Kamal Palmer had a great birthday this year. The Toronto-based music producer and performer known as Chillaa recently turned 28, celebrating with family and friends. A highlight of the festivities was his chariot for the weekend – a Ferrari that a friend lent to him.
But this birthday was particularly special because Chillaa was also celebrating being cancer-free since March 2021 after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) a year ago.
“Being able to sit around a table with my family and friends, and have them sing happy birthday to me… it was a blessing to see another year,” Chillaa says. “Everything was up in the air last year with not only COVID, but also the cancer.”
While we were all adjusting to living in a pandemic, Chillaa had to navigate a devastating diagnosis, too.
“When I had cancer, I was trying so hard not to get COVID,” he recalls. “I had to make sure that I didn’t get any type of sickness, not even a cold. My while blood cell count was low due to chemo, it would be hard to combat any sickness.”
Life in lockdown
Chillaa says it took a while to get his initial diagnosis, in part due to the 2020 lockdown. In January of last year, his shoulder felt uncomfortable and a local walk-in clinic attributed it to a pulled muscle. Still in pain, he went back a couple of weeks later for a follow-up. But then the world stopped and like so many people, he didn’t want to see anyone – not even a doctor.
By summer 2020, the artist was having chest pains and thought it might be pneumonia. In August, he passed out while working in a recording studio, and his family drove him to the hospital.
It would take further bloodwork, exams and Chillaa’s own persistence to request an emergency MRI that revealed a 12cm x 17cm tumour in the middle of his chest.
According to The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada (LLSC), the only voluntary health agency dedicated to all blood cancers, NHL is a cancer of the lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell found in the lymphatic system. An abnormal lymphocyte grows out of control and produces more cells like it, which crowds out normal white cells and forms masses in different parts of the body. About 8000 new cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma are diagnosed in Canada each year.
Chillaa was immediately hospitalized for two weeks after his diagnosis, during which he went through surgery to drain the fluid around the mass straining his body. “I wasn’t able to get blood flow into my upper body,” he explains, “so they had to start treatment right away.”
When I had cancer, I was trying so hard not to get COVID.
COVID protocols in the hospital meant that visitors were limited. Chillaa was allowed one visitor who could come twice a week for one or two hours. His mother visited the first week and his father came the following week. His remaining friends and family could only see him through his hospital window.
Once he was able to leave the hospital, Chillaa stayed isolated at his parents’ home and did out-patient chemotherapy treatments. His family was able to limit outside contact by working from home.
To keep stress at bay, he says he wouldn’t allow himself to focus on the negatives, relying on breathing techniques and meditation to help heal his body from the inside out.
While his time in isolation wasn’t easy, Chillaa says that he felt like much of the world was going through the same thing due to COVID-19. “From August to March, when I was going through everything, I felt like everyone to a certain extent was on lockdown with me,” he says.
Uncertainty and fear
Dr. Lisa Hicks, a malignant hematologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, says pandemic isolation took a toll on many blood cancer patients.
“It was felt in a different way by different people, depending on where they were on their cancer [experience] and the types of support that they needed,” she says. “I think I understand in a more visceral way than ever before how important family members and caregivers are to the cancer [experience].”
Since the pandemic started, Dr. Hicks says cancer care has had to withstand a fast pace of necessary change – such as limiting visitors – due to so much uncertainty.
“It was a huge challenge for our patients and our teams because we had no idea what COVID-19 was going to mean to our patient population,” she says. “We were very worried we would see a lot of COVID-19 infection in patients with blood cancer and we would see devastating outcomes in that population.”
While there were patients affected by COVID-19, Dr. Hicks says the number wasn’t as overwhelming as initially feared and she credits patients for being diligent about masking, washing their hands and staying physically distanced.
“The messaging that came from the community of caregivers and The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada around the need to be cautious – I think that really helped,” she adds.
The LLSC actively reacted to the pandemic by launching an online COVID-19 Resource Centre to provide an informed voice during an uncertain time. People affected by a blood cancer continue to access support hubs, webcasts and news updates with the latest recommendations surrounding COVID-19.
Nadine Prevost, Senior Director of Community Services at the LLSC, says that the pandemic added an extra layer of isolation for people affected by a blood cancer.
“We noticed an increase in the number of requests for our peer support program, we launched additional support group and we broke record on the number of registrants to our webcast series,” she says. “More than ever, people across the country reached out to the LLSC, whether it was to connect with others, for information on blood cancers and COVID-19, or for support.”
Another challenge during the pandemic has been implementing the necessary physical distancing at clinics and wards, without comprising patients’ needs, Dr. Hicks says.
“Many of our patients were scared, and we didn’t want them to avoid care,” she adds. “We did pivot to virtual and telephone appointments and actively manage our patient list by figuring out who needed to be seen in person or over the telephone, and on top of that we were trying to keep people out of the emergency department to decrease their load.”
While virtual care isn’t always ideal in every instance, Dr. Hicks says she sees this method of communication staying in place post-pandemic, especially for friends and family who don’t live close to a loved one and want to offer their support.
“When people are not all in the same city, it gives a voice and presence to people who couldn’t be a part of it before,” she says.
Recognizing that she and her medical colleagues also needed ways to connect and share real-time data, Dr. Hicks assisted with implementing The ASH Research Collaborative (ASH RC) COVID-19 Registry for Hematology, which provides observational summaries to help the global hematology community make informed decisions based on up-to-date information. She also contributed to two systemic reviews specific to her field.
“I found that being involved in that way through clinical work and research efforts was a helpful way of dealing with the stress of the unknown,” she says.
For his part, Chillaa has channelled the emotional and physical rollercoaster of the past year into creativity and a desire to help others. He’s helping to raise funds for the LLSC and he put his experience into words in a new track, “Cancer Freestyle.”
Chillaa says that throwing himself into producing the song helped him heal, as well as giving him a new perspective on the experiences of others.
“I’m able to relate with people who have been through pain and a mental battle,” says the artist. “I cherish every day and the opportunity to uplift people and give them guidance with what to expect.”
To support people living with blood cancer and their families during the pandemic, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada (LLSC) offers a COVID-19 Resource Centre filled with latest news, information and links to virtual support programs. For more info, go to https://www.llscanada.org/covid-19-resource-centre
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.