Robin Harry, Patient and Family Partner

Robin Harry considers herself one of the lucky ones, despite a diagnosis of renal carcinoma in 2002.

When family and friends learned of his illness, Bill found an endless supply of support. He knows many others living around his Kispiox community in the Gitxsan region of northern British Columbia are not always so fortunate.

In fact, when a friend received his own cancer diagnosis, Bill began noticing a curious thing: people seemed to shy away from the man. They went silent when he talked about his treatments. It was almost as though people were ashamed or embarrassed for him.

“They were scared,” he says. So for three months Bill lobbied the local public health nurse to start a cancer awareness program, with the aim of taking the taboo out of a diagnosis.

Since then, Bill, who worked in a salmon hatchery for 30 years, has become a committed advocate for better cancer care.

Although he has deep links with the cancer community, helping to shape the cancer control strategy for northern B.C., he has only recently become involved with the Partnership’s work in First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, attending a symposium and then signing up to volunteer as a patient advisor.

His vision for the future of cancer care for First Peoples is to see better relationships develop between patients and physicians. His own experience of living with symptoms for more than 10 months taught him that sometimes clinicians are prone to wait rather than investigate.

With First Peoples, he notes, the patient-physician relationship must extend beyond the individual, encompassing their families too. That’s something some physicians have been slow to recognize and accommodate.

The province is already making positive strides, he says, introducing an Aboriginal liaison to help individuals navigate through the cancer care system.

But Bill also envisions a future where traditional and Western medicine work better together to offer a patient comfort and reprieve.

“We’d like to let the mainstream medical society know that we do want to do what you say, but we’d also like you to take a look at what we have,” he says.

First Peoples are often told to forgo traditional treatments in favour of Western drugs, with physicians raising concerns of negative interactions between the two. But advice should be guided by evidence, Bill says. Any potential for interference in the effectiveness of treatments should be studied and understood.

At the very least, traditional ways should be considered.

“Sometimes that’s as simple as bringing in a cedar bough, which is special to the Gitxsan people,” he says. “That’s enough for some people.”

Bill Blackwater was instrumental in the development of a cancer strategy for northern British Columbia.