From 200 to 42,200: Peter Kirk’s Cancer Journey, Part 1

Sermo is so proud to share this extremely personal story written by Peter Kirk, our CEO, about his health struggles this past year. This is just a peek into what he has overcome. Stay tuned as Peter continues this powerful series and shares what lies ahead.

Please excuse me as I get a little personal.  I’ve been going through quite a lot lately.  In fact, I almost died a year ago.  Last October I was lying in NYU’s intensive care unit (ICU) in Manhattan, which is probably as good as any ICU in this wonderful city and Mecca of medical care.  I laid there unconscious, intubated and struggling to breathe as my wife was being told to prepare to say goodbye to me.

My once strong and capable body was failing me.  Out of nowhere I was diagnosed with acute leukemia (AML) simultaneously with double lung pneumonia.  I had already been living with being neutropenic for the last 15 years so my immune system was no match for this double whammy. 

I was given all kinds of IV drugs in order to stop my lungs from completely failing.  At one point, the lead pulmonologist in the ICU told my wife, “nothing seems to be working so we are basically throwing everything we’ve got at him.”  At the same time the hematologist was arguing to start chemo, otherwise they would not be able to reign back in the acute leukemia that was now racing through my body; however, starting with chemo would likely make all the other drugs I was getting less effective.  

After a night’s sleep my wife agreed to start chemo.  When she arrived (she would arrive at 7.30am every morning for doctor’s rounds, and then stay until about 6pm in the evening), she counted no less than 22 (twenty two) 😳 bags of IV going into my body seemingly everywhere.

When my chemo started, it was so strong that my wife had to leave the room and the staff administering the chemo all wore full hazmat suits.  I know it was strong because I had chemo for five more weeks and there were no hazmat suits or people having to leave the room.  The first round was the stuff that either kills you or the cancer 🙄. They were giving it to me for ten days eight hours a day.

It was the day after they started the chemo my wife was told to spend as much time with me as possible because I was likely not going to make it.  She told them, “you don’t know Peter, he is strong.”  They sort of nodded as to not disagree but said to her, “you know, right now Peter is the sickest patient we have in ICU and that includes the COVID ICU patients.“

It was then when she walked back into my room she noticed classical music playing and within an hour the hospital priest came to my door to read my last rites, unconscious and on a ventilator.  But my wife, very conscious, stood up, walked quickly to the door, blocked the entryway and told the priest, “not today, Peter is NOT DYING today, but you are welcome to pray for him in your office.”  And, as wives usually are, she was correct.

After sixteen days I was eventually moved from the ICU to the cancer ward.  I still didn’t understand the severity of my illness as everything was sort of hazy.  It wasn’t until the lead pulmonologist from the ICU came to visit me in the cancer ward, walked in and very surprisingly exclaimed, “Peter, it’s amazing to see you here sitting up in that chair.  I’m so happy for you.”  It was then that I felt some shock, and honestly some panic, at the intense trauma I had experienced.  What happened, how did I get here and would I die soon anyway from leukemia?

I was released two weeks later and returned home 35 pounds lighter, severely weakened mentally and physically.  I then was transferred to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) in Manhattan which is probably the best cancer hospital and care you can get anywhere in the world.

In the next five months I would undergo follow-up treatment (consolidation) with one week of chemo followed by 4-7 weeks of rest.  During that time my body did some slow recovering, but it was a challenging time.  I was a man with five marathons under my belt, and before my diagnosis in fairly decent shape for a 50-year-old.  Before the diagnosis I could at any given time go out and run 3-6 miles on a whim.  I decided to try to run across the street – 100 feet.  I couldn’t.  It simply wasn’t doable for my body, specifically my lungs.

After five months of follow-up treatment, it was decided I needed a bone marrow transplant, both to hopefully prevent future relapses of acute leukemia as well as give me a new and normal immune system so I would no longer be neutropenic. 

It turns out you can’t just get a transplant.  They need to chemo your bone marrow stem cells and whole immune system in order to make room for the donor stem cells to take root and not be attacked by my old immune system.  This was the second time I would lose all my hair, lose twenty pounds, which I had just managed to put back on since the ICU experience, and become severely weakened once more.

I had my transplant on June 9th, when they infused an amazing (circa) 850 million, T-cell depleted, stem cells from a most wonderful anonymous angel donor somewhere in the US.  I plan to make contact when a year has passed and MSK is allowed to put me in touch with the donor.

Once more I needed to recover.  I took 5 weeks and focused on that recovery doing very little, sleeping a lot, coupled with getting into the pool for a few minutes daily.  My body was slowly regaining strength, or so I thought.  I decided to go for a short run after the five weeks of slow recovery post the transplant in order to see how my body would do…and it was not as I hoped.

After only 200 meters I had to stop 😳😳😳.  It was devastating.  I felt panicked and filled with anxiety.  What if I could NEVER get over this hump? What if I could NEVER get back to my pre-cancer self?

It was in that scary moment, on AUGUST 19, 2021, when I walked back from my measly 200m one minute ‘run’ that I knew I had to do something radical, so I decided to sign up to run the NYC Marathon two and a half months later, on November 7, 2021.

This challenge was non-negotiable.  It had to be tried at all costs.  If I didn’t manage to break free from the current 200m distance I might never regain real fitness. I knew it would be almost impossible to accomplish given my very poor shape and conditioning, in such a short time period.

So, I did what has worked best for me in the past when deciding to do something half crazy and likely to fail goal –  I put it out there to anyone who would listen.  I told my family.  I told my friends.  I told my leadership team.  I told my healthcare team.  Now all the boats were burned on the shore and I have no other path than to move forward with the challenge. To raised eyebrows and some looks of doubt, I put it out there that I was going from being able to run 200 meters in August to 26 miles in November.  That’s a 211 FOLD IMPROVEMENT in just eighty short days.  This was a very purposeful decision.  If I could achieve this goal, it will make the past twelve months, “a story,” a distant memory.  I will tell people about my cancer and recovery and start with, “Remember when…”

I know this is a big task, maybe even crazy.  But each day will be a new goal for the next run that will maybe get me to the finish line.  I know if I cross it, that exactly a year earlier, on Nov 7th, 2020, I laid intubated in ICU being the sickest patient there. Almost a year after my wife was told I had less than 24 hours to live…

And, I want to share the rest of this journey from 200 to 42,200 meters with you between now and race day. 

Humbly and so happy to be here 😃

-Peter