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Man thought he had an infected bug bite. It turned out he had leukemia

TODAY logo TODAY 5 days ago Meghan Holohan
a man sitting on a bed: TODAY, product courtesy of merchant site © Courtesy of Mike Balla TODAY, product courtesy of merchant site

Last August, Mike Balla said he noticed a bump on his foot. It felt sore, but he figured a mosquito or spider bit him in an awkward place. But, after a while, he said it wasn't going away and it started to grow.

Soon, he said it was the size of a nickel. When he walked, it hurt. After two weeks of living with this uncomfortable lump, he visited urgent care.

“I figured it was a bite that got infected,” Balla, 46, a facility manager in Rocky River, Ohio, told TODAY. “The urgent care doctor basically said the same thing.”

Balla said he started an antibiotic, but it didn’t work. The bite continued growing until it was the size of the quarter. He decided to see his regular physician, who agreed that it looked like an infected bug bite and prescribed a different antibiotic. Two days later, there was still no improvement. That’s when the doctor recommended blood tests.

When the results came back, Balla felt his doctor's response seemed unusual.

“He just said you better go into the hospital and I am thinking in my mind they were going to put me on a stronger IV antibiotic,” he said.

When the emergency room doctor came to talk to Balla about the blood tests, he thought the doctor had mixed up the charts.

“He said, ‘We are waiting for a consult from oncology,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘I think you have the wrong person. I have a bite on my foot that’s infected.’”

The doctor explained he was in the right room: Balla’s results indicated he had leukemia.

“I figured they were wrong,” he said. “That was the first time we heard that term. To be honest with you, I had heard of leukemia, but I knew nothing about it.”

He was transferred to Cleveland Clinic where he started receiving treatment immediately. He learned he had an aggressive form of adult acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, and said the doctors recommended a bone marrow transplant, along with chemotherapy.

Balla felt stunned.

“It took days for it to register," he said. "This is real. This isn’t a dream."

Dr. Aaron Gerds, a hematologist and oncologist at Cleveland Clinic, treated Balla. While skin problems can happen, they’re rarely a symptom of leukemia. What he sees more often is male patients who avoid going to a doctor. As part of its men's health campaign, MENtion It, Cleveland Clinic found in a survey of 1,174 males, who were 18 or older and living in the United States, that 65 percent of men wait as long as they can to see their doctor, even if there are symptoms or injuries.

“What rings true to me is the ‘I’m going to put this off.’ Men often self-diagnose and downgrade what it might be,” Gerds told TODAY. “The common part of the story is that he ignored some of the symptoms.”

Balla admits that he felt run down for a month prior to the developing the bump. But things were busy at work and he was working on home renovations.

“I didn’t even think anything of it. I thought I am just kind of overdoing it,” he explained.

One night his gums were bleeding, but still he attributed that to exhaustion.

“There was nothing at the time that stood out," he said. "There were things, but I didn’t know (they were symptoms) at the time."

While leukemia often does not have notable symptoms at the early stages, bleeding or bruising easily is one sign. Others include:

  • Anemia
  • Developing infections more easily
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Loss of energy or appetite

“Certain not everyone who feels run down or has a fever has leukemia,” Gerds said. “That is really where primary care and urgent care physicians come into play … They can look at the symptoms and say this is something serious and take care of it.”

A few months later, after chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, Gerds said Balla was cancer-free.

“Mike had an amazing recovery,” Gerds said. “He was feeling really good and was chomping at the bit to go back to work.”

Balla started working two days a week, then quickly went back to full-time work. But, at the end of May, he learned that the cancer returned.

“We kind of knew that it was a possibility,” he said. “I won’t say that we were surprised that it happened. But we were surprised how quickly it came back.”

After the “devastating” news, Balla started another round of chemotherapy.

“He’s got an aggressive leukemia and it is difficult to treat,” Gerds said. “His journey has been arduous.”

Balla said he's in remission again and back to work. He shared his story because he wants other men to learn from him and visit the doctor when something seems off.

“I was the typical person who said ‘It’ll heal. It’s fine. It’s nothing,'" Balla said. "Mine wasn’t nothing.”

“Go and make an appointment," he added. "It takes an hour.”

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