By Zoe Benjamin OnMilwaukee Reporter Published Jun 07, 2016 at 9:01 AM

Sometimes a minor irritation can turn out to be the biggest test of your life. Mike Irwin learned this firsthand, as a mysterious back pain turned into his worst nightmare.

"I used to be as normal as can be," said Irwin, a 56-year-old father, husband and upstanding member of the Mequon community. Irwin is the vice president of global supply chain in the Operations and Engineering Services organization for Rockwell Automation in Milwaukee, the world's largest company dedicated to industrial automation and information.

In this position, he manages over 800 people globally and travels internationally every other month. He is a man of great dedication and skill, a man to be respected and adored. Unfortunately for Irwin, the game called life became a whirlwind of unexpected woes.

It all began with really intense back pain that radiated around to the front. Next, he began having trouble eating and began to lose weight.

"I couldn’t eat much at a time – a few bites and I was full," said Irwin. For the next few months, his troubled eating sparked him and his wife, Melissa Irwin, to get his heart, back and everything else checked out. Eventually, on the day before Thanksgiving 2013, his doctors sent him for an MRI, during which they injected him with a special dye that sticks to cancer. Irwin immediately knew that something was wrong when the technician told him to go see his doctor right away.

Irwin drove to his doctor’s office in Grafton to receive the news. The doctor announced that Irwin had pancreatic cancer. Mike and Melissa began calling specialists to form a treatment plan.

"Melissa was down at the neighbors', and I told her you need to come home – we need to talk," said Irwin. "I sat on the closet floor and cried, and told her I had pancreatic cancer, the same thing that had killed my dad."

When Irwin was a freshman at Wabash College, his father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He dropped out of school to help his mom raise his brothers and, within six months, Irwin’s dad passed away from the incredibly aggressive disease.

"That was really all I knew about pancreatic cancer at the time," said Irwin. "I really felt like this was probably a death sentence."

Pancreatic cancer is one of the trickiest kinds of cancer. There are rarely early detection signs and no screening method to test if a person has it and catch it early. Typically, the only time it causes symptoms is if it’s in the head of the pancreas, which often causes jaundice. The only non-invasive way to find it is to use a specific cancer marker called a CA 19-9, but an elevated level is not a definitive diagnosis. Final diagnosis must be done with a biopsy via endoscopy – where the patient is sedated and a tube placed into the stomach so the doctor can access the tumor.

Despite his initial grim outlook, Irwin began fighting for his life. There was a short period of time between his diagnosis and the time the treatments started. His first set of doctors weren’t very successful in their approach. The doctors chose to place Irwin on a very aggressive chemotherapy treatment, which can make the some patients' health deteriorate quickly.

"There’s a whole medication list just to help his functionality," said Irwin's wife Melissa. "Between not managing the chemo correctly and not managing the medicine correctly, he got worse."

Melissa butted heads with and questioned his doctors a lot.

"I found out that he should’ve gotten a certain type of pre-medication, which he wasn’t given," said Melissa. After the first round of chemotherapy failed with the first set of doctors, Melissa set out to find new doctors in the hopes of getting better results.

At this point, Irwin was so sick from the side effects of his treatment that he required hospitalization.

"I was so weak; I lost 60 pounds in a matter of about three months," said Irwin.

After a week, the doctor came in and told him that the chemo wasn’t working; in fact, his cancer marker was going up.

"He felt that I was too weak for further treatment, and he sent me home to die," said Irwin. "So, from Thanksgiving to sometime in January, I went from a 190-pound, healthy, working father, to 130 pounds – sent home to die – in a matter of three months."

Irwin wasn’t happy with his surgeon, so he found an even better one. Luckily for him – and anyone else in the Milwaukee area with this unfortunate disease – the Chair of Surgery at Froedtert, Dr. Douglas B. Evans, is considered one of the best pancreatic surgeons in the U.S. Possibly even in the world.

Irwin was incoherent at this point, and was in hospice care for five days. Melissa Irwin began doing lots of research and stumbled across the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, a nationwide network of people dedicated to advancing research, supporting patients and creating hope for those affected by pancreatic cancer.

"That was the only website that was upbeat – everything else was all doom and gloom," said Melissa said. "That’s how I started to connect with people."

