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Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc won’t feel sorry for himself as he battles leukemia

Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc fields questions as the Liberal cabinet meets in St. John’s on Sept. 12, 2017.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A routine annual checkup with his family doctor last spring revealed some startling news for Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc: an increase in his white-blood-cell count.

The 49-year-old New Brunswick MP was referred to a hematologist who, after a series of tests, diagnosed him in April with chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

"I was asymptomatic. The doctors think I've probably had that for a number of years," Mr. LeBlanc told reporters on Wednesday.

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The disease, which can be controlled through treatments but typically remains with the patient throughout their life, comes on more slowly and with less urgency than acute versions. It is the most common form of leukemia in adults. Patients can live with the disease for years or decades.

Mr. LeBlanc shared his diagnosis publicly on Wednesday because he will start treatments when the House of Commons breaks next week until the end of January. He said he didn't want news of his hospital visits to fuel any negative stories, unexplained by him, about his health.

Mr. LeBlanc, who is married to New Brunswick Provincial Court chief judge Jolene Richard and has an adult stepson, said he plans to keep his ministerial portfolio and stay on as an MP while he receives twice-monthly chemo-immuno therapy, which might continue for up to six months.

"The doctors told me that the vast majority of people who go through these treatments maintain most of a normal routine. I look forward to doing that. I don't intend to spend a lot of time at home feeling sorry for myself."

Plus, he said, he just bought a new snowmobile last year. "I've got a big Ski-Doo, so if we get a lot of snow I'll be able to spend more time in January on the trails than I would otherwise."

In a statement, Mr. LeBlanc's cancer specialist, Dr. Nicholas Finn, said the disease is chronic in the sense that it must be closely monitored, but it can be controlled.

"The Minister has the flexibility to schedule treatments in a way that will have minimal impact on his work. The treatments will conclude this spring. Minister LeBlanc can then expect a pause in treatment for many years, with only routine follow-ups," said Dr. Finn, a hematologist-oncologist at Dr. Georges-L. Dumont University Hospital Centre in Moncton.

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The only visible manifestation of the disease is a swollen lymph node on Mr. LeBlanc's neck. "They told me it will melt like a popsicle on a hot July day within a day or two of the treatments," he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has known Mr. LeBlanc since childhood, tweeted his support on Wednesday from China. "We're all thinking of you today, @DLeBlancNB, but we also know you'll continue to excel as a Minister and MP. My friend, you have my full support, always."

Mr. LeBlanc said he first told Mr. Trudeau – whom he used to babysit as a child – about his diagnosis in April. He visited the prime minister last week to inform him about his decision to start treatment. He said the two joked and teased each other like old times.

The news of his illness was met with support from colleagues in all parties.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison said he only learned of Mr. LeBlanc's illness on Wednesday. "He's a person of whom I'm very fond and thank goodness he had a test that enabled him to learn of this and to have it treated."

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh began a media scrum in Ottawa by saying his thoughts and prayers are with Mr. LeBlanc and his family. Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai recalled travelling with Mr. LeBlanc and his late father, former governor-general Romeo LeBlanc, on a state visit to Tanzania 20 years ago. "I wish him the best. I hope the treatment will get him back," Mr. Obhrai said.

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Mr. LeBlanc, however, didn't go anywhere on Wednesday. He spent Question Period on his feet, defending the government against opposition attacks in the Prime Minister's absence.

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