Cover Story

Mike Balise Creates a ‘Strategy for Life’

A Cancer Battle Plan

Mike Balise

Mike Balise

Since he was first diagnosed with incurable stomach cancer roughly a year ago, Mike Balise, co-owner of the large family of auto dealerships bearing the family’s name, has fought the disease with determination, creativity, and his indomitable humor. (When told that he had already reached stage 4, he asked the doctor, “can we create a fifth?”) He’s already lived longer than the doctors told him he would, but it’s not longevity that makes this story compelling — it’s the quality of that life and the manner in which he’s become an inspiration to all those around him.

Mike Balise has always been a huge New England Patriots fan.

He’s had season tickets since 1988, but was attending games — the 1985 AFC championship tilt against the Dolphins in Miami that sent the Pats to their first Super Bowl is one he fondly remembers — long before that.

Speaking of Super Bowls, he’s been to four now, including last February’s classic Patriots triumph in Phoenix (more on that adventure later). Meanwhile, through his business — several players and coaches buy or lease cars from the family of dealerships Mike serves as co-owner and vice president — he’s on a first-name basis with several people within the Pats’ organization, including its iconic head coach.

So when Judge Richard Berman freed Tom Brady earlier this month by vacating the four-game suspension imposed by the NFL, Balise was naturally in a celebratory mood.

Well, sort of, but not really.

Mike Balise, seen here with Patriots coach Bill Belichick

Mike Balise, seen here with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, says he’s focused on not letting his stomach cancer dictate his life.

He told BusinessWest that he was very tired of the whole ‘Deflategate’ ordeal by that time, and was candid when he said he thought way too much time, money, and energy was spent on a matter that was taking needed attention from “real issues in this world.”

More to the point, he had just started a new chemotherapy regimen, and he was still dealing with the accompanying physical and emotional issues. Meanwhile, the pain that had retreated for the better part of six months was back with a vengeance and had reached what he considered a new level of severity.

“When that decision came out, I couldn’t have cared less about anything,” he said.

And there were still other, more pressing matters on his mind — such as the nagging question about what to do about his mother if and when that chemotherapy leads to serious hair loss, as the doctors are telling him it probably will.

Indeed, Viola (Vicky) Balise doesn’t know that her 50-year-old son, the youngest of her six children, has been diagnosed with incurable stomach cancer and continuously impresses those same doctors by the simple fact that he’s still alive.

And she’s not about to find out any time soon.

Balise said the news that reaches his bedridden, 88-year-old mother is censored, for lack of a better word, and family members are extraordinarily careful about what they say and do around Vicky to keep the diagnosis from her.

As for the impending hair loss and how to explain it away, Mike has a solution. His plan is to stage a promotion — details of which are emerging — whereby he will auction off one of his two season tickets to raise money for cancer research and treatment, attend the game with the high bidder, shave his head, and paint whatever image that companion wants on his bald scalp.

And if the hair should not grow back quickly or profoundly? “I’ll just tell her I like it that way,” said Balise with a laugh.

Various forms of creativity and humor have been Balise’s best weapons since he was first given his diagnosis in October 2014 and told bluntly that people who get this form of cancer generally don’t live more than nine to 12 months after reaching stage 4, which he already had.

Mike Balise says one of his priorities now is spending time with his family

Mike Balise says one of his priorities now is spending time with his family, including, from left, daughters Nicole and Marisa, a dog named Brady, son David, and wife Maryellen.

“I told the doctor, ‘I could have gone anywhere in the world for this diagnosis. You’re supposed to be good; can’t you think harder?’” he recalled, adding that the joke helped him through that terrible moment somewhat, but couldn’t stem the flow of tears coming from his wife, Maryellen, and brother, Jeb, who were with him in the room — or make the doctor any more at ease.

While making jokes about that diagnosis, Mike has also asked a lot of hard questions. Among them: what’s the longest anyone has ever lived after reaching stage 4 with this cancer? “The doctor checked with some other hospitals, came back, and said, ‘I think 20 months is the longest anyone’s lasted.’”

