Teacher with terminal cancer defies odds for more than 40 years

Man inspires others to think about end of life decisions

ELY, Minn. - Music has always been a gift Mike Rouse can't live without. That's not to say he expected to start teaching it after the age of 50.

"My claim to fame is I received my AARP card and my Minnesota state teaching license all in the same week," Rouse said with a smile.

Though he didn't know what to expect teaching both elementary and high school students, Rouse calls it a blessing.

"My life has been a gift," Rouse said. "I, at 17-years-old, was given five years to live."

When Adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare cancer, first appeared in Mike's cheek, doctors told him it would never leave him. Luckily, his faith and love never left him either.

Mike met his future wife, Billie, months before his cancer diagnosis.

"We were just little kids," Billie said. "I never thought that he would live, so we were just going to enjoy what life we had. Everything after five years has just been a gift."

The couple have now celebrated forty plus years of gifts, and they have also welcomed the presence of five kids, who delivered 11 grandkids into their lives.

"He's always been there to do all sorts of stuff," said Caleb Rouse-Littler, one of Mike's grandchildren and a current choir student. "It's not like (cancer) was ever anything new to any of us. It's always been there."

And now Mike is sharing his approach to cancer with everyone.

Mike was the featured guest at an event called "The Convenings" in Ely earlier this month, which aims to help people start talking about and preparing for the unknowns we all face at the end of our lives.

"I don't live with cancer, cancer lives with me," Mike said.

Host of The Convenings, Cathy Wurzer, interviewed Mike about his life, death and the lessons he has learned.

Wurzer: "You are so positive and so seemingly at peace with your life. Is it teachable?"

Mike Rouse: "I don't know. I can teach music a little bit, but I'm not sure I can teach attitudes."

One thing Mike is sure of is who he can trust when his time does come.

"My words to him were, if you ever get tired and you say, 'No more.' I don't care what anybody else says. I will honor you and there will be no more," Billie said.

Mike and Billie have already faced some tough decisions. When his cancer returned last June, Mike says there was an option to undergo surgery.

"It would have eliminated the tumor 100%, but it would have put an end to my ability to teach," Mike said. "You're thinking about quality versus quantity of life."

Mike opted for radiation, because teaching is too important.

"He's not a cancer patient. He's a guy living with cancer, but actually he's a choir teacher," said Lilly Sauls, one of Mike's students. "You know, (cancer) is just like the side thing."

And whenever that side thing threatens to become the main thing, he knows who he can turn to and what to say to his doctors.

"If you keep giving me five years to live long enough, eventually, you guys are going to get it right," Mike said. "But not yet."

This ongoing series is in cooperation with The Convenings Project, a joint effort of Honoring Choices Minnesota and the Bruce Kramer Collaborative aimed at starting those conversations about end of life.

You can find more information on creating a health care directive and on how to start the discussions with loved ones in your life by clicking here.


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