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The toughest takedown: Cancer is often not a fair fight

Grueling practices, weight cutting and intense one-on-one competition are a few of the reasons many consider wrestling the most demanding high school sport. But for Lance Benick and Mitchell McKee, wrestling is the easy part.

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Nina McKee and her husband Steve, with hat, watch their son, Mitchell of St. Michael -Albertville, compete Friday during the Clash National Wrestling Duals at UCR Regional Sports Center. Steve McKee was diagnosed with cancer in March of 2013.
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Grueling practices, weight cutting and intense one-on-one competition are a few of the reasons many consider wrestling the most demanding high school sport.

But for Lance Benick and Mitchell McKee, wrestling is the easy part. And it's not simply because they're uber talented.

In 2010, when Benick was just 13, his mother, Joanne, 47, was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. Last March, McKee's father, Steve, 50, was diagnosed with chodrosarcoma after doctors found a mass in his chest wall tissue wedged between his left lung, heart, spine and aortic valve.

Two families, two unrelenting cancers. They're still fighting, but it's often not a fair fight. In short, two of the great Minnesota wrestling families are suffering.

Rochester has been a home away from home for both families. They've had many good times at UCR Regional Sports Center at events like the Minnesota Christmas Tournament and the Clash National Wrestling Duals. They're both competing at Clash XII today. Rochester also has been home to some of their toughest times; both Joanne Benick and Steve McKee have spent months at Mayo Clinic and Saint Marys Hospital while undergoing treatment for their cancer.

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Thanks to their elite sons and a supportive community, wrestling often has held their families together during the worst of times.

Top dog

Lance Benick, who attends Totino-Grace, is the No. 1-ranked wrestler in the nation at 195 pounds.

Benick's name may be familiar to local wrestling fans. He's the standout who "upset" Kasson-Mantorville's Broc Berge in the state finals last March. Berge was a two-time defending state champion and a senior. Benick was a sophomore.

Now a junior, Benick is considered the class of 2015's No. 1 recruit nationally, in all weight classes.

Already a two-time state champion, Benick also has dominated the summer circuit. In 2012, Benick won cadet national titles in folkstyle, greco and freestyle. Last summer, he won a USA Wrestling Junior National title in folkstyle and repeated his cadet titles in freestyle and greco. He also competed at FILA Nationals, winning a cadet title in freestyle.

On the mat, Benick knows he can win. At home, it's not that simple.

Joanne Benick's plight started late in 2009. She started feeling ill. Every day, she felt nauseated, often throwing up. Her fatigue and dizziness grew worse and worse.

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Joanne admits she's a bit "old school." She wasn't one to rush to the doctor. But one day, something Lance said finally made her seek medical attention.

"He came home from school, saw me in bed and asked if I was going to be lazy all day," Joanne said. "That's one word that definitely doesn't describe me, lazy. I thought, 'all right, that ticked me off.' So I got up and called the doctor."

Doctor visit

Joanne's husband and fellow Stillwater High School graduate, Tom, had begged her to go to the doctor for months -- nine months, actually. But it took Lance's little comment to finally get her moving.

"I came in there with a list of things that were wrong," Joanne said. "For the nine months I was sick, I'd write all the symptoms down on a little piece of paper. I was hoping if they looked at them together, they'd be able to figure something out."

It's unfortunate, but doctors came up empty. They ordered blood work and performed tests over several weeks. But all the tests came back clean.

"Then it was on to the next doctor," Joanne said. "They did an EKG, they tested my chest, my heart, they did a cholesterol test. They sent me to an ear, nose and throat doctor, and he tested me for vertigo. Everything came back perfect."

More tests and more doctor visits meant weeks and weeks would pass without diagnosis.

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Joanne grew sicker and sicker.

After 10 different types of doctors, Joanne finally was sent to an internist. "He walked in and had a cross on his lapel, and I don't know why that moved me, but it just made me think that maybe he'd really listen to me and believe me and help me figure out what was wrong with me," Joanne said.

The internist put in a request to test her thyroid and he reordered blood work. "He said, if that all comes back OK, we will order an MRI," Joanne said.

Everything came back clean once again, so Joanne went in for her MRI late one Monday night.

