Mike’s personal story began three years ago when at the age of 28 he was diagnosed with a blood cancer – acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Mike told us his story from initial diagnosis in 2018 through treatment and recovery. This journey has led Mike to realize that much more is needed to support young adult cancer survivors (he is 31 now) and has I turn led to his establishing support organizations in Red Deer where he lives, and nationally.
Rising to the Challenge: Cancer, Healing and the Art of Giving Back (Speaker Mike Wark)
Mike’s personal story began three years ago when at the age of 28 he was diagnosed with a blood cancer – acute myeloid leukemia (AML). He had just finished his journeyman carpenter’s ticket and his wife her teaching degree. Life looked promising where they were living in Red Deer AB.
In June 2018 he was out on a cycling weekend with friends that he realized he was not keeping up. When his doctor assessed his bloodwork it showed exceptionally low counts in several factors including platelets, and his hemoglobin was critically low. Ten days later he was doing so poorly that he was admitted to the ER. Further tests led to the diagnosis of AML, with essentially no immunity and 90% of his bone marrow compromised. Chemotherapy was implemented, which left less than 1% of the leukemia. The choices to deal with the last vestige were (1) more chemo or (2) stem cell transplantation.
Both present (different) side effects and the fundamental challenge for a stem cell transplant is identifying a suitable donor. At this stage he opted for the stem cell transplant and after a worldwide search a donor was found in Germany who his “genetic twin”. This donor was found through the existence of registries across the world – this donor in fact had registered because of a search in her local area (where she was not a match). In Canada the registry operates through Canadian Blood Services. As a result Mike received his stem cell transplant in October 2018 and by January 2019 no trace of the disease remained.
Mike talked about some of the challenges of the treatment and recovery. The diagnosis for him as a young adult completely upended his world and disrupted all the expectations he and his wife had of their future. It generated feelings of anxiety and depression, grief and increased stress – in terms of work, purpose in life, faith. He noted that, with medicare, his employer health insurance and the support of family, friends and strangers, his costs were approximately $30,000 out of pocket (compares to about $500,000 in the US system).
What Mike does still find helpful is professional counselling, community support and giving back to his community. In fact, this what prompted him to establish groups that are aimed at young adult cancer survivors both in Red Deer and across the country. While support groups existed in Calgary there was nothing suitable in Red Deer: the group no has 65 participants. His two organizations are Young Adult Cancer Canada and Young Adult Cancer Central Alberta.