By Emily Williams
Five years into his cancer treatment, 41-year-old Adam Wende of Vestavia Hills knows he is one of the lucky ones.
After being diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia, Wende was able to receive treatment via daily medication without having to alter his or his family’s lifestyle too drastically.
Wende is a scientist by trade, working for the University of Alabama at Birmingham as an associate professor in the department of pathology, and an endurance runner by nature, a hobby he has maintained since the late 1990s.
“I will say the experience has taught me so much about what is important, and to never take something for granted,” he said.
As he began to realize he would survive, Wende was looking for a new purpose in life. He took notice of others around him who have not been as fortunate in their battles with leukemia.
Wende discovered that the LLS has a Team in Training program, in which runners raise money for the organization while training and participating in endurance sporting events around the world.
He ran in his first TNT race in November, the New York City Marathon. The team raised about $1.2 million during that event, of which Wende contributed $4,404.64.
His goal is to raise at least $20,000 for LLS in 2020, and he plans to celebrate his own survival by training for and participating in the 2020 London Marathon on April 26.
“Funds from LLS have helped contribute to research that found the cure for me and they continue to support research for other blood cancers that have proven more difficult,” he said.
Learning of His Condition by Accident
Wende was one of those “picture of health” people, having been involved in at least one sport since he was five. First it was soccer, then wrestling, until he settled into running.
“As a person who studies obesity, diabetes, and heart failure at UAB I also believe I am responsible to practice what I preach, so regular exercise is very important to me and to my family.”
With the help of hindsight, Wende can now see the clear signs that his health wasn’t always what it seemed.
In 2013, he was beginning to feel tired on an almost constant basis. He attributed it to the monumental cross-country move he and his family – his wife, Sandra, and his two daughters, Kaitlyn and Kristen – had made from Utah to Birmingham, where they had no close friends or relatives nearby.
“I was starting in a new position at the university, had a commute to work and in general was cutting back on running,” he said. “So, it was easy to make excuses of why I might have felt off or fatigued.”
He found it easy to make friends and soon found a community in his new city.
“But as a scientist, my group of friends can be very interesting and have interests/requests that are out of the ordinary,” he said.
Wende was happy to donate blood to a study being run by one of his friends, a fellow scientist conducting a study measuring metabolic signatures to define disease status. The friend needed a “healthy control” sample and thought the marathon-running Wende would be perfect.
Both Wende and his friend were confused when test results showcased abnormalities in Wende’s sample.
“I said it must be a mistake,” he said, “I just ran a marathon, and maybe the blood looks funny because I just got over a cold?”
He glossed over the fact that he was a little slower than usual, running a full minute per mile slower in that marathon as opposed to one he ran just nine months prior.
In February of 2014, when Wende was fully recovered, his friend came back for another sample and found it to be abnormal, again.
It was the kick he needed in order to see his personal physician to have his blood drawn. Before he could even make it home from the appointment, he was called in for a bone marrow biopsy.
The doctor suspected he might have leukemia.
“At that point, the only thought in my mind was how my family would be supported when I was dead,” he said.
Following the biopsy, Wende was diagnosed with CML. The disease causes white blood cell counts – cells meant to fight off infection – to increase rapidly.
Normal white blood cell counts should be about 5,000 or up to 10,000 when sick. Wende’s count was close to 100,000, a sign of leukocytosis, a condition that can lead to organ failure.
“I have been very fortunate,” Wende said. “My treatment has been a single pill each day since diagnosis.”
He started his treatment on April 5, 2014, and was within normal white blood cell ranges just under a month later. Since Sept. 9, 2016, there has been zero evidence of cancer in his body.
Not Everyone’s So Lucky
Last year, Wende found out that Emily McCay, a friend from his time living in St. Louis, Missouri, was battling an incurable form of leukemia. She was posting videos on social media throughout her journey, videos that struck and inspired Wende.
Though Wende was unable to get in touch with his friend before she died in November 2018, he did reach out to her husband.
“Even though we hadn’t spoken in years, we had a great conversation and I told him what I was planning and that I really wanted to do something to have a new purpose in life,” he said.
“Those thoughts fed into wanting to do something more,” he said. “This is why I am now putting my efforts into raising funds for LLS.”
Wende has raised more than $11,000 so far, more than halfway to his goal of raising $20,000.
To donate, visit Wende’s fundraising page.