At 2 a.m. that same night, Tom left the family home near Scandia like he does several times a week. Since 1980, he's owned a tree service. One of his main jobs is hauling bark from the mill in Bemidji all the way back down to Gertens in Inver Grove Heights.

Tom left for the Bemidji run as scheduled the night of Joanne's MRI.

The call

The next morning, Joanne got a call from her doctor. He asked if she was alone.

"I said no because Lance was with me," Joanne said. "The doctor asked if he could drive. He was only 13 at the time."

The MRI revealed Joanne had a brain tumor.

"The doctor said, 'you need to get to United within the hour, so you need to find someone to drive you,' " Joanne said. "He said I'd be in surgery in less than an hour."

Joanne called Tom immediately. That was the toughest phone call she's ever had to make.

"It was horrible," she said. "It was so hard on him. I was taking it fine because it was so quick, but he was devastated. He was 500 miles away, waiting on a truck load. He felt helpless."

When Joanne arrived at the hospital, she checked in and nurses immediately started flowing into her room. They started shaving her head in six spots.

Joanne was given little explanation of what was going on.

"At one point, I just stopped them," Joanne said. "I didn't even know what was happening to me or what I had."

Scared and not knowing what to do, Joanne called her sister-in-law, who runs a home health care company.

"She said I needed to be at Mayo if I had brain cancer, because Mayo was No. 2 in the world for brain cancer. United isn't even in the top 1,500," Joanne said.

Off to Mayo

Joanne left United and headed to Mayo Clinic. Upon arrival, she underwent three days of rigorous testing directed by Dr. Ian Parney, who worked on Eleanor Mondale when she had brain surgery.

After the tests, Joanne was diagnosed with anaplastic ependymoma, which is a rare tumor that forms in the fourth ventricle (brain stem). Parney gave Joanne three options.

First, she could do nothing, and she would have between one hour and one week to live. Second, they could do a biopsy and find out what's wrong, and then they'd go back in and fix it. Third, they could skip the biopsy and just take care of it.

"I said, 'Just go in and do it!' I was so sick, I just wanted to get it done," she said.

Dr. Parney was fairly certain it was ependymoma, but he wasn't sure how bad it was.

It was bad. The worst, actually. Grade 3, which is, more often than not, a death sentence.

On Aug. 12, 2010, the Mayo Clinic doctors went to work, performing a delicate, nine-hour surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible.

The surgery involved removing part of Joanne's skull and her C-1 vertebrae. They then split her cerebellum with a forceps so they could see the tumor, which as Joanne described it, looked like a large oyster.

"During the surgery they had my brain hooked up to all these little electrodes which are used for mapping and tracking, so they can tell what they're affecting when they touch different parts of the brain," Joanne said. "If they hit something, little buzzers go off."

Joanne's tumor went all the way into her brain stem, so doctors were able to remove only 85 percent of the tumor.

"I asked the doctor when he knew to stop," Joanne said. "And he said, 'I quit when I was ready to crap my pants because all the buzzers were going off.' "

Stroke of bad luck

The surgery went well, but a shunt placed near her brain to help with drainage caused a blood clot on the right side of Joanne's brain. The stroke caused her to have some paralysis in her left side. She had no peripheral vision on her left side and often had double-vision.

"The thing I was the most afraid of, going in, was just not being me after the surgery," Joanne said. "I could handle not walking or not moving, but I just wanted my mind to still be me. I hoped my kids would still know who I was and I would still know who they were. I couldn't stand the thought of losing that."

Recovery was one of the roughest time for Joanne and for Tom, Lance and their oldest son Luke.

"I had the tubes down my throat, down my nose, IVs everywhere, my head was wrapped; I was just kind of a mess," she said. "Once they start waking you up, the next step is trying to get the breathing tube out. That took three days. I kept motioning that I wanted to write stuff down. They gave me a pen and some paper. It was tough to read, but my sister-in-law could read it. One of the things I wrote was, 'fresh air.' I also wrote 'am I me?' and 'where are my boys?' "

At that point, the boys knew they had their mom back.

