Malcolm Austin is Yellowknife’s best-known six-year-old. His family dearly wishes he were not.
Malcolm, a student at Range Lake North School, has a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer known as diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, or DIPG.
Since his diagnosis in October, the lives of Malcolm and his family – identical twin brother Lachlan, Maggie, and parents Kim and Andrew – have been transformed.
“I don’t think I slept more than an hour a night, at the most, for the first six weeks,” recalls Kim Austin.
Both parents travelled to Edmonton with Malcolm for radiation treatment, then took turns moving between Edmonton and Yellowknife as the weeks went by.
“I spent a lot of the time planning,” adds Kim. “What’s going on with the kids in Yellowknife? Where do they need to be? What’s their activity? What’s going on here at treatment?
“It’s mind-blowing what you have to balance out at a time like this, especially with the distance between Edmonton and Yellowknife.”
The Austins say an already traumatic experience would have been far worse without the support of their community.
That support continues on Saturday with the ninth annual Memorial Hockey Challenge, involving teams of RCMP officers and firefighters.
Details and ticket info: Memorial Hockey Challenge – 7pm on Saturday, February 21
This year, all funds raised at the game – tickets cost $20 from Shoppers Drug Mart or Force One – will be donated to Malcolm’s family. A car can be won on the night.
The game also honours firefighters Cyril Fyfe and Kevin Olson, who died on duty in 2005, and RCMP Constable Christopher Worden, who was killed while on duty in Hay River eight years ago.
“We want to make sure the Austin family doesn’t have any burden to worry about,” says firefighter Branden Wasiuta, “so they can focus on the welfare of their little guy.”
For the Austins, this backing from the Yellowknife community has almost become a part of daily life.
In October, Malcolm travelled to Edmonton to meet the Oilers. In November, the City of Yellowknife declared Malcolm Austin Day. In January, the YK1 school board donated more than $26,000 to the family following a fundraiser.
“Finding out your child has cancer is a devastating thing emotionally, not to mention physically for our child,” says Andrew Austin.
“But just to know that so many people want to contribute any way they can… it’s an incredible feeling of gratitude, that we have, for sure.”
Kim adds: “It’s amazing, when you have your darkest moments, to feel the collective support of a community.”
Yet it’s also strange, for parents who saw themselves as “givers, not receivers” until Malcolm was diagnosed – on his sixth birthday – with DIPG.
“It’s been interesting to see our lives shift to people who are in need of assistance,” says Kim.
“As soon as we’re out in public, people want to come up and give us comfort, and say they’re thinking about us, which is awesome and greatly appreciated.
“But sometimes we say it feels like our ‘surreal life’. Because, you know, we would trade all of this – of course – in a heartbeat to have Malcolm healthy.”
Details: Basic facts about DIPG
“It all happened quite quickly,” says Andrew. “One day we were visiting the doctor to describe some symptoms and, within a few days, we were in Edmonton getting an MRI, meeting with the neurosurgeon and being told the news.
“The symptoms were in his eye. He was having some vision problems, so we thought it would strictly be an eye issue. We had no idea it would be much larger.”
Though seriously ill, Malcolm is – his father says – a “good patient” who diligently takes his medication and “understands what it’s designed to do”.
“Sometimes there are side effects he doesn’t like,” says Andrew, “but he takes it in stride and is pretty pragmatic about everything.”
The thrill of the hockey game, for the Austins, lies in providing the kids with something else to think about.
Lachlan dreams of being a fireman; for Malcolm, it’s a life in the RCMP. On Saturday, their uniformed heroes will take to the ice.
“It’ll be a lot of fun,” says Andrew. “The boys, first of all, like hockey. But more importantly, the boys love rescue people. They love first responders.
“The only thing that could make it better,” he adds with a laugh, “is if, when they’re playing hockey, the players could wear their oxygen masks and guns on their belts. The kids would love that. It’ll be a good, fun night for all of us.”
“The amazing thing about this community is they’re packing so many fantastic memories into our lives right now,” says Kim.
“I can’t think of any community anyone should live in but Yellowknife, especially if they have to go through something like this.”