The Irwins finally met Dr. Evans, and he explained to them that Irwin’s cancer is inoperable; however, it could still be treated. Evans set them up with Irwin’s current oncologist, the man who literally saved Mike’s life.

An entire of team of specialists at Froedtert’s Clinical Cancer Center got together to work a miracle.

"There’s nothing that I see here that says you’re going to die soon," said Dr. Paul S. Ritch, Mike Irwin’s oncologist. The team at Froedtert worked endlessly and, after a year of chemotherapy and radiation, Irwin began to improve. They gave Irwin back his quality of life, something that he thought he never would find. His numbers decreased and he was off chemotherapy for about 10 months.

Then, in January, the unthinkable happened. Mike Irwin had a relapse, and his cancer came back more aggressively.

"We found out a week and a half ago that it may have metastasized and spread to the liver," said Melissa.

Irwin stopped all chemo, and is now a subject of the tumor board at Froedtert, where doctors from several specialties meet and review complicated cases. If his cancer did metastasize, Irwin will most likely have to rely heavily on clinical trials to improve his condition.

"There’s really only a couple of chemotherapy treatments or regimens that are approved for pancreatic cancer," said Irwin. "After that, it’s clinical trials or experimental drugs."

The limited options won’t keep Irwin from being hopeful and enjoying his life in the meantime.

Mike and Melissa Irwin have gotten great support from their community in Mequon, the employees of Rockwell Automation and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network hosts yearly PurpleStride events in several cities, where tens of thousands of people nationwide participate in a walks or runs that raise awareness and funds to advance research and support patients and their loved ones.

This year’s PurpleStride Milwaukee was the 5K run and family-friendly walk at Miller Park this past Sunday. There was even a team for the Rockwell Automation family called They ROK, which supported Rockwell Automation employees, families and friends that have battled or are currently fighting pancreatic cancer.

The people at Rockwell Automation have gone above and beyond to support Irwin and his family through their tough time. They’ve allowed him to keep his job and remained flexible throughout his appointments and treatments.

"I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have a job to go to," said Irwin. "I’m not somebody that can sit on the couch and wait around for this thing to kill me or whatever. They’ve just been so good to us."

Furthermore, Rockwell took it upon itself to implement a plan for Melissa to move forward when Mike thought he was going to die.

"We were buying a cemetery plot, we were meeting with the funeral people and the priest," said Irwin.

Step by step, Rockwell assisted Melissa in planning what to do after her husband’s passing. They hired a company to come in and sit with her and walk her through everything that she would have to do, from a financial standpoint, when Mike was gone.

"I don’t know that they do that for everybody, but they did that for us," said Irwin.

Finding out that his pancreatic cancer is back ran Irwin through a gambit of emotions, but he’s officially in fight mode.

"That eight percent is just a number," said Irwin, referring to the statistic that only eight percent of pancreatic patients live five years past their diagnosis. "Everybody is different, every cancer is different, everybody responds to the treatment differently. I feel like we’ve got a strong chance."

In defiance of his cancer’s return, Irwin lives his life with more zest than he ever has. Both he and Melissa used to be very career-driven, but they now realize that it doesn’t matter as much. What matters most is spending time with the ones you love – and that’s exactly what they’re doing.

They spend a lot of time with their son, Mike, Jr., and are planning a pirate birthday party for him in the near future. Mike Jr.’s biggest birthday wish of all: that his dad didn’t have cancer anymore.

The strength of the Irwin family is remarkable, and their journey has been long and arduous; nevertheless, they keep going, cherishing all of the little things this life has to offer.

Zoe Benjamin OnMilwaukee Reporter

Zoe Benjamin, currently a senior at UW-Milwaukee, was raised in the South suburbs of Chicago. She is a foodie, an avid traveler and music junkie, with just the right amount of nerdiness to top it all off.

Growing up in a large Jamaican family exposed her to a lifestyle full of food, laughter and pride. Zoe’s appreciation for her family’s eclectic nature led her to celebrate the differences in others. She just so happens to especially enjoy the study of food, seeing that eating is her favorite pastime.

Ever since she was able to get on a plane by herself, Zoe has taken the liberty of traveling to every place within her reach -- whether that be the next state over, or across the seas. Her wanderlust has taken her to 10 different countries, with France being her favorite. Nothing excites her more than French food and wine. Zoe hopes to absorb and share as much culture as she can so that the world may become that much more accepting of all the bountiful diversity in the world.