Mike Wark: young adult from Red Deer finds cancer support
At age 27, Mike Wark was on a positive track, hitting all the milestones on his carefully planned life journey.
He was married to Lauren – the love of his life. He had a solid foundation comprised of friends, family and faith. He had achieved an undergrad degree in political science. And when his dream of working for an agency that provided foreign aid in developing countries didn’t pan out, he had the wherewithal to pivot and obtain a journeyman carpentry ticket, and set his sights on construction project management.
Mike was a trailblazer, carving a path with smooth corners and upward momentum. Lauren was in lockstep – with her teaching degree she landed a good job as a substitute teacher in Red Deer where the pair were living. Together, Mike and Lauren dreamed of purchasing a home and starting a family.
Then life intervened.
Hairpin Curve Ahead
It was 2018 and Mike was on a weekend retreat with his friends. “We were mountain biking and it was a lot of fun, but I was having trouble keeping up with the guys on the trails, and this was shocking to me. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. My buddies were teasing me about not keeping up – usually I would lead the pack,” said Mike.
In the week that followed, Mike developed a cold he could not shake, and with persuasion from Lauren, he went to the ER where they ran extensive tests and noticed that his blood counts were dangerously low and his spleen was enlarged.
“Three days later, on June 21, I had a diagnosis of Acute Myeloid Leukemia. They estimated the cancer was roughly four to six weeks old when they found it, and it had already compromised 80-90 percent of my bone marrow” said Mike. “They told me if I did not begin treatment immediately, there was a good chance I would not survive.”
Within a week, Mike was an in-patient receiving intensive chemotherapy at Calgary’s Tom Baker Cancer Centre (TBCC), and Lauren had put her job on hold and relocated to Calgary to be near him. The months that followed were impossibly frightening for the young couple, but also, as Mike writes in an online blog he created, called The Hiccup – Mike’s Leukemia Journey, the pair experienced extraordinary love, growth, faith, humour, and learning.
The first rounds of chemotherapy successfully eliminated most of the cancer, but the small amount that remained continued to pose a threat, so further treatment was required. Mike’s choices were four more rounds of high intensity chemo, or an allogeneic stem cell transplant, which would involve replacing his diseased bone marrow with healthy blood stem cells from a genetically matched donor.
Proceed with Caution
“We put a lot of thought and prayer into this decision. A stem cell transplant meant more time off work and had a higher risk of complications … but it also offered a higher chance of success and long-term survival. We felt we had to go for it,” he said.
When Mike’s sister was not a match, attention was turned to an international registry and within three weeks, a perfect match was miraculously found across the globe in Germany.
Gearing up for the stem cell transplant meant Mike had to be in hospital receiving high doses of chemotherapy and radiation to destroy his diseased cells and prepare the his body for the injection of the healthy live stem cells.
Soft Shoulder – Wellspring Calgary
“While we were waiting for the transplant, we had a lot of free time – there was not much we could do except wait. We really needed a distraction. It was at that point that someone, a nurse I think, told us about Wellspring Calgary. We checked it out late in August. We called ahead and Bobbi met us at the door and welcomed us with a big smile, a tour, and a list of all the support Wellspring offered. I remember feeling so relieved … it would be a place that could provide a distraction from the rigors of treatment in the hospital. We both joined right away and we took an art program. We were introduced to the Young Adults group and took YA yoga and we went to a YA Christmas party. Wellspring was a real game changer in my cancer experience. For the first time I realized I wasn’t the only one going through this – I wasn’t alone. Having other people alongside me while I was dealing with all this made a world of difference,” said Mike.
On October 24, 2018, Mike received 766 million life-giving stem cells donated by his genetic twin living in Germany. At the time, Mike and Lauren knew nothing about his donor, except that she was a female in her twenties.
The transplant went well and it was considered a success. Three months later, after a final bone marrow biopsy, Mike heard the words he longed to hear … ‘you are cancer-free!’
Mike was deeply grateful to the donor and wanted to reach out and thank the stranger who saved his life, but regulations did not permit him to know or contact his donor until two years post-transplant.
As fate would have it, that two-year mark came and in November 2019, and on Mike’s 30th birthday, he was gifted with the identity of his donor. Mike reached out, and the two have become friends. “Her name is Christiane Krück and she is a 25-year-old speech therapist lives in Bavaria. We chat frequently. She has become like another sister to me, not to mention my genetic twin,” he said. [Read Mike’s Blog post Hello and Thanks For Saving My Life.]
Right of Way
This October marks Mike’s three-year stem cell birthday (he calls it his “Stem-Cell-ebration!”). He is celebrating by training to race in a triathlon in 2022. “Physically, I’m doing great! I graduated from doing my follow-up appointments at the Blood and Marrow Transplant clinic at Foothills Hospital, to the Long Term Survivorship Clinic at the Holy Cross Centre. It feels like a great step,” he said.
Mike doesn’t lament the detour in his journey – he is the type of person who leans into his faith and looks for the silver lining.
“I count my blessings. I’m very thankful that I was able to make a near complete physical recovery. Having cancer has made me grateful to be alive. I’m grateful for my wife, who never left my side, and for family and friends all over the world. I try not to think about what I’ve lost, but what I’ve gained,” he said.
On this next leg of his journey, Mike hopes to put his personal experience with cancer in the rear view mirror, as he looks for ways to help others who are on a path he knows all too well.
“It has been very therapeutic finding ways to give back to this community. I was on the receiving end and I really appreciated all the friends and family who rallied around us. At one point, someone told me there were 300 churches around the world praying for us … you can’t help but marvel at the depths of human kindness.
A big part of my purpose now is to help others going through this experience,” he said.
Hear Mike share in his own words on this webcast: Life after acute myeloid leukemia: Personal stories of hope.
Paying it Forward
Mike was so uplifted by the kindness and support he received throughout his cancer journey, he has made a commitment to back. Since Mike’s cancer detour, he:
- Became a facilitator at Camp Kindle Retreat – a retreat facility for children and young adults facing cancer and their families.
- Formed a private support group called YACCA (Young Adult Cancer Central Alberta). The group, started in December 2019 with 10 members who gathered for discussions and social events, then moved its sessions to online when COVID hit and now has 60-plus members.
- Collaborated with YACC (Young Adult Cancer Canada), to launch and co-hosting a Webchat program offering weekly online meetings for YA cancer survivors across the country as a way to connect and provide a safe place for people to talk about what they are going through, especially during the pandemic.
- Became a spokesperson for Canadian Blood Services, encouraging Canadians to donate blood and register to become part of the international stem-cell registry – a database of over 25 million potential donors from over 100 countries around the world.
- Served as Red Deer’s “Honoured Hero” for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada’s (LLSC) 2019 Light the Night walk, raising awareness and financial support towards finding a cure for blood cancers.
- Became a volunteer with LLSC’s First Connection program, offering support to newly diagnosed blood cancer patients across Canada.