Man went to doctor for bug bite, received diagnosis for Leukemia instead

An Ohio man is encouraging others to not ignore health symptoms after his visit to the ER turned into an unexpected diagnosis of adult acute myeloid leukemia (AML) - a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

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CLEVELAND – A nagging reaction to a suspected bug bite is what initially sent Mike Balla, 46, of Rocky River, Ohio to seek emergency care.

Swollen, red and painful, the top of Balla’s foot kept getting worse, despite two rounds of antibiotics from previous visits to an urgent care facility and his family doctor.

But what may or may not have been an infected bite from an insect, prompted further investigation.

A trip to the emergency department uncovered adult acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a cancer of the blood and bone marrow that worsens quickly if not treated immediately.

At first, Balla assumed the doctor had him confused with another patient.

“I said, ‘You must be in the wrong room’,” Balla recalled. “I’m here for a bite on my foot.”

Balla and his wife were stunned by the unexpected diagnosis, but they didn’t have time to spare. Moments after learning the news, Balla was taken by ambulance to Cleveland Clinic’s Cancer Center, where he would begin chemotherapy – the first step in a lengthy, pinpointed treatment regimen.

According to Aaron Gerds, M.D., a hematologist and medical oncologist who aided in Balla’s treatment, moving quickly was essential.

“For a lot of people who have AML, with different mutations or chromosomal formations, we know chemo alone is not going to cure them,” he said. “Our goal was to get Mike into remission as soon as possible, and then prepare him for a bone marrow transplant.”

After an intense, month-long hospital stay, including strong doses of chemotherapy, Balla’s cancer went into remission. Soon, he was ready for a bone marrow transplant from an exact match – his older brother, Mark.

The transplant was successful and Balla even went back to work, part-time, after nearly seven months on the sidelines. But his victory was short lived. Two months later, he learned his cancer was back.

“It was upsetting,” said Balla. “But not surprising. We knew it could happen.”

After more chemotherapy, Balla was accepted into a clinical trial for a breast cancer drug that scientists hope will be useful in treating AML, too.

Today, he’s back in remission and back at work, four days per week, living what he calls “my new normal” – and he encourages others not to ignore health symptoms or avoid trips to the doctor.

“You may think you don’t have time for that, but it’s not true,” Balla said. “If you don’t go to the doctor, you may have a much bigger problem.”

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