Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

HACKETT: Smith’s cancer comments cut deep

I feel like at this point, I’m just another name piling on UCP leadership candidate Danielle Smith but I don’t think a recent comment she made can ever be challenged too much.

I’ll start by saying this first – Smith has become extremely popular as a potential Jason Kenney replacement, particularly in Central Alberta. Many have said she’s even the frontrunner at this point to lead the party.

She has proposed a number of ideas, some radical, some logical and lots in between. I don’t really want to get into a lengthy discussion of what she’s right or wrong about – if you tuned into the debate on Wednesday you probably got your fair fix of that.

What irked me and still makes my skin crawl almost a week later are comments Smith made on a podcast about cancer. In an hour-long interview with a naturopath, one of the comments Smith made looked at why “mainstream medicine” doesn’t look at prevention, particularly when it comes to stages of cancer was jarring.

“Once you’ve arrived, you’ve got Stage 4 cancer and there’s radiation and surgery and chemotherapy; that’s an incredibly expensive intervention. Not just for the system for the individual, also expensive for the toll it takes on the body,” she said.

“When you think of everything that built up before you got to Stage 4 and that diagnosis, that’s completely within your control and there’s something you can do about that, that is different.”

It’s that last part that she’s been rightfully so run through the gambit for.

My family has a history of cancer. I know countless healthy individuals who have battled and survived cancer. My aunt died of aggressive breast cancer. My dad survived cancer. He exercised every day ahead of his diagnosis and showed absolutely no signs of being an unhealthy individual beforehand. As a healthy individual, I often worry I’m one of the 10 per cent that has inherited a cancer gene mutation. And there’s virtually nothing I can do about it.

It is reprehensible that someone who may be the province’s next premier to suggest that cancer patients should just “live better” or find a way to prevent their cancer through naturopathic medicine.

And she acts like the people are a burden on our medical system because of their unexpected illness and if they lived different they wouldn’t have got cancer.

The fact that Smith just walks right on through the conversation like what she said wasn’t a bombshell that is a slap in the face to the thousands of Albertans who are fighting a cancer diagnosis right now is an outrage.

Smith even issued a mea culpa on Monday, saying that she was simply discussing the need for healthy living and early detection in the first three stages of cancer. She didn’t apologize for her original comments, only sending her love to those who have lost a loved one to cancer (while also digging at governments for “lockdowns”).

She also blamed the NDP for taking the issue out of context, which is a predictable response. But even those in her own party, other leadership candidates such as Brian Jean challenged her assertion.

She again shifted the blame in the debate on Wednesday when she clarified her comments and said they were “misunderstood.”

“I know that cancer can strike anyone, at any time without any relation to lifestyle, especially kids. But not just kids, it happened to my mother-in-law too. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and only survived three months after diagnosis. By the time they found it she was so malnourished, they weren’t able to continue her chemo treatments,” Smith said.

“That’s why I became such a proponent of early detection, early treatment, nutrition and holistic medicine. There are so many more options if you diagnose early and you can treat early. That’s what I was trying to say, albeit very awkwardly.”

While that’s certainly a more thought-out and carefully explained position, it still falls short in my estimation. There’s no apology there, again. No contrition.

Criticizing Smith and her policies she aims to bring in because of this “misunderstood” point wouldn’t be fair to her. She’s earned the right to be considered as leader of this province, despite her past failings as a politician.

However, she has taken a number of troubling stances on medical issues, for someone who says they are just a business owner and a former media personality. She claimed at one point during the COVID-19 pandemic that hydroxychloroquine cures COVID (it doesn’t). She deleted the tweet and apologized. She touted ivermectin as a valid treatment for COVID-19, which remains unproven. I have to believe her opinions have changed on this as science has developed, but in 2003, Smith said in a newspaper column that smoking half a pack of cigarettes per day can reduce the risk of disease.

So, while the cancer comment alone shouldn’t be enough for one to judge Smith’s overall profile, her clear pattern of making troubling health-related misjudgments should be.

And I also think it is fair to ask for accountability. Asking someone to be responsible for what they say, especially a future leader. Not blame others. Not shift into issues like lockdowns.

Smith even admitted in the debates on Wednesday in her opening statement that she’s been wrong “about a few things”.

“I do always try to learn from others and consult broadly and I try to keep an open discussion and a fair mind, listening to people who disagree with me.

“That is important to bring to politics.”

It sure is Mrs. Smith and in your first test of this challenge, you’ve let the people down. You haven’t apologized for your comments or made any meaningful promises to do better for those who have suffered from cancer or to the families who have lost loved ones to the vicious disease.

Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor at the Red Deer Advocate.