Doing the quick math in his head, Balise said 20 months for him would be roughly next May. He’s determined to not only get there, but somehow keep going and, through modern science, set a new longevity mark for people with his condition.

More importantly, he’s focused on living life as he would otherwise, and make the very most of whatever time he has left. That means considerable time on his boats, with his family, at Gillette Stadium, at the Balise headquarters taping radio commercials, and bringing attention to the need for more cancer services in this region.

He said 2015 has been both the most difficult year of his life and, in many respects, also the best. “Overall, I found more meaning this past year than at any other time in my life.”

For this issue, he consented to talk with BusinessWest about all that he meant by that statement, and how he copes with a very uncertain future through a “strategy for life” that he and his loved ones created together.

Setting the Stage

Balise told BusinessWest that the first 49 and a half years of his life were marked by very few health concerns of note, with the biggest issue, quite literally, being a bathroom scale that at times posted the number 335 or more when he stepped on it, but generally read between 235 and 245 in recent years.

“I was a gym rat — a weightlifter and a cardio nutcase,” he explained. “I grew up kind of fat, but I never had any real problems.”

So he wasn’t overly concerned when, in July 2014, he started feeling discomfort in his stomach. But anxiety increased as the pain continued and worsened.

When asked to describe it, Balise, who was at the time sipping a Diet Coke, said it would be like consuming an extremely large amount of that product and having it collect without burping.

“It was like an airy, gassy feeling — it’s a little hard to describe,” he recalled. “It started out mild, and then it got uncomfortable pretty quickly.”

Balise eventually went to seek medical attention, thus beginning an odyssey that has summoned every emotion and challenged him in ways he couldn’t have imagined.

And he could imagine plenty, especially after the colorful analysis provided by his local internist as he assessed and explained the information given to him following an endoscopy Balise endured early last October.

“He said, ‘you’re about to step into the ring with Mike Tyson … and you’ve never been to the gym before,’” Balise recalled, adding that doctors would soon tell him, “‘we don’t cure this kind of cancer; we can make it so your quality of life is better and extend your life, but we don’t cure this cancer.’”

As he talked about how this bout has unfolded, and what lies ahead, Balise said he was doing so somewhat reluctantly. He stressed repeatedly that there are many people in this region waging similar fights alone, and there is nothing extraordinary about his other than perhaps the severity of his cancer and the fact that his name, face, and voice are well-known within the community.

He said he consented to do this interview and a few others over the past year or so to shed some light on the myriad physical and emotional issues confronting all those who are battling cancer or will fight it someday, and to drive home the fact that those numbers continue to climb as the population ages and advancing science permits longer and, often, more successful fights against the disease. And more resources will be needed to help people wage those fights.

To get his points across, he summoned memories of visits to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, where he was taken aback by the sheer volume of people engaged in their own battles.

“It’s standing room only there all the time,” he said with seriousness in his voice mixed with a strong dose of concern. “You go there for your ‘labs,’ and you get there at 7 in the morning and you won’t leave till 5. There’s elderly people, individuals who are really sick, who don’t have a place to sit while they’re waiting, sometimes for 45 minutes, for their name to get called before their labs are done.

“There are people clamoring to get in that building,” he went on. “And when I talk to people I know who have been treated for cancer here in Springfield … it’s clear there’s a complete lack of capacity to handle the cancers out there.”

His own fight, as well as those images from Dana Farber and other facilities, no doubt played a role in the Balise family’s decision to make a $500,000 donation recently to the capital campaign to expand the Sr. Mary Caritas Cancer Center on the Mercy Medical Center campus.

“We might have done it anyway, but this …” he told BusinessWest, using that word to describe the sum of everything he’s experienced and witnessed since being diagnosed, “made it a no-brainer.”

Mike Balise with his brother, Jeb.

Mike Balise says he hasn’t enjoyed a better, stronger relationship than the one he’s had with his brother, Jeb.

Jeb Balise used that same term to describe the gift. He told BusinessWest that it was, like all donations from the Balise corporation, a decision made by a small team of individuals that field and assess myriad requests for support, and Mike is a member of that team.

He had input in the Caritas Center donation, Jeb went on, but kept what would be considered a low profile, especially with regard to the dollar amount.

