Everyone has something in common.
Shauna Blackmer and Shirley Godbout have both been diagnosed with life-threatening cancer.
The two North Battleford women have something else in common. They are two of 10 women selected as 2015 dream recipients of the Cameco Touchdown for Dreams program, a partnership between Cameco, the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency.
Godbout will be enjoying an Alaskan cruise and Blackmer will be spending three weeks in a luxury Mexican hotel suite.
“Cameco, the Roughriders and the Cancer Agency should all be commended for this,” says Godbout. “They really touch a lot of people each year.”
The two women are among 26 who have received dreams through the program over the last three years. Their names were submitted by family members and they were informed in early May that they were recipients.
It was the afternoon of Saturday, May 2 when Godbout was lying down on the couch that her cell phone rang. At first she thought it was a telemarketer telling her she had won a trip. She felt like slamming the phone down.
"Then he said 'Cameco,' and I twigged," she says.
Godbout says she started to cry.
"I just lost it!"
She and her husband had always talked about going on an Alaskan cruise, but didn't feel they could afford it, even after they retired, which was only recently.
"My husband looked after the senior housing in Edam even though he’s going to be 82. We looked after 16 units of seniors," she says, and she helped out with the books. "They all laughed in Edam, the seniors looking after the seniors!"
It was an emotional experience to hear they were to get their Alaskan cruise after all.
"It really got me because I just thought that this would never happen."
In addition to their dream trips and heated-booth seats at the upcoming Oct. 23 Riders “pink” game, Godbout and Blackmer were guests at a $300-dollar-a-plate fundraising gala held June 10 in Saskatoon in the Bessborough Gardens. There they received Roughrider jerseys emblazoned with bright pink 15s and a sparkle ball necklace by a jeweler who, coincidentally, got her start through Blackmer’s brother Brett Wilson of Dragon’s Den.
They also met the entertainers for the evening, Blue Rodeo, who signed their jerseys along with those of the other dream recipients, including Touchdown for Dreams 2015 ambassador Marla Cole whose dream was to have a professional recording and CD done of her string quartet.
Godbout, who has pancreatic cancer, is on her cruise to Alaska with husband Lionel this week.
“I took it soon because I wasn't given very long,” she says. “I was given six months and I'm already two months over that."
About her prognosis, she says, “So far so good. I've had two CT scans and the tumour has stayed the same."
Rider fan Blackmer, who was first diagnosed with cancer in 2010, will be travelling with her husband Randy to their favourite spot in Mexico, probably in March of next year.
She has nothing but praise for the Touchdown for Dreams program.
“We do go to Mexico,” says Blackmer, “but we’d never have spent three weeks in a luxury suite.”
Godbout says, “At our age we probably wouldn’t even have taken a holiday again, but they’ve put it all together.”
Everything was taken care of, even the booking of taxis, plus she has a $1,000 gift card to spend on shore trips. Her health was also taken into consideration. There’s a doctor on the ship, she was told, and if necessary she could be helicoptered off the ship.
“My kids are calling me Queen Shirley,” she laughs.
Godbout and Blackmer find having a sense of humour helps them cope, even though they could each find reason to be bitter. Both feel the early management of their cases may have compromised their prognoses. For that reason, they encourage patients to advocate for themselves and to speak out to help affect change.
Blackmer, now on leave as a St. Mary School teacher, had been told there was nothing more they could do for her, but she wasn’t settling for that. Having heard of a particular treatment that could help her, she went to Calgary where a doctor there performed a specialized surgery.
It wasn’t “two-tier” health care, but neither was it an option offered to her in Saskatchewan.
“It was paid for, billed to Sask. Health, I didn’t have any problems that way,” says Blackmer, “but knowing that it exists is what people need to know. That’s why I share whatever with whoever, whenever, so that they know.”
When Blackmer was first diagnosed the thought was that it was ovarian cancer.
“So I had a surgery in Saskatoon and when they opened me up they found it was far more and they just closed me and said, ‘I'm sorry, go get your affairs in order.'”
As it turned out the cancer had started with her appendix three years earlier.
“I had an appendix attack that wasn’t diagnosed. I spent three days in emergency in North Battleford.”
Blood test results weren’t high enough to be diagnostic and it was thought the pain could be caused by her existing irritable bowel syndrome.
“Three years later this irritable bowel stuff, this uncomfortableness about my belly, was just more than I could take.”
She insisted on a CT scan, and upon referral to a specialist, it was suspected “this honking big thing” was ovarian cancer.
She was sent to Saskatoon for surgery, with the surgeon expecting to go in and do a radical hysterectomy.
“He did do all of that but found the tumour was attached to the appendix.”
Rather than going home and planning her funeral, Blackmer acted on something she’d heard one doctor say about a special surgery being done in Calgary. It was called the Sugarbaker procedure, named after a Washington, D.C. surgeon.
“It was a matter of finding the doctor that could do this, so I tracked down my brother to see what he could do.”
Her brother, who lives in Calgary, found someone who knew what she needed, she says, and she was set up with Dr. Walley Temple, who studied the procedure under Dr. Sugarbaker. He had people coming to him from throughout the country for the surgery and he has also trained other doctors in Canada.
“He did this massive 10-hour surgery,” she says. “Part of this Sugarbaker procedure is putting heated chemo in when you are open. They pour it in and it sits in there and gets all the microscopic bits and stuff they might not have surgically been able to get at,” she explains.
Twelve chemo sessions followed. She was in hospital for five weeks and came to put her hope with Dr. Temple.
"He’s just the most wonderful man. He needs to be touted."
He's also funny, she laughs.
"He was wearing Easter bunny ears on a headband."