"That was the toughest time," Lance said. "When it first happened, everything was so quick, I didn't know what to think. But the surgery and stroke, that was the scariest time for the whole family."

The road to recovery wasn't over yet. And with 15 percent of the cancer still in her brain stem, Joanne was far from healthy or "cured." She also had to deal with the blood clot in her brain, weeks of physical therapy, and eventually, radiation to further shrink the tumor.

Joanne underwent 36 sessions of radiation. "It's the maximum amount you can do in a lifetime," she said.

After three months at Saint Marys, Joanne finally went home. There still would be regular MRIs to monitor the cancer. And Joanne was given only between one and two years to live.

Yet, here she is, still fighting in 2014.

A setback

Right now, things are going well. That hasn't always been the case. There was one major hiccup in March of 2012.

Joanne was getting sick again. She was a little scared, but not scared enough to go to the doctor.

Joanne started noticing symptoms during the 2012 state tournament at Xcel Energy Center.

Lance was just a freshman, but he advanced to the state finals at 182 pounds. During the match, Joanne popped up in her chair when Lance put his opponent on his back. In the process, Joanne became very dizzy and fell back over into her seat.

After a few months of feeling sick, Joanne finally went back to Mayo Clinic. The cancer had returned. But Joanne was out of options.

"I thought, 'Well, this is it,'" Joanne said. "I had reached my maximum amount of radiation. There wasn't much they could do."

But in the two years since Joanne's initial surgery, the treatment for her type of cancer was changing. "That's when they brought up Gamma Knife radiation," Joanne said.

Gamma Knife radiosurgery uses specialized equipment to focus nearly 200 tiny beams of radiation on a tumor. It delivers a strong dose of radiation to a small location.

Joanne's tumor initially was the size of an egg. But the second time, it was just the size of her pinky fingernail. It was caught early enough, so they went through with the new procedure.

When the swelling went down, doctors were able to re-examine Joanne's tumor. It had not grown.

Side effects

Though the tumor was under control, after radiosurgery, Joanne had trouble swallowing. She quickly lost 10 pounds. Joanne was placed on steroids. The side effects weren't pleasant. In three months, Joanne gained 80 pounds.

"I felt like a giant wood tick, ready to burst," she said.

In May, Joanne finally finished her steroid medication, and she's lost 22 pounds and counting.

In general, 2013 was a good year for Joanne and her family. Her MRIs have all come back with good results. She'll go back in two months for her next MRI. While she still gets nervous every time she goes in, she's also at peace.

Joanne's type of cancer has a high rate of recurrence, but the Gamma Knife radiosurgery has worked in her favor. If she didn't do it, she wouldn't be here today.

"I am thankful because my kids are old enough that they'll remember me," she said. "At first, my goal was to see Luke graduate. I did that. Now, as time goes on, I set other little goals. Now it's to see Lance graduate."

For Lance, the entire process has been brutal and devastating, though you'd never know it by looking at him or talking to him.

"I don't talk about it to many people at all, if anyone," he said.

Lance always has been the tough one, and that means hiding emotions. He has bottled up a great deal of the pain and suffering he's endured surrounding his mother's illness.

"Lance is tough, and he tries to internalize things," Joanne said.

A breakdown

Lance and Joanne had one big breakdown last year following a family outing to Mall of America. The outing didn't go well.

"We got to the parking lot at Lance's school, and Lance and I were screaming at each other," Joanne said. "I was crying, he was crying. Lance said 'you don't know how hard it is on me. Everyone think it's supposed to be so easy. I'm supposed to be good in school, in football, in wrestling. Nobody knows how hard it is to do all this and go through what's going on with my mom.' It was horrible. We just sat in the car and cried. But Lance holds a lot in. He's being tough and strong, but me being sick is something he worries about."

Older brother Luke is better about vocalizing and showing his emotions. He was forced to grow up quickly. When Joanne was diagnosed, Luke was the only one in the family with a license. Lance was too young and Tom was off hauling bark. That meant Luke had to drive Lance to school and to practice and take Joanne to her appointments.

Lance's one steady outlet has been wrestling. On the mat and in the wrestling room, he can, even if it's just for a few moments, focus on what's right in front of him.

