These days, Mike Wark is simply grateful to be alive.
That was not always a guarantee for the 30-year-old Red Deer resident, who two years ago received a cancer diagnosis that changed his life.
His cancer journey made him an advocate for Canadian Blood Services.
As of Wednesday, Red Deer needed to fill 390 blood donor appointments by Jan. 4.
During a 2018 on a mountain biking trip, Wark was lagging behind his friends and had some difficultly catching his breath.
Routine blood work revealed he had a low white blood cell count and after a few weeks without answers, he went to the ER in Red Deer.
That’s when he first heard the word leukemia. Doctors said his enlarged spleen was an early sign of cancer.
“I remember that just hit us like a brick wall,” he recalled.
“We just thought it was a (medicine) imbalance or there was another reason why my blood counts were so low, but we certainly didn’t think it was cancer at the time.”
In June of 2018, he transferred to Foothills Hospital in Calgary, where he received his diagnosis. Wark had a rare form of cancer, acute myeloid leukemia that affects about one in 400,000 people and is extremely rare for people under 50.
“It had compromised between 80-90 per cent of my bone marrow and left me with no functioning immune system,” Wark said.
“The initial chemo ran for a week straight, 24/7 and after about five weeks, it was successful in reducing that leukemic count in my bone marrow, down to 0.2 per cent.”
From there, Wark and his family faced a difficult choice – continue with chemotherapy or explore a stem cell transplant. Ultimately the latter option was chosen as it gave him a better chance of survival.
They found a donor match in October 2018 and he had the transplant just weeks later. He spent three months recovering before a biopsy in January 2019 revealed that he was essentially cancer-free.
“When we heard from the doctor that they had got it all and I no longer had any detectable cancer in my body and we’d be able to come home, it was an immense relief and we just felt so much gratitude for our medical team and all the people who had supported us through it,” he remembered.
“Even strangers, those who had donated blood and stem cells, because, without them, I really wouldn’t be there.”
Wark, who moved to Red Deer in 2013 after marrying his wife Lauren, a Red Deer native, is now an advocate for Canadian Blood Services.
Blood donations played an enormous part in keeping him alive and Canadian Blood Services database helped him find his stem cell donor.
Lauren said seeing her best friend in the hospital, getting bag after bag of blood, really was a revelation.
“The culmination of that and the very unique generosity of his stem cell donor, really were life-saving. I definitely have a new appreciation for it. I also didn’t really see the full impact of it until this hit us out of the blue. I try to advocate for it whenever I can now,” she said.
While the pair are still dealing with some of the mental impacts of the ordeal, Mike is relatively healthy and trying to navigate the COVID-19 world as an immuno-compromised individual. He feels blessed to have survived and have a new lease on life.
He wouldn’t have had that chance had it not been for Canadian Blood Services and Wark is reminding Albertans, especially during the holiday season about the need for donations.
“I know our community can really use it especially, entering into the holiday season and I think a lot of people are probably hesitant more so to give this year because of the pandemic– the need still remains,” he said.
“For people like cancer patients or accident victims, it doesn’t matter that there’s a pandemic. The need still continues. So, it’s just as crucial as ever.”