Facing off with leukemia
As far as Mathieu Vaillancourt’s teammates are concerned, the only thing different about him is his helmet is blue and theirs are black. Otherwise, he skates like them, he shoots like them and he wears a Cedar Parks Red Wings jersey, just like them.
When Mathieu is out on the ice with his team, it doesn’t matter he takes a variety of medicine multiple times every day or his immune system is much weaker than theirs. It doesn’t matter to Mathieu or his teammates he has leukemia. All that matters is he’s playing hockey.
Mathieu’s mom, Lianne Vaillancourt, described her son as “100-per-cent boy.”
“He’s rough and tumble, very rambunctious … To see him, you wouldn’t know he’s sick.”
In March 2011, Mathieu was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, one of the most common cancers in children. After becoming sick around Christmastime, the youngster couldn’t seem to ever fully kick the illness.
“He just kept catching every cold and bug going around,” his mom said. “He was really tired, had sore legs and all things, that when you look back, are very clear signs, but nobody would know that.”
A visit to the doctor resulted in a preliminary diagnosis of mononucleosis. However, when the test results came back later that same day, the diagnosis was much more serious.
“He had only just turned four when he was diagnosed, so he wasn’t playing hockey, but he has a brother who plays and his dad plays — he’s surrounded by hockey,” Lianne said. “And he adores his older brother and wants to follow him everywhere and do everything he does.”
Last season, the Grade 1 Félix-Ricard student laced up his hockey skates and pulled on a Red Wings jersey for the first time with the Sudbury Playground Hockey League. As a result of the treatments he was receiving to battle the leukemia, at times his platelets would drop too low, which made him susceptible to infection and injury. He was only able to make it out to play about 10 times.
This year, he’s hardly missed a game.
“He’s in an easier phase of treatment now so he’s able to come out pretty much every time,” Lianne said. “He still gets tired more quickly than other kids, but he’s trying to do everything normal. He doesn’t stand out in hockey.”
And that’s just the way Mathieu prefers it.
Hockey has been a happier “normal” for Mathieu. Last year at this time, he was in the most intense phase of his treatment, which caused him to lose all his hair. But bald was normal in the pediatric oncology wing, where Mathieu spent a large chunk of his time.
“He was actually quite upset it took him as long as it did to lose his hair,” Lianne said.
And from the perspective of a then five-year-old, baldness was the most of his worries.
“He knows he has cancer and that it’s called leukemia and that he needs to take a lot of medicine and it takes a long time to get better, but thankfully, he is young enough, that he doesn’t have the psychological crap to deal with,” Lianne said. “We deal with that, not him.”
After more that a year of “heavy-duty” treatment and weekly trips to CHEO (Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario) in Ottawa, Mathieu is now in “maintenance,” which will be the longest phase of his treatment at a year and a half. Overall, the treatment takes about three and a half years.
As for the prognosis? “It looks really good,” Lianne said with a smile. “Everything has gone very well so far and we have every reason to believe it will continue to go well.”