A Day In The Life Podcast - Mark Ho
The “A Day in the Life” podcast from the International Myeloma Foundation features messages of hope and resilience for myeloma patients, caregivers, and their loved ones.
We recorded the following interview with Mark Ho on April 17, 2020. Mark Ho is a U.S. Marine who served in the war in Iraq from 2002 to 2007. After his service, he’s worked as an Outreach Technician for the VA, serving other veterans. Mark is also a trained boxer and currently has a career as a hip-hop performer, going by the stage name of Bag-Yo. Mark Ho is currently living with multiple myeloma.
Host: Welcome to our listeners. This is the Day in the Life podcast, brought to you by the International Myeloma Foundation, also known as the IMF. We hope that this Day in the Life podcast will provide inspiration and messages of resilience to patients and caregiver from all walks of life. We recorded the following interview with Mark Ho on April 17, 2020. Mark Ho is a U.S. Marine who served in the war in Iraq from 2002 to 2007. After his service, he worked as an Outreach Technician for the VA, serving other veterans. Mark is also a trained boxer and currently has a career as a hip-hop performer, going by the stage name of Bag-Yo. Mark Ho is currently living with multiple myeloma. Listen now to hear the full interview.
Host: So like I said I listened to a lot of your previous interviews and um, so thanks for sending those. But for our listeners, a little bit about your history. I understand you were in the U.S. Marines, deployed to Iraq in 2002. Is that right?
Mark Ho: Yes, so um, we can start from there. For me, I’m Filipino from the Philippines, immigrated when I was four years old, here in Los Angeles. And yeah, one of the things that happened was, possibly in our lifetime. And one of them was 9/11 happened. And my brother was actually serving in the Marine Corps at that time. At the time, he might have been a Corporal or Sergeant. I just felt it was something that I wanted to do. I wanted to serve there. It was crazy situation, right?
I wanted to get into the Marine Corps and make a difference. So yeah, I was deployed in January 2002. I was deployed during the initial invasion of Iraq. I was Marine. So I was in the Marine Corps. And my MOS was 751, which is Air Crash Firefighter, aka Crash Fire Rescue.
Host: I understand, you also have interesting history from when you left the service. I understand that was around 2007, that you came back to the States and started working in Southern California here as an Outreach Technician at a Vet Center. So if you can briefly tell us about that transition you made from being an active serviceman, to serving your fellow veterans, in this sort of counseling type position that you had.
Mark Ho: So when I got out, I ended up getting out as a Sergeant 85 In the Marine Corps. You have a little bit of responsibility every time you take up rank. I ended up being a point man, pretty much a charter for emergencies when things happen. So I had issues with … a little bit .. even being in... responding to air fire crash. Not only in Iraq, you know even stuff like that, but out in the field. I had issues with PTSD. So I ended up going to a program called the Vet Center, part of the VA. So what the Vet Center is...it’s a free service not only for the Veterans in active duty and family members. But it’s to help out with as far as readjustment, readjustment counseling with combat veterans, helping out with PTSD and traumatic –marriage counseling, substance abuse counseling, all types of counseling, all confidential.
So I had to go through all that stuff when I got out because I had my PTSD, my issues. And eventually I kind of was able to deal with. It’s not something that...I guess you can call it, it’s uncurable right? PTSD is something that you deal with. Like our lives, we’re dealing with multiple myeloma. We adjust to it right. So I was to readjust to regular, normal society, so....Eventually, they hired me to be like a spokesperson, to help out with that, because I was able to navigate readjusting. So that’s the main thing. I was hired by the VA.
Host: That's excellent, uh, what I found really interesting about your story, and what I've heard so far and hope to share with listeners is that you transitioned from being in active service to really finding your purpose to serve others, and you continue to do that as a myeloma patient as well.
Mark Ho: Yeah, it was an amazing experience I loved doing my job. I loved going out there and helping other people like me get out of that situation. I helped them with their situations. And that’s really what it’s all about, helping other people out.
Host: And, uh, for our listeners, because they’re not familiar with your background, being diagnosed with myeloma, and also nasopharyngeal carcinoma. If you could tell us a little about a couple of the events, I know you talked about, a fall that happened and then a subsequent issue that happened at a gym, that led you to undergoing blood tests at the VA that helped understand your diagnosis at the time. If you could summarize those two or three events that led up to your diagnosis?
