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Brain cancer can't dampen his spirit; Husband and father keeps in mind all he's thankful for

Tim Michalak, 64, right, dances with his daughter Allison Palmer, 24, during her wedding reception at the Dearborn Inn in Dearborn, Michigan. Michalak was diagnosed with glioblastoma in 2005 and says he is happy that he was able to be there for his daughter on her wedding day. (Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press/MCT)
Tim Michalak, 64, right, dances with his daughter Allison Palmer, 24, during her wedding reception at the Dearborn Inn in Dearborn, Michigan. Michalak was diagnosed with glioblastoma in 2005 and says he is happy that he was able to be there for his daughter on her wedding day. (Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press/MCT)Read more

DETROIT — Thankful for family ...

The tumor is gone now, but the cancer still lurks.

Allison Michalak emerged from a side room, wearing a cream-colored wedding dress, holding a bouquet of flowers.

"Surprise!" she said.

He turned and saw her, daddy's little girl, as beautiful as the day she came home from the hospital. Even more, if that's possible.

How did she grow up so fast?

Tim Michalak gave her a hug and felt as if he was floating, each second a gift from God.

"You look terrific, kiddo," he said.

When Tim was diagnosed with glioblastoma, perhaps the worst kind of brain cancer, his daughter started doing research on the Internet, but she stopped because it was too depressing. How much time did she have left with her father? Ten months? A year? The prognosis was devastating. In most cases, glioblastoma is a death sentence. A quick death.

That was almost four years ago, and just getting to this moment, having this extra time with her father, was a miracle.

"I love you," Tim said.

"I love you, too," Allison said.

Music started — "Pachelbel's Canon in D Major" — and Tim walked his daughter down the aisle to the elegant music. Everybody stood. Cameras flashed. Tears fell.

"I was kind of walking on air," Tim said.

They approached Army Lt. Daniel Palmer, in full dress uniform at the front of the church, as handsome as a homecoming king. Clean cut. Perfect smile.

Tim stopped and gave his daughter a kiss.

"I could see he didn't want to give her up," said Anne Michalak, Tim's wife of 39 years. "He wanted to hold onto her."

Lisa Scarpace watched through glassy-eyed tears. Scarpace is the clinical research coordinator at the Hermelin Brain Tumor Center at Henry Ford Hospital. When Tim was diagnosed, she was the one who gave the family hope and inspiration and unwavering belief.

"Don't believe the statistics," she told them. "Don't look at it. He's going to beat it. We have tools here that are different from anywhere else."


It all started with some headaches, and Tim never had headaches. Then his right foot started acting weird, doing its own thing, and he fell down a flight of stairs. He had an MRI, and doctors discovered the tumor Dec. 9, 2005.

"It's pretty devastating to find out you have a tumor and it's got to come out and it's cancerous, but you can't stop living," Tim said.

He had surgery 10 days later. Doctors warned the family that he might lose his ability to speak, but he came out of surgery and nothing had changed.

Would he see her graduate from college? Would he make it to her wedding? Would he ever hold her children?

"You think about all these things that are important to you," Allison said. "One was for my dad to be at my wedding."

At the time, she wasn't even engaged.

About 2 1/2 years after the surgery, the tumor returned in the same spot. Tim had a second surgery March 14, 2008. "When he came out, he took off from his room and went for a walk and never told the nurses where he went," Anne said, smiling.

Typical. He is always beating the odds.


Tim said he gets strength from God. He has become more spiritual, praying more often, asking for help.

"How do you explain the fact that I've beat the odds on all of this?" he asked. "It's got to come from somewhere, whether it's the medical and the physical or whether it's the spiritual. I think it's all of them."

Tim has kept a positive attitude through two surgeries, three kinds of chemotherapy, two types of radiation and a number of clinical trials.

"It's crazy to think when you have a brain tumor that you have a positive attitude," Allison said. "He's had an awesome attitude. I think that's one of the reasons he is still going."

Tim's balance is still strong, but he has a hard time remembering dates and stories, and he has lost some of his peripheral vision.

Tim has been on chemotherapy for almost four years. When he goes to the hospital for treatment, he talks to other people getting chemo, trying to calm their fears.

"A lot of people are scared and nervous," he said. "I think talking to them has helped some of these people through this stuff."

Doctors say they cannot cure this cancer. They can only try to control it. Last summer, an MRI showed an inoperable cancerous speck deep in his brain. It was like a ticking time bomb, ready to grow, ready to spread.

"I don't know what they call those cells, runaways," Anne said. "But we don't talk about it."

Tim was due to have another MRI to see whether the cancer grew, but it was delayed until after the wedding.

In case it was bad news.


Tim and Allison stood on the dance floor at the Dearborn Inn before the father-daughter dance. They had been preparing for this moment, practicing in the living room, learning a basic dance they had found on the Internet.

Tim picked the Paul Simon song "Father and Daughter" because the words were perfect.

A guitar played softly. Allison took the lead because he gets his right foot mixed up with his left.

"I'm gonna watch you shine," Simon sang. "Gonna watch you grow."

Everybody at the reception stood and held cameras.

Tim and his daughter moved in a tight square, smiling, concentrating, trying to make it perfect.

"As long as one and one is two," the song continued, "there could never be a father who loved his daughter more than I love you."

And then the unthinkable: Tim spun his daughter, twirling her with no problem, and Anne was amazed.

"He was doing it so smoothly, not getting his left and right feet mixed up," she said. "It was so special to see him be there for her on her big day. That's when I got the most emotional. I couldn't see anything else. I could only see them."

Dr. Tom Mikkelsen, a neuro-oncologist and the co-director of the Hermelin Brain Tumor Center at Henry Ford Hospital, stood a few feet off the dance floor. Mikkelsen was invited to the wedding and was seated at a prominent table because he has become such a close family friend.

He smiled, enjoying the moment, knowing what it meant, but he also kept a close eye on his patient's balance, looking for signs that the cancer was back.


Two days after the wedding, Tim was back at Henry Ford for the MRI.

Anne was nervous. About that speck. About those runaway cells. About losing her husband.

"He goes beyond your expectations," she said, sitting in a waiting room. "He is a very caring person, he takes care of people."

Tim and his wife were taken into an examining room to learn the results. Anne looked nervous. Tim tried to stay busy, shuffling papers.

Every two months, they go through the same routine, living from scan to scan, waiting to find out whether the cancer has spread.

The door opened, and Mikkelsen walked into the room.

"It was a great party," he said, smiling.

"Anybody who can dance like that is going to have a super scan," Mikkelsen said. "Luckily, I can confirm that.

"I went through this with a fine-tooth comb and it looks great," he said. "It looks fantastic. It couldn't be any better at this time."

"That's great news," Tim said. "Thank you, sir. You just made my day."

Mikkelsen stood up.

"I need a hug," Tim said, wrapping his arms around his doctor. "Thank you!"

"My pleasure. It's always good to give good news."

"Hey," Anne said to her daughter. "Good news. Dr. Mikkelsen came in and read the scan and it's stable."

"All right," Allison said. "Good deal!"

"That's a great present isn't it?" Anne asked. "A great wedding present!"