From 200 to 42,200: Peter Kirk’s Cancer Journey, Part 2

Most people don’t know this, but for the past 16 years I have dealt with neutropenia, a condition where a person has much lower-than-normal levels of white blood cells and almost no neutrophils which are key in fighting any infection, and especially serious infections.  People with neutropenia should avoid infections at all cost because of their compromised immune systems.  When I was diagnosed, I was also told that this meant I may be at a 20% risk of getting leukemia in any given year – not good.  

Furthermore, because of neutropenia, I started losing my hearing gradually over the past 15 years.  I’m now completely deaf in one ear, and very hard of hearing in the other 🙄  But, somehow I have managed to keep a positive outlook on life and not let it affect how I live too much, except I find myself shying away from any sort of gatherings in restaurants where I typically really can’t follow anyone in conversation. Overall, I felt happy and lucky in the past 15 years to be alive, live in NYC and have the wonderful family I have.

Fast forward 15 years. In October of 2020, I was at a standard hematologist appointment (for me) and the doc was looking at my bloodwork. My white blood cell count, which is typically low because of neutropenia, was soaring to crazy heights – 10-20x what normal people have 😳, indicating my body was trying to fight something horrible.  I didn’t quite grasp the seriousness at the moment thinking I just needed some decent antibiotics and a few days to get over it, whatever it was, like was usually the case when I got infections.  

My hematologist, an old stubborn NYC doctor who had seen it all and I had worked with for over ten years, would have none of that.  I had stood up as to non-verbally declare, ‘I’m going home now, just get me my pills’ 😃.  He then said in a super stern and somewhat anxious voice, “Peter, SIT DOWN! You are not leaving this roomCall your wife and tell her to pack a bag for you.  I’m having you admitted right now.  You are NOT going home”. I somehow sensed this was not the time to argue as I had done previously and sat back down again and let destiny take over.

I was quickly admitted to NYU Langone’s cancer unit and after a thorough examination, was diagnosed with acute Leukemia as well as double Pneumonia.  My compromised immune system and body had decided to make up for lost time and was delivering some real heavy punches!  I was dealing with cancer, double pneumonia and neutropenia all at once. Within 24 hours I was having trouble breathing, and had become very sick. I was quickly transferred to the ICU, put on a vent, and fighting for my life, with 22 IV bags flowing into me.  That’s when Torun was told to prepare to say goodbye. 

She knew that I wasn’t going to give up, though.

My 10-year-old son Tristan recently asked me, now out of ICU and post bone marrow transplant, why after being diagnosed with cancer and almost dying, I wanted to do the NYC Marathon. My first response was simply “because you got a crazy dad.”  We both giggled and then I followed up with a better explanation. 

I told him that after my successful bone marrow transplant, I was basically cured of it all – including the neutropenia. But, I was so physically weak. I could barely walk and I could do nothing but rest for almost 3 months. It was so frustrating to be weak and tired all the time. Slowly I felt better and more determined to continue to get stronger. That’s when I decided to go for a run and I couldn’t. I WAS SO SCARED. Scared that I would never be the same father he once knew, the same husband to my beautiful wife Torun, or the same CEO that had fought so hard to save my company years ago. It was terrifying to me.  I needed a goal – A BIG GOAL. It was then that I decided I would run the marathon. I had 2½  months to get from virtually 0 to 26.2 miles.  And while the challenge seemed absolutely daunting at the time and really every day for the entire first month, I figured that even if I just showed up and ran as far as I could, then, in my mind, I would make this cancer and sickness thing just something that happened to me a year ago.  Instead of me being the cancer patient Peter, I would be the old Peter Kirk, leader of an innovative healthcare company, the man my wife fell in love with and the dedicated dad to three amazing kids, strong and full of life.

So fast forward eight weeks to today, four weeks before the Marathon.  I’m running a lot slower than I used to.  But, I’m running.  And, I’ve worked my way up to 10 miles from almost nothing (200m) 🙌.  Each extra ¼ mile feels like a victory and I’m not going to stop. I wasn’t the fastest before cancer, but I was in the middle. Now I’m pretty much last, but I don’t care. I’m loud, I breathe like a dragon and I hurt. But, I carry on. So far, my training runs have been hard, painful and fearful. But, I was even more scared of quitting or stopping.  Scared that I would let myself and others who were cheering for me down.  But my latest run was different. I was not scared of quitting at any time. I was confident that I would not quit. I ran down the Hudson River toward Battery Park. Sitting in the harbor is a beautiful boat that I have admired for years. On pre-cancer runs I would use it as a marker and daydream while running about what it would be like to be on that boat. I made it to the boat and it was like a friend coaxing me on and helping me continue. I was not scared of quitting.

Some people think my goal of going from ICU to NYC Marathon in less than a year is crazy. But, for those who really know me, they don’t seem that surprised. I recently connected with a longtime friend, Jan, from Copenhagen. What Jan told me really resonated and eloquently summed up my internal drive to achieve this goal.  He told me that I inspire him because I had always tackled difficult challenges with a positive attitude, but, most importantly, I would every time be taking others along with me for the ride. As I let that sentiment sink in, I felt emotional and grateful. That’s the point of all of this, right? If I can do that – be a bright light and an encouraging hand on the back of others – then I am achieving the ultimate goal. No run, no mileage, no medal can ever take the place of positively impacting others.