The Boston Marathon is one of the most famous races in the world. And this year, a patient and doctor from Atrium Health will be running, determined to find a cure for multiple myeloma.

News | 3 years ago

Running for a Cure: Cancer Patient Runs Boston Marathon Alongside His Oncologist

The Boston Marathon is one of the most famous races in the world. And this year, a patient and doctor from Atrium Health will be running, determined to find a cure for multiple myeloma.

First run in 1897, the Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest marathon. Full of timeless traditions and packed with hundreds of thousands of passionate spectators, the iconic race rightfully earns a spot on every runner’s bucket list.

On April 15, over 30,000 runners from around the world will take off from the starting line in Hopkinton, MA. In this crowd of athletes will be Kirk Wilkerson and Saad Usmani, MD, Kirk’s primary oncologist at Atrium Health’s Levine Cancer Institute. While Dr. Usmani has been treating Kirk for three years, their connection transcends your typical doctor-patient relationship — and together they’re working to find a cure for multiple myeloma.

A difficult diagnosis

In April of 2016, Kirk went in for a routine life insurance physical. In his late 40s and preparing to run a marathon in only a few weeks’ time, Kirk was the picture of good health. But it was only after blood work that he and his doctors realized something was wrong. His results showed an M-spike, which indicates the presence of monoclonal protein in his blood — a classic sign of multiple myeloma, a rare type of cancer that affects the plasma cells. Less than a month later, after completing his marathon, Kirk was diagnosed with smoldering multiple myeloma (SMM), an early form of multiple myeloma that has yet to develop into cancerous stages.

And although it was under far from ideal circumstances, it was at this time that Kirk and Dr. Usmani’s partnership — and friendship — began.

“My diagnosis prompted a meeting with Dr. Usmani,” explains Kirk. “And as we continued to monitor my progress, we found in summer of 2016 that my M-spike began to increase and my case went from low-risk to high-risk.”

That meant it was time start treatment. After some soul-searching and prayer, some useful discussions with Dr. Usmani, and plenty of support from his wife and family, Kirk decided to start a clinical trial. And to the great relief of everyone, Kirk was highly responsive to this clinical trial and today shows very low numbers.

The doctor-patient bond grows

So, what does one do just a short time after completing a clinical trial and two grueling years of chemotherapy? Hike Mount Everest Base Camp of course. In 2018, as part of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation’s yearly fundraising challenging, Kirk, Dr. Usmani and about a dozen other people affected by multiple myeloma hiked Mount Everest Base Camp — and raised $450,000 for multiple myeloma research in the process.

But more than just money was made during this hike. For Kirk and Dr. Usmani, the experience at Mount Everest strengthened their bond. “We have become incredibly close friends,” says Kirk. “I love him like a brother.”

“You work closely with patients and get to know their personal lives, their families, you become a part of their life story,” says Dr. Usmani. “And Kirk and I have had a special relationship and a unique story.”

And with the marathon coming up, Kirk and Dr. Usmani are getting ready to add a new chapter to this story.

Off to Boston

“I’m a bit of an overachiever,” admits Kirk. So true to form, Kirk approached Dr. Usmani with a new MMRF fundraising challenge: raising money for multiple myeloma research through the Boston Marathon. Dr. Usmani’s response?

“If you’re doing it, I’m doing it.”

“Dr. Usmani is like me in that if he has one fault – it’s his inability to say ‘no’,” says Kirk. So along with fellow Everest hiker Mark Herkert and a team of about ten others, they’re heading to Boston to run in what Dr. Usmani calls the “Super Bowl of marathons.” But after running a few half marathons between them and even a couple full marathons in Kirk’s case, both feel more than ready to brave 26.2 miles and Boston’s legendary “Heartbreak Hill” at mile 20.

“After Everest? This marathon will be peanuts in comparison,” says Dr. Usmani.

Crossing the finish line

Dr. Usmani and Kirk both emphasize that it will be more than just training that will help them get through this extreme physical trial. It will also be the intensity and emotion of the moment that will drive them.

“We want to build on what we did in Nepal, and absorb it all and have fun along the way,” says Dr. Usmani. “Running this race is a testament to the resilience and endurance on the part of myeloma patients. When we finish, it will represent our hope and aspirations for finding a cure for this disease.”

Kirk says that finishing this race alongside Dr. Usmani will be especially emotional. Over these years, he’s become “as close to Dr. Usmani as he is to anyone.” Together they laugh, they cry, they keep up with each other’s families — they even give each other a hard time “like old fraternity brothers.”

“With this disease, you take inventory of your life, you gain perspective, and you realize relationships are the most important part,” says Kirk. “Dr. Usmani and I couldn’t have less in common. We’re from different parts of the world with different upbringings and belief systems. But this disease has brought us together. And now I get to run this race alongside one of my best friends — whose research quite possibly saved my life.”