Looking back on the cancer diagnosis he received over two years ago, Wally Samuel reflects that a terminal outcome never came to mind as he prepared for treatment.
“I didn’t really think of death right away or anything like that,” says the Ahousaht member. “I just said, ‘How are we going to beat this? What do we have to do?’.”
Samuel had experienced months of unexpected weakness before receiving the news of liver and colon cancer in September 2019.
“Before that I was losing a lot of energy,” he recalls. “I barely could walk. I didn’t know what the heck was going on, I thought I was getting old.”
A trip to the hospital found he was low in iron, but after 10 transfusions no improvement was evident. Subsequent tests finally uncovered the growths in his liver and intestine.
“We were really shocked at the beginning,” recalls Samuel’s long-time wife, Donna. “I never ever thought we would hear that, but we did.”
“I was up north at work and I was really scared when I got the news about the cancer,” says Samuel’s oldest son, Eddie. “I0 think what really touched my heart and encouraged me about life was we had a family meeting, and he told everybody, ‘We’re going to stay positive and stay strong. I’m going to be okay’.”
A tumor was removed from his intestine, followed by six months of chemotherapy, entailing two pills in the morning, two in the evening, with monthly blood tests at the hospital.
Samuel kept as busy as his health would allow, and even built a fence at his Port Alberni home during the treatment.
“It drained me a bit,” he admits. “I couldn’t move around as much as I wanted to. My skin changed colour, my hands and my feet, they got black.”
“It was up to me to make sure that he kept up his meals so that his body could handle the chemo,” says Donna. “I cooked everything that he really liked, his favourite foods to give him strength.”
“He got really, really weak at home sometimes,” adds Eddie, reflecting on his parents’ bond.
“My mom was there. She was always up and making sure he was on his medication, making sure he was eating what he’s supposed to be eating. They’re together forever and he couldn’t have done that without her. They support each other all the time.”
In September of 2020 Samuel underwent surgery to remove a piece of his liver, taking out what cancer remained. By the following spring the elder’s doctors declared him cancer-free.
The family credits the support of loved ones and friends over Samuel’s treatment for helping him get through, including financial contributions that helped fund the many stays in Victoria, where his cancer clinic is located.
With the relentless November rain pouring outside the Alberni Athletic Hall, the family held a gathering and dinner for nearly 100 of these people on Nov. 27 to express their gratitude, marking Samuel’s 75th birthday.
“Throughout his journey on his cancer a lot of people supported him, so we’re just acknowledging those people that helped him throughout that time,” says Samuel’s son, Richard.
This wasn’t the first health scare he encountered over his life.
“When I was a child I was born with a hole in my heart the size of a silver dollar,” says Samuel, who was born in Ahousaht.
By the age of 16 open-heart surgery was performed to patch up the hole, but doctors didn’t expect the boy to live a long life.
“They told my dad when they were sending me home that I would be lucky to live past 30,” he reflects. “I never really worried about it. I just carried on and done what I had to do. It never really affected my mind that I might die young.”
Although Samuel had to be careful to not play too aggressively, he enjoyed an active youth.
“That’s how I gained my friendships, we played together,” says Samuel. “We were always playing games. It wasn’t really thought of as sports. It was outdoor games, playing on the beach, playing on the field, playing in forest.”
He did live past 30, but there was a close call. On his 31st birthday it was the Grey Cup, when Wally recalls driving friends somewhere. He was waiting outside on the steps when he suddenly keeled over. His friends eventually found him unconscious outside, rushing Samuel to Port Alberni’s nearby West Coast General in his station wagon. There were no vital signs when he was admitted.
“They had my wife on the edge, saying, ‘We don’t know if we can bring him back. If we bring him back, he might be a vegetable’,” says Samuel, who is also diabetic. “They weren’t sure how long I was out.”
Since that heart attack he has been equipped with a pacemaker. But this hasn’t slowed Wally or Donna down. He has worked as a marine mechanic up north and lived in Prince Rupert for five years working for CN Rail. The family settled in Port Alberni, where Samuel worked for the city’s public works department, and has been involved with the friendship centre in various capacities since 1980.
“He made sure that he had some sort of income coming in, especially when our kids were little. It can be done,” recalls Donna. “From when we were young, there wasn’t a time when Wally didn’t have a job. If he’s out of a job, he’s out there looking right away. He never wanted to be in the lineup to go for help from the government.”
Wally and Donna have been together since 1966, after meeting while attending the Alberni Indian residential school a few years before. The couple raised five children, had 16 grandchildren and so far 10 great grandchildren.
“I never gave up, I just kept moving and doing things,” says Samuel. “We all worked together as a family. That’s my strength, that’s what keeps me going. Family, friends and our culture. We re-learned our culture, luckily we had those cultural people around us.”
“I didn’t see his resiliency in the residential school, but I sure did see it in his cancer,” admits Donna. “I had never seen that kind of strength in him.”
“Keep positive. You’ve got a lot of strength in you if you believe in something,” says Wally. “You’ve got to believe in yourself.”