Two years later, she found a lump in her breast. She had breast cancer surgery and reconstruction in Saskatoon. The doctor there wanted her to have chemo and radiation, says Blackmer, but Dr. Temple said she didn’t need it.
“Walley was saying, ‘You need your body if this comes back,’” she says, pointing to her abdomen. “This cancer was something to worry about.”
As it turned out, his advice was sound.
“Last June, a year ago, my CEA, which is a blood test you take for tumour growth, was a little bit high so we checked and some of this had come back.”
She was offered palliative chemo.
But Blackmer wasn’t giving up. She thought, “Let’s see what Dr. Temple has to say.”
A second Sugarbaker procedure was planned.
“I had six chemos and in March had a surgery like the first one, but he didn't have to do quite as much.”
It was still a 10-hour surgery but this time she was hospitalized for only two weeks. Now, she's not worried about planning a trip for next year.
What Blackmer doesn’t understand is why patients in Saskatchewan aren’t being made aware of the Sugarbaker procedure, even if it isn’t performed here.
“They know this surgery exists, now why doesn’t someone from here go there and learn it, so they could come back and do it here,” she asks.
“If you walked in tomorrow with what I had they would just go, ‘Oh, well, I can offer you chemo, but go home and get your affairs in order,’ as they said to me. No!” Blackmer stresses, “You’ve got to push."
Godbout agrees it’s important to get a second opinion from somewhere, “but that somewhere is hard to get.”
The retired school bus driver and educational assistant who recently moved from Edam to North Battleford has a tumour on her pancreas and bile duct.
Her first diagnosis of cancer was in February of 2013 when she got a call confirming breast cancer. It was only first stage, so "I went through that like a breeze," says Godbout.
"It was a piece of cake. I had my radiation treatments and I bounced back from that.”
It was in 2014 that she got the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
"It was stage three and it was aggressive, they told me."
Godbout says time was lost leading up to the diagnosis.
“I came into emergency one night with a really bad pain."
It was in the area of her gall bladder.
"I was in emergency about five times before they thought something else should be done. They thought I had gall stones so they did a little scan and they saw I had lesions or something on my pancreas and bile duct."
She was referred to Saskatoon. Two weeks later, after no word back, it was determined that the office in Saskatoon hadn't received the referral.
"My granddaughter works in that office, they never received it," says Godbout. "I lost time there, too."
She lost more time after the stent that was inserted in Saskatoon to help prevent jaundice before she could have her surgery became plugged during an 11-day hospitalization in North Battleford, setting off an infection that compromised her immune system and delayed her surgery.
The doctor was going to send her home, but her daughter stepped in and insisted on taking Godbout to Saskatoon.
"They said in 48 more hours I’d have been gone. It took a week or 10 days to get it levelled off a little bit then I had to build myself back up," says Godbout. "I started this in July and didn’t have my surgery until October."
Her immune system is still suppressed so she has been unable to have chemotherapy following the eight-and-a-half-hour surgery, and her surgeon has again inserted a stent.
"He put it in so if the tumour grows it won’t push on my stomach, it will push on this stent instead," she says, adding, "I have bypasses all the way across. That's the only way he could fix me up."
She laughs, "I said I’m full of machinery. You have to take it like that because if you don’t you're scooped."
Blackmer agrees. The two women also agree the people who work at the cancer clinic in Saskatoon are "angels."
"I have nothing but good to say about them," says Blackmer, however, both Godbout and Blackmer are unapologetic in sharing their less positive experiences. Still, they are accepting of the fact that no one is infallible and that patients need to advocate for themselves.
Blackmer says, "Our hospital is good, but you kind of lose your faith after something like that … This isn’t a story, obviously, to sing the praises of BUH or the doctors here, and that's too bad. It's a story of how you have to advocate."
Godbout adds, “It’s too bad that we both have our little views about the system here, but it’s our lives that they are dealing with.”
Blackmer says one of the most important things patients can do for themselves is to follow up on everything.
"Always follow up," she says.
When she came back from her latest surgery, she was referred to a specialist in Saskatoon to have a tube removed. It had to come out within six weeks of the surgery. Her doctor told her to phone the specialist if she hadn't heard anything within the week,
A week went by and when she called, she was told she was on a three-month waiting list.
"I went to Calgary and saw Dr. Temple for follow up and the next day he did the cystoscopy."
Blackmer insists, "You have to follow up absolutely everything."
There is cancer in Blackmer's family, but she can't help thinking that if her appendix had been removed in the first place she wouldn't be in the position she is in today.
"I may have still got a breast cancer and may have still got a cancer, but if they had taken that appendix out three years before this was diagnosed in 2010 it wouldn’t have been to that life-threatening level and I wouldn't have been dealing with it five years later."
There is no cancer in Godbout's family, although she lost her first husband to brain cancer when she was 24. She looks back to the infection from her first stent as the critical point in her journey.
It was plastic, she notes, and when it was replaced by a metal one, she asked why metal hadn't been used in the first place. The answer was because it costs $6,000.
Although her depressed immune system continues to make chemotherapy out of the question, Godbout has been getting good results on her CEA tests.
"I've got this feeling that I want to beat it."
She works hard at staying healthy and building up her immune system so she may eventually be able to take chemotherapy. She goes to bed early, eats lots of protein and walks at the field house in North Battleford.
"I have nothing but praise for that field house," she says. "It’s just beautiful and I just feel so special walking there."
She is also taking supplements and drinking chaga tea. Native tradition has it that chaga tea, made from mushrooms that grow on birch trees, has been known to shrink tumours.
There aren't any studies to prove it, of course, says Godbout, but because her results have been good, even her oncologist says it may be the chaga.
"And the power of prayer," Godbout adds.
She also says, "I’m having faith in it, and I think there’s a lot in that, too."