“He didn’t want to make it seem that, because he had cancer, we were giving this money,” Jeb explained, adding that, throughout this ordeal, his brother has worked very hard to see to it that things are not about him.

Instead, Mike’s been focused on making a difference, or more of a difference, Jeb continued, adding that, while he’s always been active within the community and with causes such as autism — he recently took a 7-year-old from his neighborhood with that condition to see Pats coach Bill Belichick as he delivered a new car to him — the cancer fight has provided more opportunities to do so.

“His tonic is being able to make a difference,” said Jeb. “Certainly he’s been an inspiration, and we’ve gotten a lot of feedback from other cancer survivors and people going through the same thing, and that’s tonic for Mike. He’s not really trying to save himself — he doesn’t have false expectations — but whether it’s raising money for the cancer cause or just helping the individual person with whatever their situation might be, that’s his biggest motivator.”

Body of Evidence

Turning back the clock a little more than a year, Mike Balise recalled that it took doctors some time to figure out what was causing that aforementioned pain in his stomach.

The discomfort started in July, and by September, he had seen a few doctors, who couldn’t find anything. Jeb, who had watched a colleague in the car business succumb to stomach cancer nine months after being diagnosed, grew increasingly concerned and prodded his brother to seek attention.

“I had a terrible feeling — I didn’t like what he was saying,” Jeb recalled.

Mike, meanwhile, was thinking that it was an ulcer, and as his 25th wedding anniversary and a planned weekend on Mount Washington approached, concern mounted.

“I said to Maryellen, ‘I’m going to go up there, and this ulcer’s going to rupture, and I’m going to be six hours away from a crappy hospital,’” he recalled, adding that the trip was eventually canceled amid his vow that he would make it up to her.

A few days later, though, an endoscopy rendered that pledge irrelevant and turned their world on its end.

“The procedure probably lasted about 30 seconds, and when it was over, they knew I was in pretty big trouble,” Mike told BusinessWest. “The guy said, ‘we found a tumor, and you should go to Boston’ — and that’s all he said.”

His internist, Dr. Rodney Larson, provided far deeper insight in the form of that Mike Tyson analogy. But it would be another week before the news became official, for lack of a better word.

“The doctor was looking at a screen, and it looked just like the TV in the movie Poltergeist,” said Balise, using more humor to relate the chain of events. “It had no distinguishable pattern or anything; it was just a fuzzy TV screen.

“He said, ‘do you see this?’ and I said, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me, doc — I don’t see anything.’ And then he replied, ‘you’re right; I forgot that you didn’t spend 15 years in medical school,’” he went on. “Then he said, ‘if we don’t get you on chemo this week or next week, your odds of survival will go down a lot.’”

There were more inquiries from Balise, and more humor. “My first question was, ‘how many stages are there?’ They said, ‘four.’ I go, ‘can you make a fifth?’” he recalled, adding that, when he asked how long he had to live and the doctor balked at answering, he insisted on knowing and issued what amounted to a threat.

“The doctor said, ‘well, we really don’t like to get to into prognosticating like that; it just confuses the patient more — people can obsess on that,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘cut the bullshit, doc; if you don’t tell me how long I’ve got, I’m going to leave and do whatever I need to do to get an answer.’

“So he looks at his screen, thinks for second, looks at the stage — I was stage 4 — and says, ‘80% of the people who get this will be dead in nine to 12 months.’”

Thus commenced a tortuous period that Balise likened to being a rat in a cage.

“The rat doesn’t accept that he’s in a cage,” he explained. “He wanders around the cage, poking at every nook and cranny repeatedly, looking for a way out. I was the same way.”

On a good night, Balise said, he could muster perhaps a few hours of sleep, a pattern that continued until he and loved ones came up with what he called a “strategy for my life, not just for my illness.”

Life Lessons

On the first page of that figurative document was dealing with the “dirty stuff, the painful stuff, the uncomfortable stuff,” meaning the broad task of putting his affairs in order, an important and challenging process, especially since he has an autistic 18-year-old daughter.

