It’s is an ugly word. It makes everyone cringe.
It brings out fear and a queasy discomfort in those who have never dealt with it. It brings out empathy and pain in those who have seen loved ones battle through it.
For those who have fought and are fighting, it can be isolating. But for some, it brings out the best in them.
Cancer brought out the best in Brian Fraser.
On Thursday, Feb. 25, Brian Fraser passed away after his battle with leukemia. He was a well-known radio personality in Ottawa. He was also the biggest Ottawa Senators fan you would ever know. He was the technical producer on the CFRA morning show. He had also cut his teeth with CFRA’s sister station at Bell Media, TSN1200.
He passed away peacefully, watching his beloved Senators beat the Calgary Flames 6-1.
The next day, the Senators paid tribute to Fraser by raising their sticks in the air at centre ice to salute him. They also added a BF sticker to their helmets in his honour.
“He’s a longtime Ottawa Senators fan and someone who has been part of our group since I got here,” said Ottawa Senators coach D.J. Smith during a media session via Zoom. “I know our players have been in contact with him and I’ve been texting with him throughout the year. No matter what our struggles, he lived every day to watch our team play and to root for these guys.”
When I first met Fraser, he was a radio broadcasting student at Algonquin College. He was the play-by-play voice of the Nepean Raiders of the Central Canada Junior Hockey League on Algonquin’s radio station, CKJD. He was passionate, enthusiastic, dynamic, animated. Even though he was from Brockville, home of the Raiders’ rivals, the Brockville Braves, Fraser was all in for the Raiders on their broadcasts.
It was only fitting that he would end up working for Bell Media. I had never met a bigger Sens fan than Brian. I likely never will.
While our paths crossed at Canadian Tire Centre a few times, they also crossed at the Ottawa Cancer Centre. When you run into someone you know there, you don’t know whether to be happy to see a familiar face, or sad that the person you know is there for the same reason you are. I saw an old friend, “Stuntman Stu” Schwartz, while going for my chemo treatments a few times. Stu was the arena public address announcer for the Senators for many years and is a beloved radio personality and cancer warrior in Ottawa. He always helped me process things in a positive way and he always moved forward.
But it was heartbreaking to see Brian there. He was only 26 — far too young to be in that kind of fight.
Stu worked with Brian at Bell Media in Ottawa and knew him far better than I did. We were all going through our second round with cancer, and we were all patients of the Ottawa Cancer Centre’s Bone Marrow Transplant Team. Stu and Brian were even roommates at the hospital for a while. They both made their battles public. They almost had to because they were radio personalities. Stu told me he got a lot of energy and positivity from the encouraging messages, love and support people were sending him on Facebook.
Using Cancer to Help Others
Brian, meanwhile, wanted to use his cancer for something positive that would help others. He became an advocate for blood donation. The first step of a bone marrow transplant is a monster dose of chemo that kills existing cancer cells and bone marrow. Because bone marrow is what produces blood cells, transfusions of red blood cells and platelets are needed to keep patients alive until their bodies can begin to produce cells on their own again. Before the chemo and the transplant, the words of wisdom you are given are that “we have to take you to the brink of death to kill all the cancer cells, and then we will keep you alive while you’re at rock bottom until your body starts producing cells on its own.”
After he was hospitalized in the spring of 2020, Brian was interviewed by CTV National News anchor Lisa LaFlamme. Moments after the interview, the Canadian Blood Service’s website experienced crashed because of the number of people who were touched by Fraser’s story and wanted to make appointments to give blood.
While I was going through my stem cell transplant, Brian was a rock. He sent notes of encouragement to me, along with others who were also fighting. He wasn’t as concerned with himself as he was with others going through the same thing.
“You’ve got this Jeff! I’m here for you if you ever want to talk,” he said right after my transplant.
It was heartbreaking to hear that Brian’s transplant did not go as planned. I sent him a note telling him he was in my thoughts and prayers. That’s the funny thing about having cancer. You can never pray for yourself. You look at the people around you who are going through such difficult battles and you realize that they need your prayers more than you do. You also pray for your family and loved ones, as they feel so helpless watching you fight. Praying for yourself seems almost obnoxious.
We had an exchange on Christmas Eve. I asked him how he was doing. I told him I was recovering, but what I was going through was trivial compared to what he was facing.
“Hey Jeff, don’t ever say that your own battle is trivial compared to someone else’s,” he replied. “All fights are legit. I’m sorry to say that my BMT was not successful, so we’ve been forced to try other avenues in order to secure a result that would be worth the treatment. To be very honest with you, we’re having very little luck finding one, and I think my priorities have shifted to another, much sadder direction. I’ll ask you to please keep this information private until such a time as I decide to announce it myself.”
Less than a week later, Brian announced publicly on Twitter that he was stopping his treatments.
“It’s more important to me to spend whatever time I have left with my family, and my friends rather than suffer through more treatment, knowing I won’t get the results to make it worth it. I’d rather make new happy memories with the people that I love, so that’s what I’m gonna do,” he wrote on Twitter.
Drew Brees Sends a Surprise
After that, the focus of most of his conversations turned to the NFL playoffs and the Saints. One of the most beautiful moments of his journey was a video that Saints quarterback Drew Brees sent him. Brian’s colleague, Matt Skube, arranged it.
I cried when I saw it. I still do every time I watch it.
I will never forget the last message Brian sent me.
“Jeff, love your attitude, don’t lose sight of the finish line!”
We never did get to have that beer after the game on the next Hockey Fights Cancer Night at Canadian Tire Centre. When that night rolls around, there will be an empty chair for him at the table, and he will certainly be toasted.
Brian Fraser lived an inspirational life. He died a hero, with grace, courage and dignity.
You can be a hero, too.
All you’ve got to do is give blood. Your gift will keep someone alive.