Mark Ho: Well, I was working as an Outreach Technician for the VA. I was an Outreach worker. I rode around in a bus, or an RV that was called the Mobile Vet Center. And me and a counselor on board the vehicle would travel around California, parts of Nevada, even parts of Arizona, and we would set up shop. And basically, there’d be a big billboard and a mobile office, helping people on the spot. Helping out if they had issues or if they had questions about benefits. So I did this job for years. And when I was diagnosed, I did it for about eight years. I walked up and down the vehicle hundreds and hundreds of times.
One day I happened to walk into the vehicle, and I slipped onto the staircase that you get into the vehicle. And I slammed my chest into the staircase. And there are certain things that happened within the last, you know, in this past decade, or even that, like I did notice that my bones would hurt a certain way, that my ribs would hurt, like pretty easily. Like little indicators that were caused from that. Even had kidney problems. But it took a fall into walking into the, walking into the RV, the steps. I slammed my chest into the steps, I got back up. I was more embarrassed than anything. But, about a week later, I started feeling that pain really, shoot up my back, like really bad. And I kept on going to the VA; I kept on trying to get checked. And they could find nothing with the X-rays. But there was definitely some kind of pain going on. Eventually, you might have known or some of the listeners might know, I do music, and I do um, I perform. So one of the things that I was tasked to do, I was supposed to open up for Ms. Philippines USA back in 2017, in July.
So having this little male ego, or whatever. Just to get yourself pumped up before the game. Some people do push-ups before the football game or whatever to get themselves motivated. I decided to go to the LA Fitness. I was already under physical therapy at that time. I couldn’t do nothing. I couldn’t work out. I couldn’t lift. I was able to do these like little strengthening exercises. You know, with rubber bands. And I would walk around inside the LA Fitness swimming pool. Because I couldn’t really swim at that time because my back hurt so much.
Well as I walked into the men’s locker room to change my shorts to go into the pool, I put my foot up. I put my foot down. And I felt this insane pain on my right foot. Or my foot. And little did I know, there was a steroid needle lodged in my foot. My first thing was, “Did I catch AIDS? Did I catch something? Some horrific kind of disease.” You read about stories like that, right?
Mark Ho: So they said, “No you better go to the hospital and get checked and find out what’s going on. So I went to the hospital, and they calmed me down. They said they see sharp accidents all the time at the VA hospital, or at any hospital, for that matter. And the nurse, Jean, she sent me home. Did a blood and urine analysis test. But they called me at like 2 o’clock in the morning and told me, like, “You need to come back in as soon as possible because the doctor sees something in your sample.” And you know, me being an entertainer and a Marine and all that, I still got to do my show. So I did my show. And after the show, I went to the VA hospital and that’s when my whole life. The whole world changed. When I was diagnosed. You know, I was admitted for 17 days. A couple days I was diagnosed, they found the cancer in my urine samples. So yeah, it was a gamechanger.
Host: So they found the multiple myeloma, and I also understand you had ear, nose, throat biopsy, and…
Mark Ho: Yes, they did an ENT biopsy, bone marrow biopsy, kidney biopsies, PT scans, CT scans, the whole gamut. Now it took a while for them to find the….to do the ENT biopsy for some reason because they were just a little bit delayed. But yeah, then they found it. The kidney biopsy is where they found the multiple myeloma. Now the ENT biopsy was the second cancer that I got—nasopharyngeal carcinoma.
Host: And a lot of this has been connected to your work in Crash Fire Rescue in the service?
Mark Ho: Exactly. You know, being deployed to Iraq. The ENT, the nasopharyngeal cancer. That was more in relation to the burn pits in Iraq. We were burning. You know, in some cases, what they call is when you are in an invasion, which I was in, or when you are in some kind of fort operation base. You know, you have to use the bathroom right? Whether it’s number two or number one. You’re using oil drums or you getting rid of your feces that way, if you’re not digging a hole in the ground, you know? I’m trying to paint a picture for you guys, so you understand what it is, but not get too gruesome.
So when you move the locations, or when you are wrapping up the fob, the Fort Operation Base, you have to get rid of all your evidence and everything basically. When you move make, you don’t want to leave a weird, crazy environment when you are leaving. So you burn everything. And unfortunately, so of the stuff that we use as far as when you are lighting up the fire for the burn pits, you use jet fuel. You know, you use whatever you have on hand to light these fires up. And that’s one of the causes of the cancer, nasopharyngeal carcinoma.
