A little bit about you:
Name: Blair Richardson
City: Calgary, AB
What was/is your diagnosis?
I was originally diagnosed with a blood cancer called Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS) which progressed into Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). After a bone marrow transplant and eight months of remission, my MDS came back and I have been living with it ever since.
What year was it? What was your age at the time?
I was 21 when I was originally diagnosed and found out I relapsed a day after my 23rd birthday.
What is something you’ve done that you’re really proud of?
I am extremely proud to have been chosen by YACC to represent the organization as a YACCtivist.
What is a top item on your life to do list?
I would love to travel throughout Europe and see as much of its history as I can!
What are your hobbies?
I am a massive nerd — and proud! I am into video games, audiobooks, and wargaming (I paint tiny models and fight them against other armies).
What was your life like before your diagnosis?
I find it very hard to remember what life was really like and who I was before I was diagnosed. When I was diagnosed, I had just finished my second year of an Education degree and was finishing my second week as a summer camp counsellor. I remember being very happy, but also a little lost in life, not knowing what I truly wanted.
How did you find out you were sick? What led to your diagnosis?
I was diagnosed by a total fluke. In the week leading up to my diagnosis I was working at a summer camp. I felt nauseated every morning and was very out of breath all week. On the last day of camp (Friday), I had to run off into the bush and throw up while the kids were being picked up. After that I thought, “I can’t be nauseated, I have to work with kids every day.” I thought I must have had a lung infection from all the campfire smoke I was inhaling, which had happened to me before.
When camp finished, I went to my family doctor and he gave me some antinauseants and ordered some blood work. (Fun fact: I almost ignored the blood work and didn’t do it).
I was stomach sick all weekend, throwing up every few hours. On Monday morning, I threw up a bit of blood and I knew I needed to go back to the family doctor. He came into the room and told me there was something severely wrong with my blood work and I needed to go to an ER — NOW! I went to my closest ER and after a night and only a few tests later, I found out I had MDS.
Finding out I had relapsed was easy because my blood work was looking a little funky, so the doctor did a bone marrow biopsy and we saw my cancer was back.
What were your first thoughts when diagnosed?
I’m sure like many other survivors my first thoughts after my first diagnosis were, “I’m going to die.” I immediately jumped onto Google and read all the horrible statistics. I wish I didn’t do that.
For my second diagnosis, I thought, “This sucks, but I’m not done fighting yet!”
In which hospitals were you treated?
I’ve been treated at the Peter Lougheed Hospital, Foothills Hospital, and Tom Baker Cancer Center all in Calgary, Alberta.
What did your treatment consist of?
I did a round of chemo before my bone marrow transplant to get rid of as much cancer as they could. Then I had a bone marrow transplant in January 2017 and all the chemo and radiation related to that.
After I relapsed, I started doing a chemo called Azacitidine to suppress my cancer, and I also did Donor Lymphocyte Injections (DLI) to suppress it even more. It would take me a long time to explain the purpose/use of the Aza and DLI so if you are interested, keep reading on a way to contact me!
During my transplant I had mouth sores, a lot of phlegm that I was always coughing up, lack of appetite, and a ton of nausea. I know I had more symptoms, but I don’t remember much from the whole transplant experience.
After my transplant, it took me at least four to five months to feel anything like normal. It’s hard to remember exactly how I felt because brain fog is a thing. What I do remember is being very tired and nauseated, which got better as I got further out from my transplant. Luckily, I did not have any Graft Versus Host Disease after my transplant.
With my current chemo, the best way of describing the symptoms I have is I feel insanely hungover for three or four days after the treatment. After that, I feel like a totally normal person, and I am very thankful for that.
What is your current medical status?
I have been dealing with my relapse for nearly two years now. Over the last three years, I have had over 300 chemo needles shoved into my stomach, but I am grateful for those needles because my cancer is stable and my blood counts get a little better every month.
I am happy and am living a pretty amazing life, if I do say so myself!
Life after cancer:
How is life different for you now post diagnosis?
Some people may be surprised reading this, but I am honestly a happier person now than I was prior to diagnosis. I have a brand new outlook on life and I’ve learned that living my life how I want is the most important thing. I still deal with challenges — especially physically — but I make accommodations for myself so I can live an amazing life even though I still have cancer.
