapy and infusion department.

Hanson, vice chairperson of North Star Electric, knows first-hand the importance of the local chemotherapy and infusion department, and was an advocate for the donation.

In an effort to raise funds for the chemotherapy and infusion department, Hanson approached North Star Electric’s board with the request. For about eight years, he said the organization has funded fire departments, EMT needs, helped cover costs for the helipad in Kabetogama and more.

“Everyone (on the board) knew I was a (cancer) survivor,” the former Koochiching County commissioner said. “I gave my little pitch for it and there were other groups at the meeting that were going to request funding, too. When I got done speaking, others withdrew their request. They wanted the money to go to (RLMC).”

CoBank recognizes that its customers often know best where funding can most effectively be provided to benefit their communities. Since Sharing Success was established in 2012, CoBank and its customers have together contributed tens of millions of dollars to a variety of different groups and organizations.

While presenting the $15,000 check to RLMC officials this week, Josh Compton, general manager and CEO of North Star Electric, recognized how important it is for smaller, rural communities to have a center like the one at RLMC. In dire situations having a chemotherapy and infusion center close to home relieves stress associated with travel.

“Receiving care at Rainy Lake Medical center made a huge, huge difference in my life,” Hanson said. “The center in the Falls is terrific.”

The new vital machines will not only save nursing staff time, it will cut down on the potential for infection and it works with RLMC’s new medical records system, EPIC.

“This donation will make it possible for the purchase of new, state of the art vital sign machines that will automatically send the patients vital signs -blood pressure, pulse and O2 stats – that will be directly uploaded into the new computer system,” said Betsy Loop, RLMC RN. “This will save nurses time away from the computer to spend more time with the patients.”