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Living with cancer in a rural area - a personal account with mayor Merlin Blackwell

My cancer journey - a personal account with mayor Merlin Blackwell
Mayor Merlin Blackwell of Clearwater standing proudly with Raft Peak in the background says living in a rural area far from a cancer centre is very challenging when dealing with diagnosis, treatment and travel. Blackwell is involved with an advocacy group called Cancer Won’t Wait and is encouraging the public to support the advocacy group through their own personal stories and volunteering. The group is focused on seeing the government move quickly to construct the long awaited cancer centre in Kamloops. (Photo by: Hettie Buck)

April is Cancer Awareness Month and Mayor Merlin Blackwell of the District of Clearwater recently shared his personal journey with cancer multiple times and how living in the interior of B.C. became so challenging once diagnosed.

Here is his firsthand account in a Q and A with Black Press on March 30, 2024.

Black Press: Would you share your first diagnosis and how you’ve coped with having cancer while living in rural B.C.?

Blackwell: I have had four separate cancer diagnoses, and a few other inconclusive biopsies. I only count the ones that required surgery at a hospital with an anesthesiologist and a surgical team.

My first cancer diagnosis was when I was 27. For a bit of background, I was a single guy, away from family supports living in rural B.C. I worked in radio broadcasting after graduating BCIT as well as with my family’s park management company in the Cariboo. Our family worked in park management in the Cariboo and Wells Gray Park since my childhood so it was a natural transition for me as an adult having that experience growing up.

Fortunately, the first diagnosis and surgery were very quick, but it required a 300-kilometre round trip in the worst winter driving conditions. I asked my oncologist to just call me with results or to get my G.P. (general practitioner) to do it because I was risking my life to travel to and from his office in winter.

Black Press: That must have taken its toll on you while going through treatment?

Blackwell: Travelling to Vancouver for radiation took me 500 kilometres away from my home and my job for over two months. Even though my treatments were just a couple of hours every few days, there was no point in going home. I stayed with my mom in her 1-bedroom apartment in Burnaby and slept on the laundry room floor so I could recover. When the side effects got too bad for that, my mom gave up her bed and room.

Black Press: How would you describe treatment?

Blackwell: There are things you just never forget about treatment. The food and smells that you now associate with cancer, even music. I couldn’t eat chicken noodle soup for a decade because it took me right back there, favourite CDs, soaps and cleaners all trigger those memories. It definitely impacts a person’s mental and emotional well-being.

Black Press: How long after the first cancer diagnosis before the next?

Blackwell: I was diagnosed 10 years later with melanoma. I had no idea what that meant, but the look on my doctor’s face told me this was something to take seriously.

Black Press: With your journalism training did you begin researching melanoma?

Blackwell: Oh yes, and I can honestly say, researching your own cancer on the internet will terrify you. I soon learned that Stage 2 melanoma wasn’t good. Stage 3 or 4 melanoma at that time was almost always eventually fatal. When you have a second diagnosis, you really consider your mortality and ask yourself if you have done something meaningful with your life since your first diagnosis. It can be a very dark, stressful time while you await surgery. The sooner you get answers and treatment, the better it is for your mental health. Until you get that lymph node biopsy, a surgical procedure under anesthesia, you really don’t know if you can go back to living your life, or if you should get your affairs in order, not something anyone wants to think about at 27, 37 or even 47. Surgery was relatively fast, but specialist appointments required an entire day of travel, again in winter, for a very short appointment.

Black Press: When did you receive the next diagnosis?

Blackwell: Less than five years later I got another diagnosis of melanoma – in the same leg. The sentinel lymph node was gone from the last cancer, so it was a bit of a guess as to whether it had spread into my body. Surgery took longer. You want the cancer out of your body as fast as possible, you feel every twitch and pain, your mind creates them. I can’t emphasize enough that the stress of waiting for diagnosis and treatment is really bad for your metal health, but also for your physical health; your mind makes you sick.

My latest diagnosis of melanoma (cancer number four) was three years ago in the height of Covid. Surgery and diagnosis took months, not weeks. The stress was intense, especially after relatively fast treatments before. You want to scream “just get it out of me,” but you just have to wait. This last time, surgical recovery didn’t go well and my wound got internally infected. Twenty days after surgery I was back in hospital getting all my incisions opened up again, requiring months of difficult and uncomfortable recovery.

Every surgery, every appointment, they all required days away, assistance from friends and family, expensive hotel rooms, 100s of kilometres of travel, with no choice to wait for good weather. The stress, the time away from work, family and home, in a city you don’t know, with no friends close by to visit. It really does take a significant toll on your mental health and, as a result, your recovery.

Black Press: What can the public do now that the government has finally committed to the construction of a new Cancer Centre in Kamloops?

Blackwell: With the newly launched Cancer Won’t Wait website recently launched, the public can sign up for updates on the campaign, share their own personal stories and learn how they can volunteer in support of the campaign to advocate for the cancer centre project to move forward as soon as possible in Kamloops.


About the Author: Hettie Buck

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