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‘Be your advocate and ask questions’

Annette LaBrash Blackwell, a former kindergarten teacher in Cold Lake, never anticipated that her life's journey would take such a sudden and challenging turn. 

COLD LAKE - Annette LaBrash Blackwell, a former kindergarten teacher in Cold Lake, never anticipated that her life's journey would take such a sudden and challenging turn.  

In 2020 right before COVID-19 pandemic hit, LaBrash Blackwell found herself thrust into a battle against stage four breast cancer that had spread to her liver. Despite the daunting diagnosis, LaBrash Blackwell’s spirit remains high as she shares her story of resilience, hope, and unwavering determination. 

Born and raised in Meadow Lake, Sask., LaBrash Blackwell’s heart found a home in teaching, particularly in the kindergarten classroom. With a passion for nurturing young minds, she dedicated nearly a decade of her career to fostering the growth and development of her students at St. Dominic Elementary School in Cold Lake. 

Reflecting on her journey, LaBrash Blackwell recalls the huge impact of her diagnosis in 2020. 

“I went to school in southern Saskatchewan, taught there for seven years before I moved here and then I taught here for about 10 years and unfortunately because of my diagnosis I am unable to work at this time, so I am currently off of work and just focusing on being healthy and doing my treatments and being a mom.” 

Her diagnosis presented its own set of challenges, as LaBrash Blackwell navigated through treatments and appointments during restricted social interaction.  

“Getting a cancer diagnosis during that time was also a little bit more difficult because normally when you get a cancer diagnosis everybody showers you with visits and meals and you're essentially surrounded by all the people you love. But at that time, everybody who loved me needed to stay away because they didn't want to bring any germs,” she explains. 

Recalling the moment she received her diagnosis, LaBrash Blackwell shares the raw emotional impact it had on her. "I was told that I had years to live and not decades," she reveals. “And that was a very, very difficult thing to hear. I actually vomited in the trash.” 

Despite the obstacles, LaBrash Blackwell remained steadfast in her resolve to confront her illness head-on. Enduring numerous trips to Edmonton for extensive imaging, biopsies, and chemotherapy sessions, she embraced each challenge with unwavering courage and determination.  

"It is a long process and a lot of appointments," she shares. 

LaBrash Blackwell’s journey through treatment yielded remarkable results, with her body responding positively to chemotherapy, shrinking her largest cancer lesion by 30 per cent. Though she acknowledges the ongoing nature of her treatment, she remains hopeful, kept afloat by the advancements in medical research and the array of treatment options available to her. 

LaBrash Blackwell’s spirit of gratitude and generosity shines brightly. Recognizing the importance of community support, she created a fundraising cabaret event that will take place at the Riverhurst Community Hall to benefit the Bonnyville Cancer Clinic, where she receives some of her treatments.  

"I've never hosted a fundraiser before, but that's just something I just wanted to give back," she says. "The opportunity presented itself, and I said, well, why not? Let's do this."  

The event is already sold out and is scheduled for the May long weekend, promising an evening filled with support. Every dollar raised during the event will directly benefit the Bonnyville Cancer Clinic, offering vital assistance to those undergoing treatment and their families. 

LaBrash Blackwell finds strength in her family, her community, and her unwavering optimism.  

“I'm not sure how my husband kept as calm as he did,” she says. “But once I started receiving treatments, then I felt okay. I'm doing something about it, and I feel like I have a little bit of power within my own health now." 

When asked about the most important lessons she's learned, LaBrash Blackwell emphasizes the significance of self-empowerment in health management.  

“You're more in control of your health than you credit yourself for,” she asserts. "All those things that we were told when we were growing up, eat your veggies, get your exercise, get a good night's sleep, don't stress out - those are all actually way more important than you even really understand and know.”  

Her message to others facing similar battles is one of empowerment and hope.  

“Be your advocate and ask questions,” she advises. “And if you just get a diagnosis right now, it's okay and don't give up hope because there is still a lot of hope out there.” 

Chantel Downes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

About the Author: Chantel Downes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Chantel Downes is a graduate of The King's University, with a passion for writing and storytelling. Originally from Edmonton, she received her degree in English and has a minor in communications.
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