Sixteen years ago, Kyle Blanleil, 35, was diagnosed with spinal cancer and told he had five years to live, four of them in a wheelchair.
A week ago he came to Salmon Arm to meet and tell his story to Matt and Carolyn Krawczyk and their 12-year-old daughter Halle, who has also been diagnosed with a form of chordoma.
“It was very emotional,” he said, his voice wavering.
“She’s got such a bubbly personality, she’s got a big smile, she’s always joking around, that’s sort of how I was going through it.
“I think from playing competitive sports, it gives you a mentality that you need to be competitive and beat it and bear down, but at the same time, laugh and joke and smile and be positive about it.
“There’s not much you can do about the situation other than face it head on,” he said.
Halle, 12, has a rare, one-in-20-million, ‘poorly differentiated chordoma’ and Blanleil had chordoma of a different type, but their stories are remarkably similar.
Blanleil was 19 and playing Junior B hockey in Campbell River at the time. Halle is a competitive gymnast.
Experiencing balance problems, Blanleil underwent surgery for a tumour on his spine. He was told it was not cancerous and the surgeon had removed 90 to 95 per cent of it.
A month later, however, the B.C. Cancer centre in Kelowna contacted his family to say it was a chordoma and the surgeon had only removed 40 per cent of it.
He said his family was told “there wasn’t a surgeon on the planet that would do the surgery that I needed to survive.”
His dad asked if the family could look at surgery in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world, but was told to save their money and make their house wheelchair accessible, because he had five years to live and one year to walk.
“My folks, kind of like Halle’s parents, did a ton of research. They sent my tissue all around the U.S. and all around the world.”
Through a series of connections, Rick Hansen, activist for people with disabilities, passed on information about a surgeon at an excellent spine surgery facility in Vancouver.
Blanleil then underwent a 23-hour surgery in Vancouver and seven weeks’ recovery in hospital. He later had proton beam radiation in California, similar to what is planned for Halle in the U.S.
Now, he is completely healthy, cancer-free, with a son, two step-kids and a spouse.
“It’s pretty special.”
At Blanleil’s 10-year cancer-free anniversary six years ago, he and close friends hosted a fundraiser in Kelowna where they raised $40,000 and donated it to Cops for Kids.
At 16 years cancer-free, he wants to raise money to provide for Halle and her family as she undergoes three surgeries with a world-renowned surgeon and team in Pittsburgh.
Joining Blanleil is close friend Mitch Carefoot of Kelowna, who is in the live music and entertainment business and has worked with him on several fundraisers. Carefoot remembers fondly 2003 and the early years of his hockey career when he moved from Manitoba to play with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks – a connection to Salmon Arm he has maintained to this day.
Blanleil has posted a video outlining his story and their #HandstandForHalle campaign. It asks that people do a handstand for Halle, post a video as well as link to the Help for Halle gofundme site. Already it has been shared widely, including by the Canucks hockey team and TSN.
— Salmon Arm Silverbacks (@SASilverbacks) December 8, 2020
Blanleil’s family owns Andre’s Electronic Experts stores in Kelowna, Vernon and Kamloops. Blanleil said the business is donating $5,000 to the Krawczyks as well as asking for $2 with every transaction at the till to go to Halle’s family. For people living in Salmon Arm, Sorrento or Sicamous, donations can be made at SASCU to the Halle Krawczyk trust account.
Blanleil reiterates how fortunate he is.
“With everything going on right now, you kind of forget to be grateful for what you have. Looking at Halle’s parents, discussing with them what they’re going through, it really puts into perspective how lucky I am, and blessed to have the life I have.”
He’s also grateful for the publicity Halle is getting.
“I think also drawing attention to Halle’s personality and perseverance and positivity really are going to be the reasons why she makes it through and has a success, just like I did,” he said.