20 Dec 2023

Mark’s AML diagnosis and the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’

Mark Phillips was on the brink of an exciting chapter in his young life back in the summer of 2003. The Bangor, County Down-native had just joined the military as a Private in the Royal Signals, completing his basic training in Lichfield, Staffordshire, before being moved to Blandford in Dorset to train as a radio operator. Mark was a super-fit 24-year-old and had also just completed his first marathon. He thrived on the Royal Signals regime of physical exercise, learning and activity. But then something changed.   

“Three months after I joined up I had to have a knee operation,” said Mark, 44, who now lives in Madrid in Spain with his partner Monica and three-year-old daughter Zoe. “I’d torn the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in my right knee in a fall during our strenuous training. The surgeon who did the operation, in hospital in Windsor, had performed successful surgeries on members of the England Rugby Team so I knew he was good. But when I was healing I had a lot of swelling and bruising. Then I also started to get flu-like symptoms, and bruises on my arms in random places where I knew I hadn’t knocked them. I also had cold sores and an overwhelming lack of energy.” 

After a week of intense tiredness in January 2004 , Mark was sent to the military hospital in Dorchester for blood and other tests. He was completely unprepared to be given the devastating diagnosis of acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) 

“I was in deep shock,” said Mark. “I was just 24 and couldn’t believe it. But I was always a very positive person so I just g0t on with it. The first thing I did was call my parents back home. They were very upset of course, and immediately booked flights to be with me.”   

Mark was transferred back to hospital in Belfast so he could be near his family during his treatment. A couple of weeks after his diagnosis, he started his first round of chemotherapy. 

“I can only describe it as like a hangover but multiplied by 60 or 70 times. It was gruesome. I lost my hair, lost a bunch of weight, and felt really sick all the time. I also got a load of infections – in my eyes and in the catheter in my chest which was administering the chemo. I didn’t know this at the time but the doctors said I only had a 50/50 chance of living. My parents told me afterwards.” 

Overall Mark had four cycles of chemotherapy.  He eventually left hospital seven months later in August 2004.  

“They offered me a fifth round but as I was in remission and had done well on the treatment I said I’m not going through that again, it’s too much. I realise how very lucky I was that I didn’t need a stem cell transplant. My brother was a perfect match so he was lined up just in case. Not many people overcome leukaemia with chemo only – I was incredibly lucky.” 

Mark moved back in with his parents to begin his recovery. At first he was on weekly check-ups, which have over the years reduced to the extent he no longer visits the hospital.   

“From losing loads of weight I then became quite chubby,” remembers Mark. “But pretty soon I started exercising again and the weight came off. In fact I’d even gone for short jogs between rounds of chemo to keep up my fitness, even though I was really slow. I think it helped. I’ve always had a natural level of fitness – it’s one of the reasons why I joined the army. My dad was ex-military as well so it’s how I grew up. And incredibly I’ve never been on any medication since coming out of hospital nearly 20 years ago.” 

Less than a year after being discharged Mark completed the London Marathon – in the 20 years since then he’s completed a total of 14 marathons and 60 half marathons. But while his fitness regime came right back, Mark knew his time in the services could not be restarted. Two years after his diagnosis he was medically discharged and had to look for a new career. 

“I was heartbroken,” said Mark. “I was just starting my career out, it was a huge blow. But I then got into sales in Northern Ireland and made a success of it. I moved across to Birmingham and lived there for four years while working my way up. Life just got back to normal, it was almost as if nothing had happened. I can honestly say I just began to forget about it and that’s the same today, although if I get a bad flu or another infection it does trigger me – I think oh no I hope this isn’t leukaemia coming back.” 

Mark eventually moved to work in Malaysia for a financial services company and met Monica while living in Kuala Lumpur in 2017. They had their daughter in 2020 and then decided to move back to Spain to be nearer her family and enjoy a more outdoors environment. In October 2023 Mark ran the Valencia and Malaga half marathons in 1 hour 40 minutes and 1 hour 43 minutes.  

“It’s coming up to 20 years now and I feel physically fit. I think running has helped me with a lot of stress and gaining positivity through exercise. I hope my story gives people hope. Leukaemia is not automatically a death sentence, although I know I was extremely lucky – I was in hospital with people that didn’t make it. I’ve always been a positive, light-hearted person and never taken life too seriously, and I think that helped. Don’t think too hard about your diagnosis and just focus on getting through each day. It’s a hard road, but for many people there is light at the end of the tunnel.” 

Discover more personal stories like Mark’s.

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