The fighter returns to hearth and fray

Todd Hardy is a fighter who shakes and disturbs you with the depth of his courage. Hardy embraces life and death equally.

Todd Hardy is a fighter who shakes and disturbs you with the depth of his courage.

Hardy embraces life and death equally.

He recently returned home to Whitehorse from Vancouver after more than seven months of fighting leukemia.

He is now recovering at home from graft versus host disease, which followed a bone marrow transplant in November that his doctors hope will eventually cure him.

But as he speaks openly about the possibility of losing his battle with cancer, his words land like heavy bricks.

“If this is all the time I have left, if in the year things don’t go right or leukemia comes back or I get graft versus host and it looks like I’m not going to make it — and right now the doctors say there’s a 50-50 chance — I have no regrets,” said Hardy on Wednesday.

His calmness in spite of it all underlines that he knows fear and despair don’t make you better.

A will for life does.

“My life is not defined by this illness,” said Hardy from a leather couch that offers a spectacular view of the rooftops of downtown Whitehorse.

He looks healthier than he did during his brief return to the Yukon during the election campaign in October.

His hair is growing back, his face is less puffy, his eyes are clear.

And he intends to make people realize that as he builds strength in preparation for returning to the Yukon legislature in the spring.

He is no longer Todd Hardy, the sick guy with leukemia who’s also the leader of the NDP, he said.

He’s simply NDP leader Todd Hardy.

Still, his leukemia, bone marrow transplant and ongoing treatments since being diagnosed with cancer and rushed to Vancouver in August have all been very public.

He wanted it that way, he said.

“To be public about it is not easy — to be private about it is a hell of a lot easier, to just shut everything out,” said Hardy. “But the benefits of being public is the consciousness of the society is raised.”

His acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which features the aggressive ‘Philadelphia chromosome,’ has not been caused by genetics but instead by his environment, he said.

The death of a young friend from brain cancer and the large number of Yukon cancer patients in Vancouver while he was there has convinced Hardy there is a disturbing trend developing here.

Five people he knows have died from cancer since he was diagnosed with leukemia, he said.

“I honestly believe that cancer is increasing in the North,” he said. “In some ways, we’re the canaries in the mineshaft of what’s going to happen down south. The increase in cancer is environmental.”

What angers him most is that the Yukon government doesn’t have a clearer picture about the situation than he does.

They don’t do the needed research, he said.

“There’s something going on here but it’s not a priority with the government and hasn’t been for four years,” said Hardy.

“We need to get the government to do some research and compile the numbers. The numbers are there, let’s not kid ourselves: someone gets cancer, they have records.

“Some people argue we’re doing better treatment and we’re identifying it faster — and to a certain degree that’s true,” he said.

“But there’s also the evidence that cancer’s on an increase, worldwide.

“In the North, there has not been enough research done in what’s out there in our environment. The government needs to start to compile a list on some of these illnesses and get those stats. We want to know.

“You would figure the Health department would be tracking how many people have cancer and in what regions. What they’re finding Outside is that some regions are way higher than others. That’s because they’re tracking the numbers.

“But I don’t even think they’ve even started doing it here. They’d rather report on retail trade.

“Frankly I don’t give a rat’s ass right now about the consumer price index,” said Hardy, poking fun at the monthly numbers released by the Yukon Bureau of Statistics. “Put some resources into something that people need.”

So yes, Hardy’s famous passion has survived his fight with leukemia and graft versus host disease.

He has also developed an increased conviction to his political beliefs because, “I don’t want other people to suffer the way I have for the past seven-and-a-half months,” he said.

Hardy missed the fall sitting of the legislature after October’s election.

That election saw him re-elected as MLA for Whitehorse-Centre, but the NDP won only three seats.

He returned from Vancouver for the last two weeks of the campaign.

The re-engagement with his former life allowed him to focus on something other than his leukemia, he said.

But his liver collapsed at the same time.

“It was unbelievable, I was dying then,” said Hardy, lowering his voice. “I was as close to death as I’ve ever been.”

For his return to the legislature this spring — which he knows is important for the morale of his party — he knows he will have to be careful.

“I recognize I have only so many hours a day now where I have enough energy and it won’t harm me,” said Hardy.

He has been improvising ways around his recovery by holding caucus meetings at his house to save his energy.

“I’ll participate in question period, and I’ll participate in my critic areas, and I’ll work with my colleagues, but I won’t be putting the time in that I put in before I got ill,” he said.

“That’s going to take a while. If I’m really smart, by the end of the sitting I’ll be stronger. If I’m foolish and I push it, I will probably have a relapse, energy wise.

“In the public eye I’m seen as the sick leader while Arthur and Fentie do their own thing. Now we can get back on equal footing,” he said.

“I’m back, I’m engaged.”

Anyone who knows what Hardy’s gone through to be able to say that is instantly humbled.

He has been fighting leukemia and confined to beds in Vancouver hospitals for the better part of half a year.

To cure his leukemia, he needed a bone marrow transplant from his sister Rebecca.

Doctors used powerful drugs, radiation and chemotherapy to attack his blood in an effort to eradicate the cancer.

It was the hardest thing he has ever gone through, he said.

“The doctors and nurses told me, ‘We basically try and kill you. We take you as close to death as possible’,” said Hardy. “A lot of people will tell you the same thing: you spend more time struggling to deal with the treatment they gave you and not so much the illness.”

In addition to exhaustion, the drugs used to treat Hardy’s graft versus host disease saw him briefly develop diabetes, numbness in his fingers, arms and legs, as well as hallucinations and nausea.

As he recovered after the stem cell operation, he found hospital food impossible to eat and “almost starved to death,” he said.

He looks back at all of this a mixture of relief and amazement.

“I’ve never been so tired in my life. I lost all my muscles; I had about 20 per cent strength in my body. I couldn’t open jars. It’s amazing trying to do things that you never think about when you’re healthy,” he said. “It gives you an insight into what it’s like to be old.”

Hardy has completed about 100 days since his bone marrow transplant in late November.

Doctors tell him he’s recovering well but they will observe him during trips to Vancouver once every month for the next four months.

And being home is helping, he said.

“I’d almost rather die than to stay in Vancouver,” he said. “Your craving for your home is huge. Each day seems to be a little bit better here, where there it was hard to measure improvement. I’d have a good day, then a bad day. Here I feel I’m consistently getting better.”

Hardy’s chances of a relapse of leukemia fall significantly the longer he continues to recover.

Three years is the official benchmark he wants to reach: by that time he’ll be out of the woods entirely.

But he is fully prepared to accept that may not happen, that he may not get to run in another election, that he may not make it.

“I’ve said this from day one since I got leukemia — I have led an absolutely amazing life,” explained Hardy.

“I have been blessed. I’m 49 years old, I’m going to be turning 50 next month …  but I view that life I’ve lived, from the time I was born until here, as being absolutely wonderful.

“You accept it. I’m not afraid of death. There’s always fear, but the few regrets I would have as I prepare for death would be that I wouldn’t be here for my children and grandchildren.”

 “I haven’t been despondent; I haven’t been depressed. I came to terms with this within four hours. Then I said, ‘Let’s deal with this.’”

Fighter, indeed.

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