“We made the hard decisions, set up trusts, did all the paperwork,” he said, adding that, for this work and so many other aspects of his fight, he has leaned heavily on Jeb.

“I’ve never had a greater relationship with a human being in my life than the one I’ve had with my brother,” he told BusinessWest. “The trust factor is 100% there; in many of the cases where I would have to think through a lot of details, I just give Jeb durable power of attorney, and he can make any decisions, or my wife can.”

Jeb, deflecting attention away from his own contributions to the process, said simply that such financial work is “one of my strong suits.”

He said his brother has many as well, including the ability to use humor and other elements of his personality to not only navigate the physical and emotional whitewater from this ordeal, but also put others more at ease as they cope with the unfolding developments.

“Mike’s a warrior,” said Jeb. “He’s one part politician, one part Saturday Night Live character … and he’s a pretty smart businessman, too.”

But while Mike’s humor and other sentiments during this battle have been real, Jeb went on, he has used these various defense mechanisms to hide some of the many types of pain he has experienced during the ordeal.

“He really has done well, but he certainly masks much of what he has gone through,” he told BusinessWest. “His seemingly nonchalant attitude about all this is hard to put into words, but I think Mike really has focused on the quality of life every day instead of dwelling on the inevitable — and for all of us. He tries to focus on, ‘hey, what can I do today that’s meaningful and makes a difference?’”

Indeed, with that hard stuff behind him — and even during that challenging process — Balise said he went about, well, living life as he would have and not letting his diagnosis get in the way.

In some respects, that hasn’t been too difficult, because until recently, the pain that triggered this story had been absent from his life. Still, the chemo treatments, although less of an ordeal than he anticipated in some respects, have nonetheless packed a wallop, impacting everything from his energy level to his sense of taste, with the latter causing particular dismay.

“It’s been delightful compared to what I always heard it that would be — it’s been very kind to me,” he noted. “It changes … even though it’s the same medicine, the experience would be different every time I had it.”

Meanwhile, there have been many adjustments to make and new realities to accept when it comes to his body and what he can and can’t do.

“For years, I would bench-press 135 pounds 10 times, 185 pounds 10 times, and then 225 between four and eight times, and that was after doing all kinds of other warmups,” he explained. “Now, I do 100 pounds, one set, and I’m lucky if I can get 15 in.

“I don’t look that much different or worse,” he went on, adding that he currently weighs about 225 and hasn’t drawn too many questions from his mother about his waistline. “But things are different in terms of what my body can do and from a strength standpoint, but not from a flexibility standpoint or a million other standpoints.”

There have been changes in his workload as well, with Balise working a fraction of the 60 to 80 hours he traditionally put in during a work week years ago, with his duties now focused on coaching, mentoring, and continuing to be the voice of the company.

Those changes have resulted in part from his condition, but also due to some needed succession planning and realization that the company is much larger and more complex than it was years ago, said Jeb, adding that the company hired a COO roughly a year ago, and very recently added a vice president of sales, who handles many of Mike’s former responsibilities.

Living Color

For the most part, though, Balise said he has kept cancer from dictating his life, and his fight would be only one of many figurative headlines used to capture the news of the past year.

Indeed, he said the most tears — and they resulted from a hard mix of emotions — came not from anything related to his condition, but rather on the day he and Maryellen took Nicole, their 18-year-old autistic daughter, to a school outside Boston, where she will spend more than 10 months a year.

“Until then, she had never spent a night away from home,” he noted. “On January 5th, she started a residential program in Boston, which is great for her. Still, that was one of the teariest days of my life; she can’t talk, but if she could, that day she would have said, ‘mom and dad, drag your asses out of here — I’ll be fine … I’m so sick of living at home with you.’ She did much better than her father that day, believe me.”

There were also plenty of memories from last February’s Super Bowl, for which Mike, his family, and several of the company’s dealers who prevailed in a competition boarded a leased corporate jet.

Jeb, who admitted to being far less of a Pats fan than his brother — “frankly, I’d rather watch paint dry than a football game” — watched the contest with Mike’s children, and said the Pats’ historic comeback and the game’s unlikely ending took on added significance because of Mike’s condition and thoughts that this might be his last Super Bowl.

