Nothing can prepare you to hear the words, “You have cancer”. In November 2022, that became the reality for Mike Zurawell. He went through months and months of treatment, including chemotherapy and radiation. But the cancer just kept coming back.
Mike Zurawell is your everyday Albertan. He led a quintessential life, with family vacations, weekly hockey games and golf rounds, coaching both volleyball and hockey and savouring evenings and weekends by the lake with friends. He was living a normal life, his days revolved around family, a job he loved and the simple pleasures of life. But everything changed in November 2022. His world was turned upside down when he was told, “You have cancer.”
Doctors found a 27 cm mass in his abdomen and further tests revealed that Mike had double-hit lymphoma – a rare and aggressive form of cancer. “I remember feeling scared, shocked and had way more questions than answers, “said Mike. That’s how his cancer journey began. Mike spent countless days at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton, undergoing rigorous treatments for 9 months, including 32 nights in the hospital, and 83 sessions of chemotherapy.
For Mike, the physical pain was intense, but that was just one side of the coin. “It was the mental things that were hardest to manage. I was in a “What if?” frame of mind. What if this is my last Christmas? What if this was my last volleyball tournament? What if the cancer comes back? I worried about the future and the what-ifs really started to occupy my thoughts.”
With the help of staff from the Cross and the support of his family, Mike learned to manage those thoughts. “I chose to take things one day at a time. Because you can’t control the future, you can only control your attitude and outlook on life.”
Throughout the ordeal, Mike maintained a positive outlook, setting “mini goals” for himself. “After being diagnosed, our lives changed but we tried to keep it consistent with what we used to do,” he remarked. Whether it was attending a volleyball tournament immediately after a hospital discharge or celebrating a friend’s birthday, these moments kept him grounded.
A beacon of inspiration came when Mike stumbled upon a video about the Enbridge Tour Alberta for Cancer, an annual fundraising event where participants cycled 200 km over two days to raise funds for the Alberta Cancer Foundation. Inspired by the cancer patients who took part in the tour, Mike decided to challenge himself while undergoing treatment. “I decided from that day forward that I would not let cancer define me and that I would get out of the house and go for a walk every day,” Mike shared.
Mike was also compelled to find a way to contribute and raise funds for the Cross, hoping to support others just as he had been. Joined by his partner Richelle, children Ethan and Brooke, and their friends, Mike took on the challenge to give back to the Cross Cancer Institute and support other Albertans facing cancer.
As he was preparing for the Tour, his cancer treatments continued. A hopeful reduction in the size of his tumour was soon followed by the news of its growth. “My tumour had shrunk down to 4 cm and all signs pointed to a positive outcome. But a few weeks later, scans showed that my mass had grown. I was devastated and deflated. We were so hopeful that the mass was gone. We had just got back from our spring break trip to Mexico with the kids and I was feeling really good.” After chemotherapy, Mike started radiation therapy. Leading up to the Tour Alberta for Cancer weekend on July 22, 23 – Mike underwent 15 rounds of radiation.
Just days before the Tour, Mike underwent another scan to see if the radiation was effective in treating his tumour. The results of his scan were emailed to him soon after. But he chose to leave that email unopened. “I have one unopened email from the doctor sitting in my inbox. We’ve decided to leave it unopened till this ride is over.
Emotionally I feel the weight of the shoulders in the anticipation of the results but I want to enjoy the weekend and the Tour with my loved ones,” said Mike at the Tour Alberta for Cancer opening ceremony. Despite being in treatment and undergoing the ups and downs of his cancer journey, Mike, along with his team, rode over 200 km in the span of two days and raised an incredible $53,000 for the Alberta Cancer Foundation.
After the Tour, the family faced the results together. “On Monday night after the ride weekend, Richelle and I sat down with Ethan and Brooke and opened the email. Unfortunately, it was not the news we were hoping for,” said Mike. His tumor had grown and radiation was not effective in shrinking it.
But there was hope. Mike was able to receive a new, innovative treatment made possible by the support of Alberta Cancer Foundation donors – called CAR T-cell therapy. Car-T cell therapy is personalized medicine whereby a patient’s “T-cells” are removed, modified in the lab to attack malignant cells, and then returned to the body, where they destroy cancer cells.
From the outset of his treatment, Mike was briefed on the sequential stages: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and finally, CAR-T. Positioned as the final hope—resorted to only if the preceding treatments proved unsuccessful—CAR-T loomed large in Mike’s mind. After enduring months of chemotherapy and radiation with his scans persistently showing no tumor reduction, doctors recommended CAR-T. “That’s when things got scary, knowing that CAR-T would be my last and only option.”
Mike is a great reminder of why our donations to the Alberta Cancer Foundation matter. Your donations help us support all clinical trials in Alberta, such as CAR-T cell therapy. By making a gift today – big or small – you will help bring the life-saving treatments of tomorrow to patients who need them today.
“They said I was a week away from dying.”
“My world was turned upside down.”
“I am a direct recipient of the donations folks made to the cross over the years.”
“Some cancer journeys are short. And some last decades. But I have learned that being diagnosed with cancer is a journey full of ups and downs. Laughter and tears. Heart and soul felt conversations and connections. “
“I received amazing treatment and care at the Cross. The doctors, nurses and staff treated me with such level of care and kindness, I will forever be grateful for.” says Mike.