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Cancer doesn't care who it may kill

Young people's deaths attest to brutality

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Cancer seems to be stalking me, lately, and I'm not just talking about my own.

This week, two mothers who have lost children to cancer reached out for help supporting their causes and telling their stories. Judging by the impressive website I checked, Tammy McBain's cause doesn't really need my help getting the word out on May 24's fifth annual Kendra's Walk, a fundraiser for young cancer patients her brave and beautiful teenage daughter, Kendra, started the year she died.

At least Tammy doesn't appear to need as much help as Ethel Ljubic, who needs more support than one newspaper column can offer.

Ethel's 37-year-old son, Jason Ljubic, died one year ago Friday of the No. 1 cancer killer of Canadian men and women, but the one most of us give little thought to, and even less money.

Jay, as his pals and family called him, had lung cancer, the disease the public seems to think smokers deserve. Even the ones who stopped decades earlier and still get it.

Except Jay never smoked or even went to bars much. What's more, Jay's diagnosis isn't that rare, because up to 15 per cent of Canadians diagnosed with lung cancer have never put match to cigarette.

It's how relatively young and how quickly he died from his aggressive type that separates him from even the non-smoking pack who, on their own, form the eighth-leading cause of cancer deaths in Canada.

That, and maybe how health-conscious Jay was. He spent some time as a pipefitter and worked in a motorcycle shop, but who knows if either had any bearing on what happened.

Ethel and Jay's younger brother, Donovan, -- in from Regina where he works as a paramedic -- sat across the kitchen table of the family's East Kildonan home Wednesday recalling how it seemed to start. Jay was having headaches late in December 2011. They were severe and concerning enough that he bypassed the lineup here and flew to Florida to pay $850 for an MRI on his head and neck. It revealed some lymph-node swelling, but apparently not enough to cause much concern among his health-care providers.

As it turned out, Jay was listening to his body, but no one was listening to him.

"Jay knew something was wrong, and no one believed him," Donovan said.

"Neither did we."

No one believed him in March, either, when he was felled by fatigue, his voice weakened, and he started coughing.

The initial diagnosis was bronchitis.

What else could it be?

But the symptoms persisted and on Thursday, April, 12, 2012, he went to the St. Boniface Hospital ER where they did an X-ray. The next day, a doctor called him back. Jay's left lung appeared cloudy.

They thought it might be pneumonia.

But, to check further, a CT scan was ordered for Monday. What it showed was in addition to the mass in his left lung, there were spots on the right one.

"I don't like what I see," Edith would recall the emergency doctor saying. "I'm not sure what it is."

The doctor called in a lung specialist, and another more invasive test followed. By Sunday, April 27, Jay was at Health Sciences Centre having a lung biopsy.

"And then," Ethel said, "on Tuesday, May 2 he was told he had stage 4 lung cancer."

"Withing 10 days it had taken over his whole left lung and half his right," Ethel said.

"What does this mean?" Ethel recalled Jay saying about the diagnosis.

Donovan is still haunted by the fear he saw when he told his brother what it meant, and by not being able to save him the way the young paramedic has saved so many others.

"I'm not ready to die," Jay said.

By that time, the tumour was pressing on his vocal chords, and his voice was but a whisper.

Two weeks later, on May 16, he was given chemotherapy, but he was too weak and it was too late.

"I'll be OK," he whispered to his family before he left them.

He promised to say hello to a friend's brother who had died 10 years earlier.

"And he fell asleep," Ethel said.

Jay's hand was being held when he slipped away early in the morning of May 17, 2012, as if he waited just long enough so he wouldn't die on his father Mirko's 65th birthday.

"If it happened to Jay," Ethel told me "it could happen to anyone."

That's why she wants people to support the June 14 Inspire for Life fundraising walk for lung cancer awareness and research in Manitoba. And, even if you don't walk, please set aside your judgment of lung cancer and the one in 12 Canadians who will be diagnosed with it during their lifetime.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 16, 2013 B1

History

Updated on Thursday, May 16, 2013 at 7:48 AM CDT: Corrects mother's name to Ethel

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