Stoking the Fire Within: Mike’s Story

“Way before my health failed me and I was a feisty little runt, my dad once told me I had a fire inside of me. In my mind, that translated to ‘never give up.’ On the day I was diagnosed with cancer, my dad looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, ‘Don’t you ever let that fire inside you go out.’” October 2024 marks the 20th anniversary of Mike’s cancer diagnosis. He will continue to stoke his internal flame of courage through an epic and symbolic bike ride from Florida to New York, celebrating two decades of life and survival.

By Paula Wielinski BSN, RN

Man riding pink bicycle on tree-lined street

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Mike was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) at the age of 18. “My treatment protocol was two and half years of aggressive chemotherapy and various associated treatments. During my cancer diagnosis, my heart attack at 32, and a heart transplant at 33, life became impossibly expensive.”

“My mom quit her job to be my full-time caregiver during my two-and-a-half years of chemotherapy and cancer procedures. My dad worked a second full-time job to cover my mom’s lost income,” Mike reflects.

Chemotherapy took a toll on Mike’s heart, leading to its own failure at age 19. He explains, “It was the closest to death that I can remember. This was when I was told by my cardiologist that I wouldn’t make it. He predicted I’d never leave the hospital.” The feistiness in Mike wouldn’t accept that prognosis. He started strength training his weakened legs and pushing his physical limits to see what his body and mind were capable of. Eight months later, he ran his first 5K.

Living Strong

In 2004, the same year as Mike’s leukemia diagnosis, a trend took the world by storm. Livestrong’s iconic yellow wristband debuted in partnership with Nike and soon adorned the wrists of people worldwide, from students to celebrities to politicians. These bands were more than just accessories — they supported services for cancer patients and survivors, and to see one on someone’s wrist helped those facing cancer remember they weren’t alone.

Livestrong yellow wristband

Mike recalls hearing about Lance Armstrong’s cancer journey and return to cycling. Mike longed to feel part of a survivor community. He discovered these Livestrong wristbands in a store and bought 30 for friends and family as a symbol of solidarity. “Lance’s journey and resolve directly resonated with me,” he said. “It represented a constant source of hope and a humbling reminder that someone will always have it worse than you. Most importantly, if he beat cancer and could ride a bike, why can’t I?

Mike reflects, “That was the beginning of a fire that simply never went out. Two and half years later, after completely atrophying and several dozen plus blood transfusions, I was cancer free!” Mike again set out to train his body through strength and mobility training. While he had commuted to work on his bike, he hadn’t done any long distance or organized rides.

“Barely six years after my heart transplant, I decided to ride my bike from the hospital in San Diego, where I finished my cancer treatments, to the hospital in New York where I was first diagnosed with cancer.” He was met by tears of joy and some head shaking by the medical staff. Mike rode 3,168 miles in 38 days.

Five years later, his normal life activities and career path were halted once again. Mike suffered a serious heart attack caused by a golf ball-sized blood clot in the left ventricle. Now in end-stage heart failure, Mike had his first open heart surgery to implant a heart pump called a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) to remove the clot and improve heart function. Again, his family stepped up to help. Mike explains, “My younger brother took on the role of my caregiver, changing my LVAD bandages for six months.”

Man in hospital bed being taken in for surgery
Mike before surgery

“It was apparent I would need a heart transplant in the very near future. Mike waited over six months in the hospital for a viable donor heart. The call finally came on Mike’s 33rd birthday. He would be receiving the heart of Navy flight surgeon Lieutenant James “Doc” Mazzuchelli, who lost his life during active duty. With James’ mantra of “go big or go home,” it was as if fate brought the heart to Mike. The new heart was a perfect match not only for Mike’s body but also his spirit.

“Once I knew I was to receive a lifesaving heart transplant, I immediately wanted to connect with my donor’s family. A year and eight months after receiving my new heart, I rode my bike from the San Diego hospital where I received my heart transplant to the burial site of my heart donor in Florida, and I was able to meet his family. I would have loved to meet my heart donor and thank him.” The next best thing was giving James’ mother an opportunity to listen to her son’s heart and feel it beating with her hand on Mike’s chest. Mike pays tribute to their son’s life through his epic rides, unwavering spirit and zest for life, and a burning desire to help other cancer patients.

People paying respect at cemetery
Mike at his heart donor’s burial site.

Go big or go home: 1658 Miles

Today, Mike feels prepared for anything that life throws his way. When facing adversity, Mike says, “At least it isn’t cancer!” Alongside his work in the bike industry, Mike creates long distance rides, and is available for motivational speaking.

Starting October 1st, Mike will honor his heart donor with a journey that begins at James’ burial site within Jacksonville National Cemetery. From there, Mike will ride his bike on the East Coast Greenway, ending in New York at the oncologist’s office who first diagnosed Mike with cancer. “It will be the first time my oncologist has seen me with my new heart,” he says. “All in all, I aim to ride for 30 days, averaging 55 miles a day. This ride will recognize cancer survivorship and the importance of never giving up.”

Mike stresses the value of having a strong support network. He is immensely thankful to his parents and brother that supported him on his cancer and heart transplant journeys. Mike’s brother will drive the support RV, following Mike on his 2023 Canyon Grisle 7 bike, a pink hue in honor of his mother, a breast cancer survivor.

Two men bicycling

Shining light for others: FLNT

Looking back over the last 20 years Mike reflects, “I wouldn’t do life differently! I take nothing for granted and focus on what I have instead of what I don’t have. I realize how important it is to love myself. I’m okay with who I am, no matter what. Those 20 years were the best and worst at the same time. The person I’ve become wouldn’t be here without cancer!”

Mike explains, “My gift in this life is to empower others that face adversity.” Inspired by TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie’s business model and book, Start Something That Matters, Mike built a cancer advocacy project aptly named FLNT. Just as one can use flint to create a spark that starts a fire, Mike hopes to ignite change in the lives of young cancer and heart transplant patients.

The FLNT Love Sticker

The artist behind the FLNT love sticker, Andrew Harner, is inspired by survivors like Mike, too. “They’re out there in many forms and disciplines, pushing the limits and defying the odds. I am fortunate enough to call one of them my good friend, Mike Cohen. ‘Mikey NY,’ as I know him, has been through and overcome more obstacles than most at a young age. And he has been a constant source of inspiration to me and many others in dealing with our everyday lives and struggles.”

“I’ll say my life hasn’t been very easy, but there are millions of people like myself who are 18 to 32 years old who have their own incredibly inspiring stories. No stretch of pavement is a struggle anymore, so I want to do something to help patients focus solely on their treatments and their recovery.” From each item sold on Mike’s website, FLNT donates a portion to GoFundMe campaigns for young cancer and heart patients. Follow Mike’s upcoming journey at

Reflecting on his cancer journey, Mike says, “My life was 24 hours long and I lived it to the 25th. My body was more than mediocre, offering to carry anything regardless of how heavy.” With his adventurous and compassionate heart, Mike continues to stoke his internal fire and shines a light for all who are facing cancer.

Learn more about taking part in a cycling event to support cancer survivorship services at

Stoking the Fire Within: Mike’s Story was originally published in Livestrong Voices on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.