What is the toughest part about having cancer as a young adult?
I find two things incredibly tough: Isolation and fear.
I was lucky enough to get a cancer that people over 70 normally get. Because of this, I often feel very isolated in the hospital clinic and it’s hard to find people who can relate to my experiences. Luckily the connections I have made through YACC have helped that a lot!
The second issue I have is the fear of judgement from the outside world. On the outside I look like a perfectly healthy person, but on the inside, I am not. I often worry people are judging me when I do things a healthy 24-year-old shouldn’t have to do, like taking the elevator up one floor instead of taking the stairs, or having to sit down frequently when shopping. I am happy to say that I am slowly getting over this fear and not worrying about what other people think.
What really helps you to keep going while you are sick?
I try my best to keep busy and not just lay around doing nothing all day. I love playing video games for my “Blair time.” I am also always going out and hobbying with my friends. My girlfriend is really good at pushing me to get out of the house to do fun activities, and I am very grateful for that.
How are you connected with Young Adult Cancer Canada? How did it happen?
My story of how I got to YACC is a bit of a funny one. I actually didn’t try to find YACC, my mom found it for me. I got added to the Facebook group and asked a few questions, but didn’t really engage too much (looking back on it, I wish I had!).
In September 2018, the girl I was dating before my cancer and all throughout my treatment dumped me because she couldn’t handle my cancer anymore. This absolutely crushed me, and I was ready to give up on life. A couple weeks after the break up, I decided to attend a Localife event as a last ditch attempt at a social life. I can honestly say that event changed my life! Finally, I met people who could relate to what I was going through and support me. I had a whole new outlook on life.
Now I have multiple connections to YACC. I love attending the Localife activities every few months and I am also proud to represent YACC as a YACCtivist to help grow the organization I love so much!
Did anyone talk to you about fertility options before treatment? If so, how did that affect your decisions? If not, what do you wish you had known?
My doctors did tell me that my chemo and radiation would fry all my sperm, and I very likely would not be able to have children naturally. My doctor – who has been doing bone marrow transplants for at least 30 years — can count on two hands how many men he knows who have had children naturally after a BMT. I chose to have some of my sperm frozen before I started chemo.
The thing that worries me now is whether or not the sperm I donated is fully viable and will it work when the time comes to use it. I also worry about the costs associated with fertility treatments when I want to have kids.
Has your cancer diagnosis affected any of the relationships in your life? If so, how, and how are you managing them?
When I was diagnosed, all of my friends abandoned me and I no longer talk to any of them. I don’t blame them too much for this, nobody knows how to talk to a cancer survivor about what they’re going through, especially someone in their 20s. I do wish they had at least tried. Only three people stuck by my side and I love them so much.
After my transplant, my girlfriend’s friends became my friends, but when she dumped me, I lost all of those friends, too. Now my main group of friends are my YACC friends who understand when you say “I can’t hang out because I’m just not feeling it today.” They are the best friends I’ve ever had.
I am also happy to say that I found love after my cancer diagnosis which isn’t something I thought would happen. I thought “who is going to love a cancer patient?” but I was lucky enough to find that girl and she makes my life so much better.
How has your cancer experience affected your body image, and your relationship to your body?
I have become extremely self-conscious of my visible scars and the judgement they may cause. I have had a ton of blood tests over the years and I worry people may start to judge me because of all the marks I have on the hands and my arms. I have to reassure myself that people probably don’t even notice them.
Resources and recommendations:
What would you add to a treatment-day playlist?
My go-to song to motivate myself is “Dig Down” by Muse.
Which books/movies/podcasts/TV shows/etc. would you recommend?
I would definitely recommend the podcast Soar Above Cancer by my dear friends and fellow YACCers, Gabrielle and Alex
Stay in touch:
What would you like to say to other young adults dealing with cancer who are reading this profile?
Please know that you are not alone, and never let your cancer stop you from living the best life you can!
Are you interested in helping others facing cancer challenges? If so please let us know how you can be contacted.
I am always open to meeting other survivors and helping each other out!
[Editor’s note: If you would like to get in touch with Blair, please send a message to [email protected] and we’ll forward it along!]