Winnebago rallies around ill man

WINNEBAGO – Mike Gunzenhauser has always been one to keep going until the job was done.

“The hardest thing is watching a man who’s been so strong, watch him be so weak,” says his wife, Sheryl.

Mike was diagnosed with kidney cancer in April and has been undergoing chemotherapy that his wife describes as “horrible.”

A benefit has been scheduled for today for the Gunzenhausers. The Presbyterian Men’s Burger Stand in Winnebago will serve from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and proceeds will benefit Mike, who doesn’t have insurance. Supplemental funds will come from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, Faribault County chapter, and donations from First Financial Bank in Winnebago.

The Gunzenhauser grandchildren also will have a lemonade stand to raise money for their grandpa.

None of this is what the couple have been planning for this time in their lives.

“Last fall, we decided we were going to downsize our lives: the grandkids were begging to spend more time with us,” she said.

They’d earned some down time.

The couple have lived in Winnebago since the early 1980s. They have helped with the Thanksgiving dinner at the Presbyterian church, MotoFest and the Chamber of Commerce.

“My husband really loves the town, so he’s silently involved in things,” Sheryl said. “He enjoys seeing the town thrive.”

After Mike’s dad died of cancer in 2000, Sheryl gave time to several cancer support groups, such as Chemo Angels, Hugs and Hope and Make a Child Smile. She kept in touch with cancer patients, sending messages of hope and small gifts.

“Pick them up when they are having horrible days,” she said. “That’s something I still continue to do. I love it.”

The Gunzenhausers had been operating four businesses: Tasty Treatz, Mike’s Ag, M&S Fitness Center, and Gift Baskets & More.

But vying for their time were the five grandkids that their sons, Christopher and Robert, have presented them. The youngsters range in age from 1 to 12.

Something had to give, so they put Tasty Treatz up for sale and closed Gift Baskets & More.

Looking back, Sheryl said, “Everything happens for a reason.”

Mike had been feeling ill since last fall. He went to doctors and had numerous tests run, but none of the tests revealed anything.

“He was getting frustrated,” Sheryl said.

They went to Texas to see Sheryl’s mother and during the trip, Mike slept a lot. Then he started urinating blood.

When they got back, Mike wound up in the emergency room at UHD, the medical center in Blue Earth.

“Things happened really fast,” Sheryl said.

A urologist from Mankato was consulted and tests confirmed Mike had cancer.

The news really wasn’t good: they found two tumors on the right kidney. Mike was referred to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

“At that point, they scheduled him for surgery to remove the right kidney,” Sheryl said.

First, they checked to see if the cancer has spread. Kidney cancer will metastasize into the lungs, brain and bone. A CT scan showed spots on the lungs.

“On May 8, the doctor called and said it had metastasized to the lung,” Sheryl said. “From there, life is crazy.”

Surgery pre-op revealed Mike had a collapsed lung. He went to Minneapolis to have a chest tube.

On May 14, he had surgery to remove the right kidney, 21 lymph nodes and the right ureter.

There was good news. The biopsy showed only one kind of cancer, renal cell carcinoma.

“If it had been transitional cell, there was nothing more they could do. We were just so thankful it was renal cell only,” Sheryl said.

Mike had to heal, and then chemo treatments began June 24.

“A normal chemo drug kills off everything,” Sheryl explained. “This one is an immunotherapy, it boosts the immune system, but you get very, very sick from it.”

Mike is receiving high dose interleukin at the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis, one of only a few places in the nation that administers it, and he is monitored closely with near-constant blood tests.

“It’s really toxic, horrible, horrible stuff,” Sheryl said.

Doses go in every eight hours.

“The goal is to do 14 treatments, but hardly anybody gets to 14,” Sheryl said. “Mike got to 10; they said it was really good.

“I remember his 10th treatment, he had 14 warm blankets on him, he was just shaking,” she said. “It took over an hour to get rid of the chills.”

When Mike isn’t freezing to death, he runs extreme high fevers.

“Blood pressure and heart rate drops really quick,” Sheryl said. “Kidney function gets whacked out. You get hallucinations. It’s crazy to watch. He doesn’t remember a lot of the treatments; however, I do.”

Mike will continue to get treatments until Aug. 5, when he will get scans to see if the chemo is shrinking the tumors.

“That’s definitely what we want,” Sheryl said.

“If the tumors are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, we can have up to five cycles [of treatments],” she said.

Surgery is an option, but surgeons have said they wouldn’t be able to get everything.

“They’ve told us his prognosis is poor,” Sheryl said. “We hope this treatment can get him in remission for a while before it comes back.

They draw strength from the support they’ve received.

Sheryl set up a Caring Bridge site for Mike, which has received more than 14,000 visits when last she checked.

She said they have received a stack of cards several inches high and a lot of people have brought food, which has been a great blessing.

“We have such awesome friends,” Sheryl said.

The cancer patients she has helped over the past decade are now supporting her. And they’ve gotten help from people they barely know.

“Mike said that is truly what small towns are about,” Sheryl said. “That’s what Mike loves about this town. People pitch in and gather together and make sure the town people are taken care of.”