Former Red Wing Shawn Burr fights cancer, helps others with bone marrow needs

Former professional hockey player Shawn Burr is on mission to build bone marrow donor registry

Published On: May 09 2012 10:58:41 PM EDT
DETROIT -

Cancer: It's one word no one ever wants to hear.

"It's a scary thing, you know. I kind of joke about it, make light of it, but you'd be lying if you didn't say there's a time where you're laying there at night thinking, 'Gosh, what's really going to happen?" said former Detroit Red Wings forward Shawn Burr.

Burr was used to taking hits in the ice, but the blow real life dealt him was far more than he ever experienced before.

If drive and energy were all one needed to beat cancer, Burr would be cured. Moreover, if cancer were a single disease it would be much easier to cure. Name any organ and there is one or more cancers specific to it. In Burr's case, the organ is his blood and bone marrow. The cancer is called acute myelogenous leukemia.

"I was drafted in 1984 by the Wings , and 95 was my last year with the Wings," Burr said.

Since then, Burr has remained a generous contributor to the Metro Detroit community.

"In 2000, I actually started a kids foundation that was in St. Clair County," he said.

Then, in February of 2010, things changed.

"Went to work in the morning and was tired and came home and said to my wife, 'I'm just exhausted,'" Burr said. "She said to go to the local clinic, not even an emergency, just a clinic in Marysville."

Burr was seen by a doctor who noticed something concerning when he looked in the former hockey player's mouth.

"He didn't say anything for about 30 seconds. He was ... he said, 'I'm going to put you in an ambulance. I'm going to take you to the hospital for blood tests," Burr said.

The doctor had seen tiny red spots call petechiae, a sign a person's platelet counts are dangerously low which is something not every doctor would have picked up on. Burr credits the doctor for saving his life.

"If he would have just, you know, sent me home with some penicillin and said, 'Looks like you have strep throat,' I probably would have died," Burr said.

After he arrived at the hospital, blood tests were immediately done.

"The doctor sits down. His face is just white. He says, 'We need to get you to a bigger hospital. I'm like, 'Well, what is it? What's the problem doc?' He says, 'Well, it looks like leukemia.' I'm like, 'What?'" Burr recalled.

Burr said a helicopter promptly transported him from Mercy Hospital in Port Huron to Ann Arbor.

He was on his way to the University of Michigan with acute myelogenous leukemia, also called AML. Time was crucial.

In the acute phase of AML, a certain type of white blood cell, usually used to fight infection, has become cancerous. It multiplies out of control and prevents the body from making other cells it needs such as red blood cells and platelets.

Burr's particular cancer was initially treatable with chemotherapy alone.

"I was in remission for about seven or eight months ... felt good ... you know, I thought we had it beat," he said.

He changed the mission of his foundation.

"We raise money for blood cancers ... whether it's research of the Leukemia-Lymphoma society."

However, after a brief remission the AML returned. This time it would be more difficult.

Burr needed bone marrow transplant

"The only way that they could combat it is with a bone marrow transplant," Burr said.

Burr is lucky. He found a match and he will get the transplant soon. But he wasn't about to stop. His generous nature would guide his mission as the honorary chair in collaboration between the Michigan Dental Association and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

"What we're gonna do is called, 'Take a Bite Out of Cancer,'" he said.

The goal is to get people on the bone marrow registry through kits available in dental offices across the state of Michigan.

"You can actually do a swab, get put on the registry. There is absolutely no cost," he said. "A swab is just a stick in the mouth, and for a hockey player to be involved with that, it makes sense, you know?" he joked.

Burr knows the more people in the registry means it's less of a long shot in finding a match for cancer patients such as himself.

"Someone that gets swabbed at the dentist's office is going to save someone's life," he said. "And that's, I mean, it only takes one person that's going to save somebody's life, and I think that's kind of cool to be a part of something like that."

The "Take a Bite Out of Cancer" drive is targeted to enroll 20,000 new people in the bone marrow registry which would make it the largest bone marrow drive ever in the world.

Local 4 is teaming up with LaFontaine Automotive Group on Thursday for an all-day bone marrow drive. The drive will be held at five LaFontaine dealerships.