Former U-M Football Captain Teams Up with Doctor to Tackle Cancer Research

September 19, 2017 6:00 AM

How two Michigan sports fans — a patient and a cancer researcher at U-M — are working together this football season to support melanoma research.

George Mans is no stranger to leading a team.                                   

At 6 feet 4 inches, his height and build hint that he is a former athlete. The maize and blue lapel pin fastened to his slightly wrinkled sports coat shows a glimpse of his Michigan pride.

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Mans, 77, was a student and football player at U-M in the 1950s. During his senior season, in 1958, the right end led the Wolverines as team captain. After turning down the opportunity to play professionally, Mans spent seven seasons as an assistant football coach at U-M and was head coach of the Eastern Michigan Eagles for the 1974-75 season.

More recently, Mans and his wife of 48 years, Carol, can be found making the 40-mile trek to Ann Arbor from their hometown of Trenton, Michigan.

“It takes us about an hour and a half to get here if I’m driving,” says Carol, smiling. “If he’s behind the wheel, it’s about 45 minutes.”

The two don’t travel back to their alma mater solely to reminisce about their days on campus, though. It’s for George Mans’ health.

“About 10 years ago, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” says Mans. He was treated at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center and went into remission, “and then I developed a melanoma and that was treated, but some of it got into my lungs.”

Cancer is just part of the picture of Mans’ health in the past decade, which has included Bowen’s disease, diastolic heart failure and chronic kidney disease. Through it all, he remains a Michigan fan.

“I’ve seen a variety of doctors and departments here, and I’m extremely grateful for the wonderful care I’ve received,” he says. “It’s because of U-M I’ve been able to maintain a pretty good quality of life.”

Teaming up

Scott McLean, M.D., Ph.D., was also a college athlete with his own nostalgic feelings for U-M. He attended as an undergrad, ran on the men’s cross-country team and played in the marching band.

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Today, McLean combines two passions, cancer research and sports. He has completed a number of national marathons — including six Boston Marathons — to raise money for the Victors Melanoma Research Team.

And he throws an annual Tailgate to Tackle Melanoma for his donors during the Michigan State rivalry game. Every year, the tailgate’s captain is a patient of McLean’s whose positive attitude further inspires McLean’s passion for advancing translational melanoma research.

Mans will be this year’s honorary captain.

“I’m honored,” says Mans. “I wouldn’t be receiving this kind of care if it weren’t for research and for those who have gone through clinical trials and tests before me.”

Case in point: One of the cancer drugs Mans is taking was only recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Still, he’s not letting his health hold him back.

“I told him I understand if you aren’t up for it,” says McLean. “But he said, ‘Oh, don’t you worry about that. I’ll be there.’”

Budding friendship

The two met in March 2014, after Mans sought treatment for a melanoma skin lesion on his neck, says McLean, an assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.

According to Mans, McLean’s bedside manner helped the two men hit it off.

“When I first met him, he brought four or five people into the room with him,” says Mans. “And he says to me, ‘This is my team.’ That made me feel comfortable right away.”

The ex-football player says he instantly took to McLean’s approach to caring for patients and also says McLean delivered the news about his diagnosis and prognosis with a quiet confidence and assertiveness.

“He really made me feel like I could trust him,” says Mans.

McLean adds, “Every time I see him, he’s the happiest guy around. He brings in doughnuts for the staff. He’s just one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.”

Strides to cure melanoma

McLean is working with Sunitha Nagrath, Ph.D., an associate professor of chemical engineering at U-M’s College of Engineering. They have developed a device that can detect melanoma cells in the bloodstream.

SEE ALSO: How to Check Your Moles for Signs of Skin Cancer

“The device is working, and we’ve tested 20 blood samples from patients,” says McLean.

In their next phase of using the technology, McLean says, they want to enroll patients into a trial that will test their blood before and after surgery to remove their melanoma.

“Our hope is that we get this device sensitive enough that we can detect a problem before a lump shows up somewhere, which would allow us to intervene sooner,” he says.

While McLean continues his research, Mans is enjoying life with his wife, four children and two grandchildren. The family has a long-standing tradition of traveling to Camp Michigania, the campground on Walloon Lake for U-M Alumni Association members.

When they get there, they never forget to send McLean a postcard.

Interested in partnering with the Victors Melanoma Research Team? Visit the website or call 734-936-8017.