A Métis man who opted to use Indigenous therapies for his terminal cancer instead of chemotherapy was initially turned down for followup care by a specialist, but the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency is now encouraging specialists to accept patients using traditional practices.
It all started when 61-year-old Ric Richardson, a business owner and university student in the northern Saskatchewan village of Green Lake, was diagnosed by a Saskatoon oncologist in February with Stage 4 lung cancer.
Richardson, who is also the village's mayor, was told he could begin chemotherapy in two weeks, but didn't.
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'We live in our medicine cabinet — it's called the northern boreal forest.' - Ric Richardson
He chose not to because he said it would have meant living the final chapter of his life suffering from side-effects and giving up time with his family as well as his job — results he called "unacceptable."
"With a terminal diagnosis, I would have thought that the quality of my remaining life should be the prime consideration."
Power of traditional knowledge
Richardson, whose wife, Rose, is a Métis medicine woman, said he's well versed with the healing power of traditional Indigenous knowledge and opted to be treated using those practices instead.
"We live in our medicine cabinet — it's called the northern boreal forest," he said.
Richardson's cancer-fighting regimen focuses on drinking teas made from plants in the region, including dandelion root and balsam fir.
He also receives help from people in medicine circles elsewhere in the province, as well as in Alberta and in Haida Gwaii, B.C., where his cousins, who are also cancer survivors, send him medicines made by a local medicine man.
Richardson said that when he initially told the specialist he wanted to be treated the traditional way, the doctor interpreted that to mean he was refusing treatment.
Specialist refused followup care
In March, Richardson was called to see a different oncologist, who advised Richardson to consider radiation.
Richardson said he told the oncologist the plan was to stick with traditional medicines. Richardson's request that the specialist still monitor the spread of the disease was turned down.
"He told me that that wasn't possible because there were many people who wanted their service and that was the ones that they would focus on," he said.
"I was actually offended."
Richardson said he believes that refusal infringed upon his rights as an Indigenous person to use traditional medicines, a principle outlined in Article 24 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
"For so many generations, aboriginal traditional knowledge has either been discounted or demonized," Richardson said.
"There's many elders who have long experienced that doing anything traditionally native was considered evil or so had to be done in secret or not at all."
Better integration needed
After that exchange, Richardson complained to the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency. His case ended up on the desk of the vice-president of care services, Corey Miller.
"We should be following up all of our patients on progress and treatment, how they're doing, whether they're taking our treatment or others, but it isn't always going to be done by the specialist," he said.
Miller said the agency is now working with oncologists so those seeking traditional treatments can be better supported.
"Ric's not refusing treatment — Ric is taking the treatment that he's choosing in his own care path to take," Miller said.
It has also invited Richardson to participate in a research project into traditional medicines, even organizing a meeting of caregivers to discuss the issue.
The agency arranged for Richardson to meet with a third oncologist, planning it so he could have a CT scan, blood work and oncological determination done on the same day instead of the northern Saskatchewan resident having to make multiple trips for appointments in Saskatoon.
During that June 1 appointment, Richardson got some good news: The tumours had shrunk.
"Obviously we're on the right track and things are working well," he said.
"My energy level is high, I'm able to function in all of the aspects of my life, and so we are continuing to use the traditional route."
By being a living example of how traditional Indigenous medicines can be integrated into the modern system, Richardson said, "It gives me the opportunity to effect change that will help others."