Grateful Patient – Ken Ewing Shares his Story

Ken Ewing is taking a bit of a rest on the sofa after clearing the drive outside his rural Alberta home. Many people might grumble about having to shovel the snow. But not this 71-year-old. Ken is tired but grateful knowing this mundane chore would have been an impossible feat several years ago when he was diagnosed with cancer.

Ken, who spent 39 years working as a teacher, is playing the role of a superhero known as the Zero Hero for young students.

“It’s taken a couple of years for me to get my immunity back. I wasn’t even allowed to cut my own grass. I had to pay someone $180 a week to cut my grass,” he says.

In early November 2012, Ken Ewing was working on report cards, prepping for parent-teacher interviews and teaching a large combined Grades 2 and 3 class. There was a lot going on. For an entirely different set of circumstances, it was about to get a whole lot busier. The first hint was when Ken was walking with his dog, Sable, near his acreage west of Edmonton. “I was having a hard time keeping up with her. I thought – ‘I’m tired. I’m stressed,’” he recalls. That was followed by peculiar things, like his teeth hurting when he ate fruit before things shifted dramatically from not-feeling-great to feeling-just-terrible. After a visit with his family doctor, Ken received a call telling him to be at the hospital the next day. He was told to pack an overnight bag.

Ken would be diagnosed with “full-blown leukemia,” specifically acute myeloid leukemia.

While his health-care team was concerned about Ken’s health, the man who was reaching his fourth decade as a teacher was worried about getting back to work. “I was thinking, ‘I’m fit, I’m healthy and I have too much to do,” Ken recalls. As the gravity of it all sunk in, a hematologist looking at Ken’s bone marrow testing results hammered it home. “He said, ‘If we don’t do anything, you will probably be dead in a week.’ The rest of it is a bit of a blur,” Ken says. Chemotherapy started later that day.

Treatment required Ken to have a bone marrow transplant. And for many reasons, the clock was ticking. “I was diagnosed less than two months after my 64th birthday and they don’t do transplants past age 65,” he says. When a match was found, the couple relocated to Calgary for the transplant – a life-saving move.

Today, Ken is approaching the 7th anniversary of his transplant. And he doesn’t take sole credit for being here today. He doesn’t consider his recovery to be a one-man endeavour but rather a team effort. He also now realizes just how incredibly sick he was and how amazingly grateful he is to everyone, including himself, who played a role in his recovery. He relied on his in-house hero, wife, Marvalie, for strength and summoned more by tapping into the determination that got him through traumatic injuries he sustained in his youth. “I was thinking, ‘All right, let’s do what I have to do to pick myself up,’” he says.

“I’m grateful just to be here and we take it one day at a time. But it takes courage. You are not born with courage, you are born with a blank slate. I’m stronger because of my experience with cancer. But I didn’t survive because I’m a fighter, I survived because of the health-care system. The real heroes are our health-care workers, especially now and for them I am truly thankful and I will continue to find ways to convey my message and positivity and gratitude for the rest of my days.”

“Back in the day, like 20 years ago, people who got (AML) died,” he adds. “My favorite people on the planet are nurses. I owe my life to Alberta Health Services and to an anonymous bone marrow donor. I’m just thankful.”

The father and grandfather had and has a lot to live for. “I always wanted to make a contribution in the classroom, I never taught the same thing two years in a row. I would probably still be teaching now if I had not run into leukemia. I enjoy life. I have a continued interest in making the world a better place because I’ve been here,” he says. Add to that, the fact that the self-described collector of everything from trucks, trailers and antiques wasn’t prepared to leave his wife to tidy up. “I’ve accumulated a lot of stuff. I can’t leave all that mess for her,” Ken says with a chuckle.

And life is good. “Some days are great. Some days I overdo it,” Ken says. “But I cut my own grass and I shovel my own snow.”

Thank you, Ken, for sharing your story with the Alberta Cancer Foundation.

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