NUTLEY, NJ — Michael Mankowich spent a week in August trekking across the Alaskan wilderness.
The Nutley resident flew to Homer, Alaska, to start a six-day hike along the Kenai Peninsula to raise money and awareness for multiple myeloma, a type of cancer that forms in white blood cells. Mankowich has the disease himself, and hiked with a group the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation and CURE Media Group put together. Along with other patients, caregivers, medical professionals and family members, Mankowich hiked to inspire others who have the incurable disease.
“About 50 percent of people who have it don’t live past five years,” he said in a phone interview with the Nutley Journal on Aug. 9, before he went to Alaska. “I’m coming up on that. The goal is to heighten awareness and raise money, so it’s motivating for me.”
This isn’t the first time Mankowich has gone on a trip like this. He did the same thing with his wife a few years ago in the Patagonia region of South America, not long after he was first diagnosed with multiple myeloma. She was the one who discovered the trip and suggested they go.
“It was earlier on, and things were tougher for me psychologically,” he said. “I wasn’t in the best place. It really lifted my spirits.”
Mankowich’s wife, Kathleen, decided not to go on the Alaska trip but joked that if one happens in Bermuda, she’ll be there. Either way, Michael Makowich said he anticipates forming a tight bond with his fellow hikers, as the people who travel together during a weeklong hike often become very close.
“There are 11 people in the group, and they’re patients and caregivers. It’s a diverse group; if everyone was a patient, I think it would get dreary,” Mankowich said. “The bonds you develop are unbelievable,” he added, reflecting on past hikes.
The hike ended in Anchorage, and Mankowich spent a few extra days in Alaska attempting to capture photos of grizzly bears. He trained for the trip by hiking closer to home, and spending between 20 and 30 minutes on the treadmill each day. A former wrestler at Cornell University, Mankowich was up for the challenge.
“I’m a very physical person, and I love nature,” he said. “I’m bringing my camera along and looking forward to seeing animals. It pushes me to stay in shape, and I’m also doing something good.”
The group walks about 10 miles a day, with breaks for meals. Sometimes they take a bus to another location to a new starting point, but it’s largely a cycle of “hike, break and repeat” until they reach the end of the trip.
Mankowich raised $30,000 on his trip to Patagonia and had a goal of $20,000 for his Alaska trip. As of Aug. 26, he had raised $15,552. Donations can still be made at give.themmrf.org/fundraiser/3106628.
“You’re being challenged physically but also mentally,” Mankowich said. “It’s an explosion of endorphins. You’re better equipped to battle a disease that way.”