Now the multiple myeloma is from my job as a crash fire rescue specialist. We use foam called A-triple-F. F — Aqueous Film-Forming Foam — to put out fires. When you are a regular firefighter…you’re never a regular firefighter so to speak – but when you are dealing with structural fires, you can burn…it only burns at so many hundred degrees — structural buildings fires. But when you’re dealing with jet fuel. You’re dealing with ammunition. You’re dealing at artillery and stuff like that. It burns at thousands of degrees. You can’t just hit it with water. Because if you hit it with water, it just evaporates. You have to use something else, and unfortunately, A-triple-F — Aqueous Film-Forming Foam — is known to be cancerous.
And they are actually pulling it off of military bases and creating uh, different solvents. Kind of, or different suppressants to use instead of that. Because basically, it is cancerous, unfortunately.
Host: And where you are now, with the nasopharyngeal carcinoma, I understand that it is in remission?
Mark Ho: Yes, so we did 50 days of radiation. It was pretty draining, from September to Nov. 15, 2017. That was the first cancer that they wanted to try to tackle first before they took on the big one, which is multiple myeloma. So they gave me 50 days of radiation over at West Los Angeles, at the VA hospital over there. Yeah. It was pretty intense. You know, Monday through Friday, every day, radiation. We put that one into remission. When you go through something like that, whether it’s radiation, or chemotherapy, there are going to be side effects. I have a few side effects from that. Salivary glands don’t work quite as well. My taste isn’t there anymore. I have something called hermit’s sinuses, little pain on my neck. But it something I can live with. It’s something that I can be resilient with, so to speak. We learn to survive with.
Host: And with the multiple myeloma, I know you mentioned that you’ve gone through stem cell transplant…
Mark Ho: I’ve done. We first started doing chemotherapy, and then later the VA. Went to my treatments at the VA Loma Linda. That’s the VA hospital. Loma Linda there’s a hospital over there. But actually, my doctor, Dr. Singh, an amazing oncologist. She went to school at Loma Linda University. She worked at the VA Loma Linda. So I did my physical therapy and the radiation that I spoke of, and then I did a stem cell transplant at VA Puget Sound. In Seattle Washington.
Host: And what were the results for you? I understand…Are you undergoing any treatments right now? And just dealing with right now, if you are undergoing treatments, how are you coping with that day-to-day? Or even with the pandemic and social distancing?
Mark Ho: So far as the treatments, and how that went about with the stem cell transplant, I’m young. You know, some of us now are getting multiple myeloma at a younger age, but it’s still young age still, around the late thirties when I was diagnosed, I’m 41 now. The stem cell transplant – autologous stem cell transplant – where they utilize my own stem cells – that was only a game-changer.
You know, um, I was taking 25 mg prior to that, of Revlimid. When I came back, it wasn’t a 100% successful. At least that’s what the suggestion was when they did another bone marrow biopsy. They did my fourth bone marrow biopsy, and they found a little bit of multiple myeloma still. I think it was at a very low, low percentage.
So I was at actually, very mentally kind of almost like, “Oh my God, here we go again.” I got to do the Velcade shots every week, and I’ve got to do 25 mg of Revlimid. Here we go again. It was crazy because I actually was at the VA hospital about to take my...literally, about to get my hands on the Revlimid. And I had to walk b Dr. Singh’s office earlier to wave hi to her. She was on the phone. She kind of waved to me. She told me to come back, but I was kind of in a rush to get my medication. And she called right as I was getting the Revlimid handed off to me. She says, “Don’t take it. We’re not going to put you on that dosage. You need to come back in here. We got to talk.” I got a hold of Dr. Chauncey, who’s the one that runs VA Puget Sound, Seattle, Washington. And they came into agreement that my multiple myeloma cells were so low, that basically, he doesn’t believe that it didn’t work, the stem cell transplant.
Host: That’s good news.
Mark Ho: So they are treating me like I’m in remission, and they only put me on 5 mg of Revlimid. So that’s what I’m taking for right now for … for … until we find a cure. Five milligrams of Revlimid. And it seems to be working.
Host: That’s great news.
Mark Ho: Yeah, my multiple myeloma cells are from my blood test, my tests are always low. My white blood cells are good. Occasionally it will drop, but I get off the Revlimid for a little bit, and it will go back up in a few days. So yeah, it’s amazing. So yeah, keep on marching on.
