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Cameron Bell

‘Cancer toughens you up’: Athlete battling brain cancer for a decade draws on inner strength to run marathons

When marathon runner Cameron Bell hits the wall during a race, he knows exactly what to do: he draws on the strength he has developed from more than a decade of battling brain cancer.

“You have a determination, you’re not going to let the cancer beat you,” explains the Winnipeg-based father of two. “I find that very similar to running marathons, because when you hit the wall there’s an inner strength you have to have.  Cancer toughens you up -- if you can get through it than you can do anything in life.”

Two craniotomies. Radiation. Dozens of cycles of multiple types of chemotherapy. These are some of the gruelling treatments Bell has undergone since he was diagnosed with anaplastic oligodendroglioma 10 years ago. Since then he has undergone on and off again treatments for the tumour that has never fully gone away.

“There has not been total remission, but we’ve been able to control it throughout the last decade without compromising my quality of life,” he explains. “I’ve been quite happy with that.”

Bell recently learned that after years of stability, his tumour has slowly begun to grow again. Doctors told him the cancer has become resistant to temozolomide, the chemotherapy treatment he has taking.

“It looks like I’m in the position where this treatment is no longer working, and the cancer is resistant to it,” he says. “There’s a few different options I’m exploring with my doctors, but I’m also starting to look to different research projects that could be game-changers.”  

Bell and his family were excited to learn that DNA repair biologist Dr. Sachin Katyal was recently awarded Manitoba’s first TFRI New Investigator Award for his quick-to-clinic personalized medicine approach to better treat patients with the incurable brain cancer glioblastoma multiforme (GBM). More than 2,500 Canadians are diagnosed with brain cancer each year.

Dr. Katyal is analyzing resistant brain cancer tumour cells to determine what DNA-damaging enzyme repair proteins are allowing cancer cells to survive following chemotherapy and radiation treatments. While the treatment is initially targeting GBM, he hopes to open up treatment to patients like Bell who are battling other types of brain cancer in the near future.

“Research like this is so important,” says Bell. “A major problem with chemotherapy these days is the resistance that happens, where it works for a number of cycles and all of a sudden it stops being effective. And then what do you do? You have to find alternative treatment, if there is something that works. The impact this research could have is huge.”

While Bell and his doctors decide what steps to take next with his treatment, the athletic 57-year-old plans to keep running with his family cheering him on. He laughs as he recalls a conversation with a surgeon prior to his last craniotomy in May 2014.

“I had qualified to run the New York Marathon that November, and I asked the surgeon if I would be ready to train for the race -- and he told me they would have me out back running in no time,” Bell chuckles. “Being able to run has been therapeutic. It gives me time to think, and it’s nice not to let the cancer beat me down.”