"It's definitely an outlet, and it's a time to hang out with friends and do what I love," he said. "This whole experience has put things in perspective. If you're having a bad day or complaining about something, well, my mom has brain cancer. Things could be worse. You need to have a positive outlook at all times, and that's how I look at everything."

The McKee family

For the McKee family, the cancer bomb was dropped last March. It's been a vicious 10 months, and Steve's health has deteriorated quickly. Doctors have attempted seemingly every possible treatment for Steve's cancer.

Steve's son Mitchell McKee is much like Lance Benick.

Mitchell McKee is one of the state's elite wrestlers. He's just a sophomore, but he's ranked No. 1 in Minnesota at 120 pounds. He has qualified for the state tournament every year since seventh grade, finishing second once and third last March. He also helped St. Michael-Albertville win the state team title.

Thanks to his summer success, Mitchell has earned national attention. He's ranked No. 16 in the nation at 120 pounds. Mitchell won Cadet national titles in both greco and folkstyle in 2012 and followed that up with a second Cadet greco national championship last summer.

But much like Lance Benick, wrestling is the easy part these days for Mitchell McKee.

Steve's cancer came on quickly in February of 2013. There had been no symptoms other than pain in his chest that shot through his back.

"It felt like I had popped a rib out," Steve said. "I went to the chiropractor, and then to the doctor and they did an x-ray and saw the mass."

Steve was losing circulation in his legs. It became painful to walk, and he also had pain in his ribs and spine. He headed to Mayo Clinic. After a few tests, Steve was diagnosed with chodrosaroma. The massive tumor was in a horrible location, essentially wedged between his lungs, heart and spine. A biopsy would later reveal the cancer already had spread into Steve's right lung.

Keeping focus

Steve and wife Nina found out just prior to last March's state wrestling tournament, but they didn't tell Mitchell, or his younger brother Patrick, who is just an eighth-grader, until after state. They didn't want to break Mitchell's focus during the big event.

Steve, who always had been active, including countless hours on the wrestling mat with his two sons, underwent surgery March 19. Because the tumor was near his spine, it made it difficult for Steve to walk. It also meant surgery would be especially delicate.

During the surgery, Dr. Bradford Currier at Mayo Clinic removed vertebrae to get at the tumor. Much of the tumor that was pushing against Steve's spine was removed, but doctors placed 13 screws and two metal rods in place of the vertebrae.

While doctors were able to remove the part of the tumor pressing against Steve's spine, the rest of the tumor was too dangerous to remove.

Following recovery from surgery, radiation therapy to attack Steve's remaining cancer would be up next.

Steve's recovery was painful, but with Nina and the boys by his side, along with the entire wrestling family, he felt strong.

"Nina has been my rock through everything," he said. "I try to keep a positive attitude. God is going to do what he does. I think if I'm positive, it makes everyone worry less. I have a lot of people praying for me."

Steve has needed every one of those prayers along the way.

He was given a few weeks to recover from his surgery, and then Steve was right back at Mayo for more testing. The tests showed Steve was ready for radiation.

More treatment

On April 11, he underwent the first of 10 brutal radiation treatments in an attempt to shrink or at least stunt his remaining cancer. The treatments lasted two painful weeks. The weeks to come weren't much easier. Steve was weak and the radiation damaged his esophagus, making it difficult for him to swallow. That meant every time he ate or drink, it caused severe pain.

The pain continued for three full weeks, but eventually things improved. Of course, that just meant another trip to Mayo Clinic. It also meant Steve would be starting chemotherapy.

In May, Steve was given a clinical trial of a new chemotherapy. He took the chemo pills for two months, but they did not work. In fact, Steve's cancer had grown and spread during that time.

It was a discouraging setback.

"They took me off the pills, and I just said I'm not doing any more chemo because I felt too good," he said. "I was feeling good and we spent a lot of time up at the lake that summer, so I didn't want that to change."

But late in the summer, things did change. Steve started feeling ill again. He was having the same pain in his back, and he was losing circulation in his legs. He knew the tumor was pushing on his spine again.

An MRI at Mayo Clinic confirmed Steve's belief. The tumor was back, and the only way to stop his legs from complete paralysis was to go back in and cut out the tumor again.

