SUNDRE – A local husband and father who was diagnosed with a rare form of terminal cancer does not want to be defined by the condition.
Initially, Ron Fricker wasn’t even sure he wanted to share his story.
But as the 45-year-old began the difficult journey of navigating previously uncharted waters in his life, he discovered to his dismay there in comparison with more common cancers was not anywhere near as much readily available information about mesothelioma, and even fewer support groups.
“It’s pretty rare,” he said about the condition, adding he had never before heard of the disease, which affects only about 300 Canadians every year out of a national population of a little more than 38 million.
So, he decided to raise awareness.
Mesothelioma is described as an aggressive type of cancer that occurs in the thin layer of tissue that covers the majority of an internal organ such as – but not exclusively – the lungs, as is the case for Fricker, whose left lung is where the cancer was eventually discovered. Other forms of mesothelioma can grow in the abdomen as well as the heart’s lining and even on the testes, which is even more rare.
The diagnosis itself was a difficult and all-too-often frustrating process, he said.
“I’ve been healthy my whole life,” he told the Albertan during an interview at the family home in Sundre when asked if the cancer was discovered during a routine checkup or an unrelated visit to the clinic or hospital, adding he’s almost never called in sick for anything.
But in 2022, he and wife Annalise were returning from an anniversary celebration in Radium, B.C. when they stopped for lunch and Ron realized he was feeling unwell. Upon getting home, he decided to lay down and endure a coming onslaught of sweats for a couple of days in the hopes it would clear up given time. This of course was during the pandemic.
“So I was isolated in the bedroom and kind of just thought it might be that,” he said.
As the days rolled by, a week had already passed and Fricker was no closer to recovering or even feeling improved when he decided the time had come to visit the emergency room at the Myron Thompson Health Centre. Health-care staff did some bloodwork and took some X-Rays, and he was also tested for COVID-19, which initially came up negative.
Physicians were at first left scratching their chins. Some fluid had been observed on his lung but he was told it wasn’t anything to worry about. And he also got a follow-up call to inform him he had contracted COVID-19 after all. So it was back into isolation in the bedroom for another arduous week that saw him lose his appetite.
For a brief spell, he felt well enough to return to work but that didn’t last and he before long was going back to the hospital for more tests, which this time determined his lungs had become infected. Draining the build-up of fluid required a specialized procedure and therefore a trip to Red Deer, where he said a needle had to be inserted through his back to allow the lungs to clear.
“It was painful,” he said.
With the growing cancer still evading detection, he was sent home with a treatment of antibiotics, but to no avail. Persistent fevers were a sign of infection that the meds were supposed to address, so he once again returned to the hospital in Sundre before being referred to Red Deer, where CT scans were conducted. There was no infection. Instead, he was informed cancer had been discovered in his left lung.
Due to his young age and otherwise healthy condition, he said the doctor told him that would open up treatment options and that they could “throw the kitchen sink at it.”
But it would still be another few weeks of waiting for results before he received in mid-April of 2022 confirmation from a specialist that he had mesothelioma.
Although he had smoked earlier in life, Fricker said he was told this specific type of cancer is believed to be triggered by exposure to asbestos, although he does not recall wittingly working in an environment known to have the carcinogenic mineral present.
Waiting for recommended treatment
“Then it started to get really dicey,” he said about his deteriorating condition after being diagnosed.
“At this point, I was not well. I was not sleeping; fevers, pain. Just not in good shape.”
Making matters worse, Fricker said he could not book an appointment to see an oncologist to discuss and consider treatment options until he had a PET scan done.
Although he’d already run a gamut of tests including an MRI as well as the CT scans, PET scans can take months, he said.
Growing increasingly exasperated as the days went by, Fricker said he eventually decided to go through a private facility in B.C. courtesy of some support that had rallied to raise some funds. Testing there involved ensuring the cancer was localized to one area and had not metastasized elsewhere, which would have made him ineligible for the surgery. The results indicated the cancer was localized to his left lung, opening the door to start considering treatments.
