Former cabinet minister opens up about lymphoma diagnosis

Maija Kappler 3 minute read October 26, 2021
Deb Schulte follicular lymphoma

Deb Schulte, former Minister of Seniors, speaks during a press conference in 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press) Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press

Former Liberal cabinet minister Deb Schulte has had a lot of experience with cancer: several of her family members have had it, including both of her parents. Then, in April 2019, she was diagnosed with follicular lymphoma.

On Wednesday, Schulte will receive a stem cell transplant. “I’m really hopeful and very positive about it,” she told CBC News earlier this week.

Follicular lymphoma is a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that impacts the lymphatic system (the organs that are central to the circulatory and immune systems). White blood cells, also called lymphocytes, fight infections — but in people with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the cells grow abnormally, Mayo Clinic explains. When too many abnormal white blood cells are produced, they don’t eventually die out the way healthy cells do. Lymphocytes overcrowd the lymph nodes and can cause tumours.

About 43,335 Canadians have or are in remission from lymphoma, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada. Most of them (about 36,000) have some form non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The kind of lymphoma Schulte has — follicular lymphoma — is the second most common kind of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, after diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. Follicular lymphoma is named for the way lymphoma cells group together and cluster. It’s usually diagnosed in people who are 50 and older, and is slightly more common in women than men, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.

Schulte went through six rounds of chemotherapy after she was initially diagnosed in 2019, and announced that September — just a month before that year’s federal election — that the treatment was working. She was re-elected as the Liberal MP for King–Vaughan, north of Toronto, and was appointed to the cabinet as minister of seniors.

But this August, Schulte announced that the cancer was back. Just days later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced another federal election.

“Timing seems to be not brilliant on elections and chemo,” Schulte joked to CBC. This September, she lost to the Conversative candidate in a narrow race.

Follicular lymphoma is usually treated with chemo, radiation, immunotherapy, or drugs that target specific molecules on cancer cells. When those treatments don’t work, some patients — like Shulte — opt for a bone marrow or stem cell transplant.

Bone marrow is where some lymphocytes are made. During a transplant, bone marrow stem cells are removed from the body and treated with high doses of radiation, along with chemotherapy. Healthy stem cells are then infused back into the blood.

Schulte told CBC she hasn’t ruled out running for office again, once she’s taken some time to heal. She said her experience with cancer has taught her to keep pushing.

“You just know that you’ve got to get through it,” she said. “It is something that knocks you back but I’m strong and I’m positive, and I think that really makes all the difference.”