Knowing cancer from both sides of the gown

James McLellan looks at a patient care plan at the B.C. Cancer Centre for the North. Bill Phillips photo
James McLellan looks at a patient care plan at the B.C. Cancer Centre for the North. Bill Phillips photo

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James McLellan in his office at the B.C. Cancer Centre for the North. Bill Phillips photo
Clinical supervisor James McLellan in his office at the B.C. Cancer Centre for the North. Bill Phillips photo

BY BILL PHILLIPS

bill@pgdailynews.ca

If you ever become a patient at the B.C. Cancer Centre for the North, and we hope you don’t, but if you do you will meet James McLellan.

He is a clinical supervisor at the Centre and, along with team of high-tech professionals, will determine the course of your treatment. He knows the process intimately … from both sides of the equation.

Years ago McLellan was diagnosed with cancer and given a six per cent chance of survival. He was working in Qatar as a senior medical therapist, doing mostly dosimetry work, which, in radiation therapy, is the calculation of the absorbed dose in tissue resulting from exposure to ionizing radiation.

When he was diagnosed, he had been in the Middle East for so long he didn’t qualify for health care treatment in Canada so he couldn’t return home for treatment.

Surgeons removed his ascending and transverse colon, part of his liver and some lymphatic area. He was basically bedridden for three months and then underwent 12 courses of chemotherapy over six months.

And, like a lot of cancer patients there were difficult days when emerging out the other end seemed impossible.

“It was a devastating time in my life,” he says. “After my surgery, I was giving up. I was starting to question whether I wanted to continue treatment.”

A nurse saw that he was struggling and comforted him by reciting a poem to him.

Our deepest fear is not that we’re inadequate;

Our deepest fear is that we’re powerful beyond measure;

It’s our light, not our darkness that most frightens us;

Your playing small does not serve the world;

There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so other people won’t feel insecure around you;

We’re all meant to shine, as children do;

It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone;

As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give those people around us to give the same;

As we conquer our fears, our mere presence liberates others.

“At first I thought it was a little weird, but after she left I felt like she was telling me that we all have the power to get through some amazing, difficult struggles,” he says. “Not only that, we may have the duty to do it because getting through it, being a better person, just raises everyone else up. It gave me the sense that I had the duty to be here, still now, and to do my best to serve other cancer patients.

“I felt I had a new purpose. I always had the purpose because I was in the business, now all the purpose wasn’t here (pointing to his head), it was here (pointing to his heart).”

Another defining moment for McLellan came during his chemotherapy when he met a fellow cancer patient.

McLellan was hunkered down with the curtains drawn, embarrassingly bald from his chemotherapy, and was watching Batman movies.

“I saw the curtains rustle and this little bald headed, six-year-old boy, poked his head in and said ‘Batman?’ He had the password. Before I could grab my chemo wig, he was up on the bed, he was a chemo patient as well, and sat beside me and we watched Batman videos for a few hours.”

 

The boy was undergoing very similar treatment to McLellan’s.

“I couldn’t imagine the strength that little boy had to get through,” he says. “At the end of the session, he was worried about me. He put his hand on my knee and he said: ‘Mr. James, are you going to die?’

“I told him there’s no way I’m going to die and we made an appointment to watch Batman videos during our next chemotherapy … He didn’t make it, he passed away before the next session.

Where the journey begins. Every patient at the B.C. Cancer Centre for the North will have a CT scan done. Bill Phillips photo
Where the journey begins. Every patient at the B.C. Cancer Centre for the North will have a CT scan done. Bill Phillips photo

“I realized cancer is a beast. It’s like a carpet bomb, it just destroys indiscriminately. He changed my life a little bit. He increased my resolve to conquer this disease, on so many levels. He’s still in here.”
McLellan’s recovery took about a year and when it was time to get back to work he wanted to be on the leading edge of cancer care, which led him to the B.C. Cancer Centre for the North.

“As a cancer patient myself, I wanted to be where it happens,” he says. “When I saw the opportunity to come here, I jumped on it. The community, as well as the clinic, are amazing, amazing people.”

Outside the health care world, it’s not widely known that the work being done here at the B.C. Cancer Centre for the North is second to none.

“Not only is it the best quality in the world right now, but it was designed out of an algorithm that was designed in Vancouver,” McLellan says. “Right now the rapid arc is being used in every clinic in the world. It is state-of-the art, extremely precise. Its goal is to give high-dose (radiation) to a tumour while minimizing the amount of damage around.”

Precise is a word you will hear McLellan use a lot. When delivering radiation doses to a patient, there is no room for error. The radiation must be delivered into the tumour, delivering it elsewhere could be catastrophic.

It takes a team of health care professionals to, firstly, determine exactly where in your body the radiation must go, and how much, and, secondly, figure out the physics of how deliver the radiation to the right spot – precisely.

And McLellan is there through it all.

“I’m face-to-face with with a lot of patients and we get through some of the struggles … right from ‘is this cancer going to kill me,’ to ‘what time should I come in tomorrow,’ and everything in between,” says McLellan.

Not only does fight cancer in his day job, but he fights it during his time off as well. Since coming to Prince George he has become involved with the Wheelin’ Warriors of the North and raises funds through its events, including the Ride to Conquer Cancer.

“It’s a phenomenal group,” he says. “If you can imagine just being immersed in a team of individuals who live with health and fitness, but more than that, a group of people who have my passion for giving something back. Just to be around these people is an inspiration every day. They keep they healthy. They keep me happy. I love them all. I feel that as a patient, as a health care professional, as a rider, I’m so privileged to have these people lift me up every day.”

The B.C. Cancer Centre for the North has two linear accelerators ... the machines that deliver radiation treatment. Bill Phillips photo
The B.C. Cancer Centre for the North has two linear accelerators ... the machines that deliver radiation treatment. Bill Phillips photo

McLellan took the time to take John Brink, of the Brink Group of Companies, on a tour of the B.C. Cancer Centre for the North who was blown away by the work being done at the Centre.

“I had no idea what was going on inside this building,” Brink said. “I’m extremely impressed with the skill set of the people who are here. Some of the techniques that are being developed right here in Prince George, that are being used on a world level, is amazing.”

He was also moved by McLellan’s story of survival.

“To come back from that, is unique, it’s amazing,” he said. “Everyone we met in the clinic has a unique skill set.”

For McLellan, looking back on his cancer journey, without a doubt, one of the hardest parts, he says, was telling his family.

“There came a day when I had to tell my eight-year-son that there were some challenges ahead,” he says. “On that day I had to get on my knee and look him right in his beautiful brown eyes and tell him we had some challenges. He was a warrior for me, he was strong for me. Eventually he could picture those days where he would score the winning goal and he would look up and see the empty seat in the stadium where his dad should be. The pain that he felt and the pain I felt for him, it just reminded me, on such an emotional level that … every day I’m not just treating patients, I’m treating communities, I’m treating families.”

Dr. Stacy Miller, Regional Professional Practice Leader, Radiation Oncologist, John Brink, Karin Piche co-captain of the Wheelin' Warriors of the North, and James McLellan. Bill Phillips photo
Dr. Stacy Miller, Regional Professional Practice Leader, Radiation Oncologist; John Brink; Karin Piche, founder of the Wheelin' Warriors of the North; and James McLellan. Bill Phillips photo