Jet-setting financial leader, committed family man and enthusiastic advocate Mark Sack projects an image of vitality that is hard to reconcile with the fact he suffers from a lifelong, incurable disease. Sack recently opened up about how he has addressed the significant challenges of living with arthritis for almost 50 years.
When Sack, vice president and head of Canadian Institutional Investments at Mackenzie Investments, travels to sell investments to large investors in Canada and across the globe, he always checks his luggage and wears comfortable shoes. He sometimes excuses himself early from social gatherings to ensure he gets enough sleep. And, he watches his diet and adjusts his exercise and physical activities to avoid aggravating the pain and swelling he experiences in his joints.
“I've been everywhere in the world,” he says. “But it hasn’t been easy. I’ve developed a strategy for life at home, work and when on the road. I am constantly mindful of the triggers that aggravate arthritis and want to avoid permanent disability due to flare ups.”
Sack has been supported by a team of family, friends and professionals as he gained success in financial services. He knows that daily choices in lifestyle and medical intervention can help him fight off the potential for limitation and disability.
“My family and my employers have always been very understanding of the challenges that I face, relative to the contributions that I can make. I’ve also had lots of support from my medical team,” he says.
From diagnosis to the quest for relief
While many think of arthritis as a disease of the elderly, half of Canadians with arthritis are actually diagnosed before the age of 65, and 25,000 are children.
Sack received his diagnosis in 1974, when he was just 13. “My journey with arthritis has been closely linked to progress in drug and treatment innovation,” he says. “Recent research has yielded more effective medications to control arthritis and minimize the potential for disability – all with fewer day-to-day side effects. It was not always this way.”
In the 1970s, blood and cancer specialists called hematologists oversaw the treatment of arthritis. Treatments were hard to live with. Consuming almost toxic levels of aspirin daily, for example, caused ringing in the ears, stomach bleeding and other undesirable side effects.
“I was a young teenager in junior high and on the football team and the swim team. I had to stop these activities because I was sick all the time. But early on, I developed special strategies to balance health and homework to succeed in math and science.”
Arthritis fought for dominance in Sack’s life as he transitioned from a teenager to young adulthood. Specialists tried more aggressive therapies, including the injection of gold salts, Butazolidine (an anti-inflammatory given to horses), chloroquine (given for malaria) and methotrexate. However, the game-changing breakthrough finally arrived when biologic agents were approved for use in Canada.
“When arthritis was recognized as a disease of the immune system, biologics became a new treatment option,” says Sack. “I sought out and found Dr. Wayne Potashner, a community-based rheumatologist who knew his way around biologic drugs and understood the issues of a busy businessperson dealing with a chronic condition. This physician specialist has now led my arthritis care for over 20 years.
“I'm almost symptom-free now. At 60 years old, I'm more active than I was at 13.”
From personal success to advocacy and engagement
Biologic treatments provided the stability that allowed Sack to find personal and professional success, yet life with an autoimmune condition still isn’t easy and flare-ups can be very disruptive.
“Having arthritis means having to be careful to live in a way that consistently preserves your physical and mental energy levels. The demands of work, family and kids can be draining for anyone, and when you have arthritis, even more so. Plus, no treatment is perfect, and biologics carry risks, including a potentially lower immune response. Caution is required even with simple infections.”
Sack’s challenges will be familiar to Canadians with arthritis, 40 per cent of whom report that pain limits their activities. Arthritis Society data also shows that working-aged Canadians with arthritis report significantly reduced participation in the workforce, even in ages as young as 35, which highlights an increased need for support for starting and staying in work.
More awareness – among the general public as well as employers – can make a big difference, believes Sack. “People have to realize this is not just a disease of older people, and not just a simple disease of swollen joints. Your entire body is affected by arthritis and challenged with internal medicine issues.”
Employers have to be educated about their responsibility to create an understanding and supportive environment that provides appropriate accommodation for the needs of their workers. This can then help to facilitate conversations with employees with arthritis about the types of work accommodations and practices that may be helpful.
Sack sees cause for optimism. “We are living in a different climate now. Diversity, inclusion and the understanding of an individual’s needs are all built into our society, and places of work are required to emulate these values.”
Much of today’s awareness is due to the Arthritis Society’s tireless efforts on behalf of Canadians living with arthritis, he believes. “The primary long-term goal is to extinguish the disease. Research and innovation can make the journey and quality of life with arthritis tolerable and minimize the potential for disability or life-altering side effects.”
“The second goal is to support patients along their journey, and the Arthritis Society has a lot of programs, including Arthritis Talks webinars, videos, online information, support programs and the Arthritis Line,” says Sack, who has been involved with the Arthritis Society since 1977 as a regular donor and now a member of the Arthritis Society National Council. “I think these efforts are very worthy of support and critical for both young and older people battling this fire every day.”
Six million Canadians live with arthritis, and examples like Sack’s clearly show that advancing understanding and support can create better outcomes not only for the individual but for society as a whole.