Host: I’m going to kind of tie this in with something we’ve been talking about a lot at the IMF, this last year, for Myeloma Action Month, our theme was resilience. And we defined that as the ability to recover or to be flexible to adapt to new challenges and difficulties. As a person and as a myeloma patient, can you describe what resilience might mean to you?
Mark Ho: Yes, resilience to me means just staying there, staying strong, staying positive, never giving in, because it is a game-changer. You know, each day you wake up. Well, there’s not a day that you wake up, when you are fighting multiple myeloma, that, nothing’s normal anymore. Especially like in these times, when we’re fighting the—you know, the COVID-19, right? The coronavirus. You know you have to be extra special, or extra-precautious. And there’s a big cloud on your head all the time. You’re wondering if you are going to get sick. You’re wondering if it’s your time now, you know? You just got to be strong. You got to be positive. You are here still. And one of the things that have made me resilient is the International Myeloma Foundation. The groups that I go to, which is the Upland Myeloma Support Group. There’s people in there that I’ve met. Yelak, you know, Carlene Pratt, Eric Wolfe. There’s people who have survived multiple myeloma for years. And it gives me hope, like younger people like myself. You know these people are resilient. Look at how they are handling it. Their stem cell transplant didn’t quite work if they got one, or some of them didn’t even get stem cell transplant. Look at them. They’re leading lives. They’re doing amazing. You know, they’re still working, they’re still …. Some of them are still working. You know, I, um, unfortunately, my situation is kind of crazy with everything. But yeah, you know, if you can still work, work. Do what you can and what you feel you’re destined to do and that’s what resiliency is to me. Is to keep on pressing forward. Use whatever’s happened to you to uplift others. That’s what my resilience comes from. Because that’s how I see it. If I didn’t run into Carlene Pratt. If I didn’t run into the International Myeloma Foundation, I remember being diagnosed. I was so like, not to get too crazy. It’s heartbreaking. You know, oh my God, what did I to deserve this? Okay, it was a game-changer, you know. Your life flashes before your eyes. I had dreams of having a family, of having a home. You know, being able to retire one day. You have those dreams. And when something like this happens, it changes your life. Your life literally flashes before your eyes. Like what did I do wrong? So being resilient is finding the way to get over that. Living a new norm so to speak. We could do it. We could do it. You just got to be positive.
Host: You do it, every day. One of, some of things are listeners might not know. You are a hip-hop performer. I understand you were influenced by hip hop in your youth, here in Southern California. And now you go by the name Bag-Yo. Just wanted to ask, when did you adopt that artist name, why that name, and how have you dedicated more to being a hip-hop artist in the last few years?
Mark Ho: I guess when you’re growing up in Los Angeles, they call it ….. that means I came from the Philippines over here. I grew up all over Los Angeles, in the eighties. I’m an eighties baby. I listened to a lot of hip hop, whether it was like Salt N’ Pepa, whether it be DJ Quick, Tupac, Ice Cube, all that stuff. I grew up listening to hip hop. That was my form of my music. It was always something that stuck with me, when I was growing up in Los Angeles. Even when I was in the Marine Corps, I was learning to do. Even XXX battling. Listening to music all the time. Now when I got out of the Marine Corps. How I ended up doing it is my mom had her 50th birthday party. That was what seven, maybe eight years ago. It’s been like seven, eight years now. Everybody’s doing like a little present for her. My brother was filming like a music video for her. My sister was doing like poetry for her. Me I decided to make a song. Pen out a song. It was something that came natural to me for some reason. A life’s history. And when I made the song, it’s called “Going Back” by Bag-Yo, b-a-g-y-o, that’s me. I put this song out. It just caught. People totally related to that song. Because it’s about growing up as an immigrant, not just growing up as an immigrant, but growing up in a broken home, in a broken family. It has parts of a song called “Blue Bayou” by Linda Ronstadt, written by Roy Orbison. And even people that love that song by Roy Orbison, they had no offense to it. They actually appreciated my version. To the live version, it paid homage to it. Yeah, that song popped off. I started getting shows everywhere.
Music helped me out through some crazy times, whether it was deployment in Iraq. And a little history about myself too, I was in the army boxing league. Maybe it was the Marine Corps or whatever. So whenever something is about to happen, I get pretty anxious. My heart starts pounding pretty quick. Before a fight, I’d have to listen to some classical music to calm myself down on the CD player to get my calm, to get my heart rate down. You have to take your temperature. You have to take your pulse to make, before they put you in the ring. Music does that. You know, it can motivate you, whether, if you’re tired. You listen to that calming music. You listen to “Eye of the Tiger,” you’re going to go for a pretty good run (laughs) while you are listening to that. But if you are feeling bad, you can listen to classical music, and totally relate to the nostalgic part of that portion. But… yeah, music does that stuff, and that’s why I started to change circumstances.