But while he’d originally been booked to see an oncologist in Red Deer, Fricker ended up being referred to a Toronto-based surgeon who said it was too soon to go under the knife with other potential treatment options available. That meant getting back in line to book an appointment with an oncologist.
Months after being diagnosed, he was still waiting for a recommended course of action.
“It was a big run around,” he said. “And really disappointing. It was the first sign I’ve ever saw how bad our health-care system is.”
Frustrated by the back-and-forth, Fricker was relieved when his medical team eventually suggested pursuing a treatment of immunotherapy, which substantially alleviated his symptoms. The treatment began to have an unmistakable impact and his condition started to improve during the summer of 2022.
“There’s definitely successes,” said Fricker, adding he feels better now than more than a year ago.
Immunotherapy’s pros and cons
“Right away, I noticed a difference,” he said about immunotherapy. “I went from having four fevers a day, basically just being on a six-hour cycle of fevers and feeling like crap, to basically being down to one.”
Although immunotherapy can potentially come with some adverse side effects, the treatment is not as draining as for example chemo or radiation, neither of which he’s yet endured.
Later that summer coming into the fall, another CT scan was conducted.
“And it showed a significant reduction in the tumour sizes,” he said.
That came at the cost of some unpleasant side effects – namely a body-wide rash that made the irritation of mosquito bites pale in comparison, he said.
“It was probably one of the worst things I could experience,” he said, adding that as much good as immunotherapy does, the treatment also results in one’s immune system turning on healthy cells on its missions to seek and destroy cancerous cells.
“Cancer cells disguise themselves and your immune system doesn’t recognize them, so that’s how they infiltrate and cause damage,” he said. “So the immunotherapy kind of tries to reboot it – it kind of puts your immune system into overdrive. It’ll end up attacking healthy cells as well.”
So while his fevers were greatly reduced, he ended up with an inflammation of the lungs that ultimately led him back into hospital for about a week in the fall of 2022. As it turned out, he was suffering from stage 3 pneumonitis as a result of drug-induced pneumonia from the therapy. Stage 4 is fatal, he said.
It took some time for his lungs to heal from pneumonitis, with scans being scheduled every six weeks to monitor the situation. Although he for a while seemed to have stabilized, a checkup this past spring indicated a resurgent growth. Since his lungs were by that point healthy enough, he was put back on immunotherapy, which again yielded positive results with signs the cancer had been reduced but at the expense of side effects returning.
Positive outlook crucial
Striving to maintain a positive outlook helps Fricker get through the more challenging days.
“I’m one of those people who kind of always thinks that no matter how bad you think you have it, somebody else always has it worse,” he said.
“I do believe that the more positive you are, the more positive outlook you have on things, that energy is going to manifest into having positive results in any aspect of your life. I don’t like to think negatively, because why?”
Never one to indulge a “life isn’t fair” self-pity party, Fricker said he avoids constantly obsessing about his condition, even if it of course crosses his mind throughout the day.
But in a physically weakened state with lungs that get short of breath, he began to feel trapped at home and finding ways to keep pre-occupied became the next challenge. Much as he loved being on the fairways, golf was no longer an option.
“It took a long time to restructure that in (my) head, to say, ‘Well, what is the new Ron going to be?’” he said.
Accepting the fact he would be spending more time at home, Fricker took to cooking dinner and enjoying the opportunity to be with their three daughters.
“You get used to it and you have to embrace it,” he said.
Asked if he’d perhaps picked up any new hobbies, Fricker said is “waiting for something to present itself.”
In the meantime, his main mission is to avoid stress at all costs and to keep a positive frame of mind.
“I don’t want to be the guy that everybody feels sorry for; I don’t want everybody to look at me differently,” he said. “I don’t want any of that.”
Although his “prognosis is not good,” he has no intention of throwing in the towel.
“I don’t feel like it’s my time…I just feel like I got more to give and more to live,” he said. “I’m not about to just lay down and surrender, I’m going to fight to the last breath.”
Raised with a work ethic
Originally from Hamilton, Ont. where he was born in 1978 and called home until his early 20s, Fricker eventually moved for a period to B.C. where he spent most of his early adult life in Victoria.
