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Breaking up with cancer

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks

Brooke Malakoff would have preferred meeting Jason Garrison under different circumstances. Before she’d lost all of her hair, for example.

The 17-year-old from Fernie, BC, was just like any other happy-go-lucky teenager last December: boisterous, social and full of life. A doctor’s visit later and instead of being treated for what she thought was pneumonia, Brooke was undergoing tests for a mass three quarters the size of her lung.

That played out on December 19th, 2011, in Cranbrook, BC, and after further examination, doctors told her the tumour was benign. Brooke and family returned home for Christmas, but after she felt ill on the night of the 25th, a follow-up visit in Cranbrook went down on the 26th where she was informed the tumour had burst. She had to be airlifted to Vancouver on the 27th.

On the 28th Brooke underwent a biopsy before undergoing life-saving surgery to remove the cancerous left lung on the 29th.

In the span of 10 days Brooke’s world was broken, but not beyond repair.

The road to recovery looked as if it might be relatively short when, after approximately six weeks on the mend in near isolation, Brooke was given a clean bill of health.

On February 16th Brooke (@bamalakoff) took to Twitter to let the world know she was: “#cancerfree for good! #surviver #conquered!!” – and for more than three-and-a-half months she was.

On May 31, 2012, Brooke underwent a routine follow-up PET scan that showed the cancer had returned.

“I know I broke up with it a long time ago, but it has attachment issues, so it just needs to get out of here,” laughed Brooke, surrounded by her mom Rochelle, brother Wesley and grandparents Pat and Jerry Simmons, in the dining room at the Ronald McDonald House in Vancouver in early October.

“My mom’s cousin is a cop, so I’m going to ask him how hard it is to get a restraining order against the tumour.”

Brooke is a fighter and Hockey Fights Cancer, an initiative run by the NHL and the NHLPA to raise money and awareness to support national and local cancer research institutions, children’s hospitals, player charities and local cancer organizations, exists because of people like her.

Brooke has been at Ronald McDonald House (RMH) for nearly six months now, living PET scan to PET scan, hoping for the news to get better. Her latest scan was not favourable, so doctors are developing a new treatment plan for early November.

Her schedule has been fairly consistent: she receives chemo treatment in hospital for four to six days, then is housebound for up to two weeks because her blood cell counts drop and remain low. When they rise, Brooke has five or six days to leave the RMH and explore Vancouver.

Believe it or not, Brooke has remained positive throughout this ordeal – and she isn’t just making the best of a bad situation.

To know Brooke is to know that if anyone is strong enough to kick cancer’s ass, it's her.

Support from Vancouver Canucks forward Jason Garrison helped her develop that attitude following another bad PET scan in late-July that had her spirits as low as ever.

Through friends of a friend – namely Canucks alumni Garth Rizzuto – a Garrison visit was arranged for Brooke, which led to more studying than she had done to finish final exams before graduating from Fernie Secondary a few months earlier.

“We Googled him,” Brooke laughed. “I didn’t really know him before because I mostly followed the Canucks and not really Florida, but we did a little background check and he checked out. By the time he came here I knew everything about him.”

With rounds of chemotherapy having stolen her beautiful, long, blonde hair, Brooke wore a cute brown wig for the visit instead of rocking the bald look, which she does now with pride.

Garrison wouldn’t have cared either way, as Brooke found out five minutes into sitting down with her new favourite player.

“I just kept thinking try to be cool, try to be cool, but it was like meeting an old friend, he was so relaxed," said Brooke. "You have so much to talk about not knowing each other, then you find certain things you have in common and you go off that.”

Garrison stayed with Brooke for a few hours, boosting her spirits to their highest levels in nearly a year. She got his first autograph as a member of the Canucks and he posed for countless pictures, pictures plastered in her room and online.

The visit was just what Brooke needed heading into a difficult weekend of treatment, but the best was yet to come from Garrison, who stayed in touch with his new friend.

“You can only twitter message someone when they follow back, and then I looked and Jason was following me” said Brooke, buzzing as she recounted the event. “Then on Monday he messaged me and asked how my weekend of treatments went and how I was feeling. I freaked out: Jason Garrison just privately messaged me on Twitter!

“I was still coming off morphine, so I thought I was dreaming.”

No dreams here, just the reality of a strong friendship.

“For everything that she’s gone through and is still going through, just her attitude towards life is inspiring,” said Garrison in August. “It really puts things into perspective when you visit with inspiring people like that, and you just think of how fortunate you can be and are.”

Both Brooke and Jason left the visit with great memories, but Garrison also left with a gift. Brooke cut off her hospital bracelet, signed it and wrote This Is What We Live For on the back, as a token of her appreciation.

Garrison, still relatively new to the Canucks scene, didn’t understand the team’s playoff campaign slogan. Brooke explained Canucks hockey is what people live for in Vancouver and once she’s cancer free, it’ll be one of the many things she’s living for as well.

That and getting her hair back.

“I’m excited for that. I’ve heard it’ll maybe grow back thicker and sometimes different – maybe it’ll be curly?”

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