"The first time, they went in and took a little of the tumor away from the spine," Steve said. "I told them to get as much as possible this time around because I didn't want to be back in there in six months. But it was the same thing. They were only able to take 50 percent of it."

Another attempt

Steve was running out of options. On the Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving, doctors tried another cancer treatment, cryoablation. Basically, they attempted to freeze as many of the cancer cells as possible.

During that procedure, they also removed a liter of fluid from Steve's left lung. Fluid in Steve's lungs had become quite common.

"That's always what scares me the most, when I hear the fluid start coming back in his lungs," Nina said. "He keeps getting it drained, but it will keep happening. With cancer in the lungs, you never know when they're going to shut down. So it's scary."

Steve keeps fighting, though. Even though the cryoablation "kicked his butt," he felt like the process worked.

"Dad's a fighter," Mitchell said. "When we see him fighting, it makes it tough for us to not stay positive."

A week after cryoablation, Steve's lung was "tapped" again.

"When I went in that time, the doctor said if I didn't do anything, I'd have two months to live," Steve said.

Steve has more appointments set up back at Mayo Clinic in January. But the truth is, every day could be his last. Every wrestling meet, every family function, they're all precious now.

"I'm still fighting," he said. "It's something I've said to the kids in everyday life. You keep fighting, you don't give up. They can see when I'm doing pretty well, and it bothers them when I'm doing poorly. But I keep plugging away."

Plenty of support

Steve said he couldn't do it without his support system.

"Nina, this I'm sure has been tough enough for her, but she's kept this family together," Steve said while fighting back tears. "She's a fabulous person. She takes care of me, keeps the kids on their regular schedule. She's a trooper."

Mitchell said wrestling has helped him keep his mind off his father's illness. He's also immersed himself in his school work, again taking the focus off what's happening at home.

Much like Lance Benick, Mitchell doesn't talk about his father's illness often. He has a close circle of friends, and that has helped.

Mitchell also has felt pressure to stay strong for his younger brother, "because if I don't, nobody will," he said. "I feel like a big brother more than ever. I want to stay strong for him, and I try to talk to him about it when he needs it. I guess as things have progressed, I've been forced to grow up quickly."

A good talk

Mitchell McKee and Lance Benick are good friends through wrestling, but Mitchell said he hasn't spoken to Lance since his father became ill. Both said they hope that changes this weekend at the Clash.

"I'd love to talk to Lance," Mitchell said. "It's hard to talk to people, because they haven't been through this. They don't know what you're really going through. It would be nice to talk to a friend who has been through it."

Steve and Nina often have hidden the worst parts of Steve's treatment from the boys. "They tell us eventually, but we usually don't know how bad it is until after it's over," Mitchell said.

Steve said he believes his kids are doing remarkably well under the circumstances. Nina has seen a change in their behavior, but it's for the better. She said there are more hugs and "I love yous" around the McKee household these days.

Somehow, through it all, Nina has remained upbeat. She's still active in the wrestling community and wouldn't have it any other way. That wrestling family has been there for every twist and turn during Steve's illness, and she knows they will be there when the fight is over.

"The wrestling family is what has kept us going," Nina said. "I can't even start to name off all the generosity we've received from our wrestling family. It brings you to tears thinking about it. Everything we've needed, we haven't had to ask for. They're just there for us."

As Steve gets sicker, Nina continues to do her best to remain positive. She has fears, though. The thought of being alone, of the boys off at college, those thoughts scare her.

"We pray a lot and we have a lot of people praying for us," Nina said. "Every wrestling match we go to, it's hard to not think that it could be Steve's last one. Each one is a milestone, and I can see how proud Steve is of his boys, and that makes me happy. We're taking it one day at a time, because that's all we can do. But we all still see that fight in Steve. That helps us get through the day."

Steve McKee, the father of St. Michael-Albertville wrestlers Mitchell and Patrick McKee, was diagnosed with cancer last March. Bills continue to pile up for the McKee family. STMA boosters are doing a raffle for a new four-wheeler, and all proceeds will go to the McKee family. Tickets for the raffle will be available today at the Clash for $10.

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