Mike McNeil was 10 years old when he was first diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called pheochromocytoma. This type of cancer affects the adrenal gland system. The tumors would cause his catecholamine hormones, epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine levels to go very high causing high blood pressure, lethargy, nausea and excessive sweating. Through his seventeen years of battling this cancer Mike had several surgeries all performed at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Mike was first diagnosed in 1992 and his doctors didn’t have much information about this specific disease. His mother, MaryJo searched everywhere she could for information about Pheochromocytoma but couldn’t find much.
Mike had three rounds of surgeries in 1992, 1996, 1998. His parents, MaryJo and Mike were thankful that all of his tumors were benign at the time. All of these surgeries were performed by a wonderful surgeon, Dr. Samuel Kim, who retired in 1998 right after Mike had his surgery that year.
In 2004 the cancer progressed into malignant tumors. He was in the hospital for yet another surgery. This time the tumors were found on the adrenal gland and had also spread to his spine. The tumors were so small that the doctors decided to watch them until they were big enough to remove. These tumors were also very vascular, they would grow where they could get a good blood supply, and in turn were very dangerous to remove. Once the tumors got onto the spine and Mike’s bones the disease mutated to malignant tumors.
Later in 2004 and 2006 Mike had more surgeries to remove the tumors in his spine. The doctors even tried an alcohol ablation in which they injected rubbing alcohol into the tumors. This treatment did not work well. Follow up scans still showed the tumors.
The day before Thanksgiving in 2008 Mike was admitted to Mass General Hospital. He had a regular appointment with his doctor. At the time of the appointment his blood pressure was high. After getting checked out at the ER it was discovered that Mike had an intestinal virus Clostridium difficile (C-Dif).
On Thanksgiving of 2008 he was told by his doctors that his tumors had progressed through his body. They were in his spine, on the outside of the lungs, and in his brain. His mother, MaryJo asked his doctor if the tumors could be removed with surgery, unfortunately there were to many.
An oncologist had found a chemotherapy that was used on Pheochromocytoma in a study in Canada and it worked in the trials, so his doctors wanted to try it on Mike. Mike agreed to the experimental treatment. He was in the hospital for a month from November to Christmas Eve of 2008, because of the C-Dif. He went home to his parents on Christmas Eve that year. It was a great Christmas present for all of us.
For the next few months he was put on the experimental chemotherapy. Mike would get sick every few weeks. The C-dif may have taken too great a toll on his digestive track. He was going into the hospital once a month for dehydration and getting his intestines back to normal. This treatment for the C-Dif virus got in the way of taking the chemotherapy treatments. He was on other medications to keep his blood pressure under control as well. His blood pressure would run in the 200s and his heart rate was never under 125. From November of 2008 till March of 2009 he was living like this.
On Sunday, March 8th, 2009 we got a call from the doctors that we need to get to the hospital, for Mike had taken a turn for the worst. His blood pressure dropped drastically and they had to give him drugs to keep the pressure up. His body was living with such a high blood pressure for so long that it was in shock when it dropped that fast. The doctors tried everything they could to save Mike but his body just couldn’t take it. Michael Joseph McNeil passed away at 4 AM on March 9th, 2009.
During his whole illness Mike never acted like he was sick. He never felt sorry for himself. He never asked, “ Why me?” He was such a great person. When he wasn’t sick he lived his life like there would be no tomorrow. In high school He was on the swim team. His team won the championship that year. He worked and hung out with his friends. He graduated high school in 2000 and went on to college, joining a fraternity Sigma Tau Gamma. The fraternity was his life after he joined. He found lifelong friends in that group. His younger brother joined the same fraternity as well. In 2004 Mike moved out after he recuperated from surgery that year. He was on his own until he got sick in November of 2008. He participated in a triathlon just a few months after his first back surgery and crossed the finish line. He was a great older brother, amazing friend and a wonderful son and we are missing him everyday.