Host: Because you’re a hip-hop performer, and you’ve done so much with your life, I think some of these quotes will relate to you very well. One of them is from who you mentioned, Yelak Biru, who is an IMF Board Member, and he’s been living with myeloma for about 25 years, one of things he once said is “We are not our disease.” And another myeloma patient, Valarie Traynham, once said, “I have myeloma, but myeloma doesn’t have me.” How do you feel about these two quotes, and do they resonate with you?
Mark Ho: They definitely resonate with me. It’s from people like that. And people giving those quotes that we get the inspiration from. Because when you get diagnosed, it’s like…it does overwhelm your life. But yeah, people like Yelak, and everybody else that are surviving, and you know, kicking butt. It’s definitely inspirational. Whatever you are doing with your life. It doesn’t matter. Like I happened to be. This is my story. Music. That’s what I do. Uplift people through music. Whether I train people at the boxing gym, or I do bike rides. Perseverance. And praying and getting through these obstacles. Yeah, they - - it definitely resonates what they say. And that’s what the International Myeloma Foundation’s about. They give hope.
Host: Right. One of things we want people who are listening to get out of this is that you have so much more, you have such full lives despite your myeloma diagnosis. Like you said, you’re boxing, you are doing hip-hop, there are so many things you are doing at home. You’re involved with your family and your community. I think it’s going to give a lot of hope and inspiration to a lot of people. And finally, just to leave off, I understand that even though we are in lockdown, you’re still performing. And I saw that you have something coming up called “So-Cal Distancing?”
Mark Ho: Yeah, this past April 7th, I was actually invited on the Wish List. Usually this wish list, runs in Los Angeles. It’s basically like a recording studio on wheels. And they livestream all across the world at one given time at one given moment, there’s hundreds of people watching. And it’s an international thing. It’s getting pretty big. It’s been here in Los Angeles for about a year now. And how they did it, it’s called “So-Cal Distancing,” like you mentioned. Right now, doing it, luckily for me I have a recording studio, upstairs at my house, or a mini-recording studio. Not a full recording studio, but it’s up right. And I was able to broadcast live to a show, to a performance. And to talk about not only my history and my fight with cancer, and you know, being in the military, and positive stuff. Yeah, we were able to reach out to people, tell people how social distancing is a good thing that we got to do right now. Stay indoors. Do nothing too crazy or unnecessary right. So it was positive. Positivity brings more positivity. That’s what I’m saying. You stay focused. You stay positive. You stay strong. It brings other people in the community to uplift you, and other people reach out you. To promote that.
Host: You have an album too?
Mark Ho: Oh, yes. I will have an album coming out. And I’m telling you. This whole thing. There’s a lot of lessons that have happened too. Like this life, I had something from both my jobs at the Vet Center. But this whole situation. It’s not a curse. It’s like a gift. It’s like you live life on different terms. Yeah, so it allows me to live life on different terms. Now I get to do my path. I get to help people out through music, which is one thing I love. To inspire people. Yeah. Within the last year, I got signed to a record label. Viva Records. I got signed to Viva Records. So now I got the feet to stand on, and they are going to promote me. And one of the songs I’m working on is called “Victory.” And it’s about the fight.
Host: I’m looking forward to it. And let us know when it comes out, because we’ll make sure everybody at the IMF gets a copy. I think that basically wraps up all the questions I have for you. But is there anything you’d like to share with people in the myeloma community or just the public at-large?
Mark Ho: The thing that I’m getting from this is fire. Is from this game-changer. You got to stay focused. Mentally. Physically. Spiritually is a thing with me. I want to say thank you for everyone that keeps me in their positive thoughts. And all their prayers. I am a believer. I appreciate everybody that’s been in my corner. And I love all y’all. I know we can get through this craziness that we’re going through right now. You got to be . You got to be positive. Stay strong. Stay in the fight. Fight the good fight. I appreciate everybody.
Host: Thank you so much.
This has been a Day in the Life with Mark Ho, aka Bag-Yo, brought to you by the International Myeloma Foundation. For more information about multiple myeloma and other patient stories, visit myeloma.org.