Looking back on the past several months, though, Mike said he hasn’t dwelt on his own mortality and has instead been focused on living for the day, and even the moment.

He said there’s been only one occasion when he momentarily allowed himself to think, ‘this might be the last time I do this,’ and that was at Christmas, spent at the family’s home in Florida.

“I had a great Christmas Eve and then woke up Christmas Day with my kids in my house in Florida, and I just felt really despondent, thinking, ‘this is going to be the last Christmas, the last this, that, and the other thing,’” he recalled, adding that this funk was broken by a joke told by Rock 102 personality and close friend John O’Brien, who was visiting him at the time.

“I was in a fit of laughter that lasted three days,” he went on. “I would have wrestled myself out of it anyway, but it took him six seconds, and it was a joke to my wife that I overheard.”

And such negative thoughts have not returned. He doesn’t know if they will, but he’s committed to fighting such urges.

Life has gone on in most all respects, including that recent visit to Gillette Stadium, when Belichick taught the youngster how to grip a football and spent some time hanging with the child.

“He’s always gracious, and even though it was a really busy time, he met with the kid and spent some time with him in the middle of the work day,” said Balise as he grabbed his phone to proudly show some photos from the day. “He’s as real as you can get.”

The trip to Gillette, however, also coincided with a visit to Dana Farber for what Balise believes is the fourth CAT scan he’s had since he was first diagnosed. He didn’t know at the time exactly what the scan revealed, but said this simple fact means there is probably more bad news coming.

“What they’re looking for is not so much the cancer in my stomach, but the cancer in my lymph nodes and how that’s developing and if it’s hit any major organs yet,” he explained. “My doctor, who I think the world of, and he’s bright as hell and a really nice guy … he didn’t bring up the scan. So the kind of guy I am, I’m thinking, ‘you didn’t bring up the scan, so that means we’ve got bad news on the scan.”

Balise didn’t need the scan to tell him something was wrong. The pain that returned in July grew in its intensity, and as the calendar turned to August, it was with him 24 hours a day.

Still, he remains optimistic, notes that he’s never stopping hoping that a cure might be found, and hopes the new chemotherapy and other forms of treatment might buy him some time, meaning quality time — and more.

“This new chemo that I’m on could have the effect that it knocks this thing on its heels for a year, like my doctor said optimistically,” he said. “And when and if this one fails, there’s one other type of chemo that I might try. Doctors could be wrong; there might be a miracle, I might get hit by a bus … who knows what could happen?”

He does know that he plans to keep matters in perspective, and recalled a few of those visits to Dana Farber as he explained how he does that.

“You never see a child there — maybe once in a while, if they get a little slack and they bring me to one of the hospitals next to Dana Farber like Brigham & Women’s, I’ll see a kid with no hair,” he explained. “It’s only happened twice, because they really keep the kids separated, which is a good thing. But let me tell you … if you want to get your head out of your ass real quick, get a look at a 10-year-old kid who’s going through this stuff. That’ll do it.”

Bald Ambition

Looking ahead, Balise said he has a number of wishes and hopes for the future, starting with the Patriots. “I want to see Tom Brady finish the season,” he said, adding that, like many other fans of the team, he believes Deflategate will become a motivating factor for the Pats and their quarterback and possibly inspire another title run.

Meanwhile, he desperately wants to outlive his mother, a sentiment she would share under any circumstances, although he joked that none of his siblings may accomplish that feat at the rate she’s going.

He also wants to bring greater attention to the need for more cancer services — everywhere, but especially here in Western Mass. — and plans to continue using his still-high profile and ongoing fight to be part of that effort.

What he doesn’t want is for anyone to feel sorry him — he’s packed a lot into his 50 years, and has certainly enjoyed the many trappings of wealth — and cites those and many other reasons why.

Overall, he wants to spend as much time on the water and with his family as possible and be relentless in his efforts not to let cancer dictate the terms of his life.

He’s not sure when or how this figurative bout with Mike Tyson will end, but he does know he’s not ready to be counted out yet.

He’s still got plenty of living to do.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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