Yet as much as he loved the west coast, life from a financial perspective wasn’t quite panning out as he’d hoped. After starting to feel at the age of around 30 as though he was spinning his wheels but getting nowhere, he decided to move to Alberta, where he had a few friends working in the patch which at the time was booming.
“So, I came with the anticipation of making a bunch of money in the oil field and did that for a couple of years,” he said.
“(But) it wasn’t as good of money as everyone said,” he said, adding the going certainly was good when there was work available, but that unpredictable lulls in projects had a significant impact on payday.
“When you were off, you were in the yard getting paid $15 an hour. So it wasn’t the greatest,” he said, adding that he eventually and ultimately pivoted into construction work.
“I always knew how to swing a hammer,” he said, adding his father was a roofer who early on imparted the importance of hard work.
This was about when he met his future wife Annalise, who at the time was working at a bank in Red Deer. The pair were set up on a blind date through a shared connection, and the rest, he said, became history.
Eventually resettling about 15 years ago in Sundre, where Annalise grew up, the couple began to make a life for their new family and in 2009 Ron found work with Maple Reinders, a contractor which at the time was building the town’s water treatment plant. Getting his foot in the door as a labourer, he eventually climbed the ladder and found himself running job sites.
Although he since being diagnosed has not been able to go back to work, the job is there waiting whenever he finds himself ready to return.
“It’s just one of those things right now, where my number one job is focusing on my health,” he said.
The day before speaking with the Albertan, Fricker had video-conferenced with his Toronto-based specialist, who felt surgery was still a premature course of action and instead opted to continue monitoring his condition with plans to resume immunotherapy through a clinic in Red Deer.
No cure but treatments improving
“When they say it’s terminal and there’s no cure, they’re getting better at managing treatments,” he said, adding that progress might not happen as quickly as people would like, but that it nevertheless happens.
Up until about the turn of the millennium, he said little to nothing was known about mesothelioma and that there were basically no treatment plans. And other forms of cancer like osteogenic sarcoma, the kind that afflicted Terry Fox, once had extremely low odds of survival with extreme treatments that included amputation. Today, provided osteogenic sarcoma is discovered early on, patients are most likely to survive without requiring drastic measures like removing a limb.
That is a fact not lost on their family.
Annalise, whose father Terry Leslie had once organized the community Terry Fox Run in Sundre, has since continued on as the lead organizer of the local effort to keep the Marathon of Hope alive.
“Guaranteed there’s a lot of good things that are coming from the research,” said Fricker, adding he is also considering getting involved in advocacy and raising awareness.
Offering parting words of advice to anyone else finding themselves in a similar situation, he cautioned about doing one’s own research.
During the initial struggle to determine what was ailing him, Ron said he in the absence of immediate answers from professionals went to Google, which turned up search results of doom and gloom with predictions of death within a year.
“That was kind of tough,” he said. “I would say, don’t do all your research online. You want to be in tune, you want to have as much information as you possibly can. But you want to be careful about where you get that information from.”
Additionally, he suggests rediscovering the little things in life that might have taken a backseat to a busy work schedule, to appreciate every moment and simply take each day in stride.
Keep lines of communication open
Perhaps most crucially, he urges anyone in such a situation not to withdraw from the world. Communicating with people and surrounding oneself with the support of family and friends is pivotal in staying positive.
Recognizing that a person cannot simply will something like cancer away, Fricker said all that someone can do is play the hand they’re dealt to the best of their ability.
“I’ve always said my whole life, it’s not the cards you’re dealt; it’s how you play them. You can also be dealt a bad hand and still do well,” he said. “No matter how bad the situation is, if you’re able to focus in on something positive out of that, you’re going to do alright.”
That approach applies to just about everything, he said.
“That’s what’s helped me be successful in my job and in my life,” he said.
So even though the odds are not in his favour, Fricker said that just makes him want to fight all the harder.
“I plan on being here for a long time still. And if not, it is what it is,” he said. “I can’t complain too much. I’ve got a good life. I’ve had a good life – I plan on having a continued on good life.”