Hearing your wife has cancer is unbearable.
Hearing your son has cancer is unfathomable.
Yet that was Mike Psarouthakis and his family’s reality in the fall of 2015. Despite relatively positive prognoses for both his wife, Lisa, and son, Adam, the jolting news and months of treatments that followed caused plenty of stress and unease.
This news also struck Psarouthakis’ philanthropic nerve, so he turned to a sport his entire family had enjoyed for the recent past: rowing.
At the urging of a friend through the Ann Arbor Rowing Club, Psarouthakis rowed 1,000 meters on his rowing machine, or ergometer, for every year of his age that Dec. 17 to mark his 55th birthday and raise funds for the Rogel Cancer Center in honor of his family members’ battles.
That’s 55,000 meters — more than 34 miles and far more than the 2,000-meter distance of most rowing races.
“I felt a little helpless and started thinking, ‘What can I do that can attract some attention to support the fight against cancer?’” said Psarouthakis, director of the U-M Tech Transfer Venture Center and managing director of the Accelerate Blue Fund. “I didn’t even know if I could do (55,000 meters). That’s more than a standard marathon distance of 26 miles. I’ve done half marathons on the erg, and it’s bad but it’s not that bad.
“We raised tens of thousands of dollars that first year. It felt good for all of us, because it’s a pretty unusual story to have two close family members dealing with cancer at the same time, and this was something good that came out of that tough time.”
That was in 2015. Since then, he has celebrated four of his birthdays by rowing 1,000 meters for every year, including a 60,000-meter “Row of Agony to Nowhere” in December to mark five years since his family members’ recovery and his 60th birthday.
Psarouthakis set a goal to raise $6,000 with his latest effort on the ergometer, and to date $6,650 has been raised for the Rogel Cancer Center.
To complete the 60,000 meters, Psarouthakis woke at 5 a.m. and cranked out what he could on his Concept2 ergometer. He then worked and finished the row later in the day, taking brief breaks every 10,000 meters or so. He spent a total of 6 hours and 15 minutes on the erg in all.
“I just slowly cranked it out and didn’t try to row hard,” he said. “It’s an interesting way to celebrate your birthday.”
Psarouthakis likely would have turned to a different medium than an ergometer to raise the funds if not for his daughter Zoe deciding to take up crew at the urging of a friend while a freshman at Pioneer High School some 15 years ago.
“We went to these regattas and didn’t know anything about rowing, just thought it was this snooty sport that they do out on the East Coast,” Psarouthakis said. “But the rowing community in Michigan is so wonderful and inclusive. So my wife and I said, ‘We should try rowing.’ It’s changed our lives.”
The couple took a learn-to-row class through the Ann Arbor Rowing Club, which led their oldest daughter, Claire, to do the same after her freshman year at Michigan State University. She joined the MSU club team and rowed the rest of her college years.
Adam was a basketball player before scratching the rowing itch his freshman year of high school. He rowed all four years at Pioneer and was a member of the U-M men’s rowing club team for five years.
Zoe continued her rowing career after high school at Lawrence University in Appleton Wisconsin.
Psarouthakis and his wife have rowed all over the country, including the prestigious Head of the Charles Regatta in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Then came October 2015, when doctors detected an abnormality during Lisa’s annual mammogram. It was ductal carcinoma in situ, a pre-invasive form of breast cancer. Because it was caught early, her prognosis was good, and she underwent surgery and then radiation treatments.
During those treatments, Adam, then in his junior year at U-M, discovered a bump on his neck and also noted his energy levels were lower and his rowing times slipping just a bit. After a doctor’s visit, he was diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma and began a six-month regiment of chemotherapy in January 2016, under the guidance of Mark Kaminski.
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“In some ways, in a weird way, (Adam’s diagnosis) was a good distraction for Lisa, because it’s your kid,” Psarouthakis said. “She wasn’t worrying about what her future held because the odds were very high for her and she concentrated on supporting Adam.”
Despite the high odds of recovery for both, the ordeal provided tense and stressful times. Psarouthakis said he was grateful to U-M, not only for the care provided his loved ones at Rogel Cancer Center but also for the generous policies that made it possible to be away from his job when the need arose.
“If I was anywhere else, it would have been a lot harder,” he said. “Michigan took great care of us. I love my job, and I was able to work. But when I needed time off there were no questions, people stepped up to cover for me and I had the full support of the office.”
Both his wife and son are cancer-free, with his son returning to the club team to finish out his final two years after taking a medical redshirt, giving him an additional year of athletic eligibility and subsequently winning two additional national team championships. Psarouthakis and his wife also returned to the water and are eager to compete in future regattas with the Ann Arbor Rowing Club once the pandemic eases.
“We have the rowing bug bad now. We love the people on the team, and we love to race,” he said. “Rowing on the Huron down at Argo is just stunningly beautiful. You don’t feel like you’re in the city.”