Research Comes Alive

A Calgary woman celebrates her husband’s life by raising funds for lung cancer research

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Did he smoke?” That’s always the first question.

“No, never.” It’s not the answer they expect.

Like thousands of people each year, Paul Clark was diagnosed with lung cancer. The Calgarian was part of a troubling statistic. Lung cancer strikes 2,000 Albertans a year, and is the leading cause of cancer death. And while smoking is the key risk factor, as many as 20 per cent of people with the disease are non-smokers.

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JOURNEY JOURNAL: Mavis Clark transformed tragedy into a call to action.
Photo by Brian Bookstrucker

For unknown reasons, lung cancer is rising among non-smokers although tobacco is still the leading cause. The complex puzzle of lung cancer, and the troubling lack of funding, are garnering new attention because of Paul Clark and his wife Mavis.

Mavis Clark opens the door to her comfortable brick walk-up home and invites me in. She’s prepared, with a notebook detailing all her meetings pertaining to lung cancer and extensive notes about each. She is a serious volunteer and it shows.

Mavis says her husband received his lung cancer diagnosis in 2007. He was 57. At the time, the couple had lively and public lives. He was vice-president of communications and public affairs with Canadian Pacific Railway in Calgary and she was a teacher, and later a superintendant, with the Calgary Board of Education. They had met as summer
students at an oil-and-gas company and spent decades together. They exercised, volunteered in the community and travelled.

In March 2007, the couple was preparing for a holiday. Paul was coughing. “He thought he might have bronchitis,” Mavis says. A visit to the family doctor and tests brought a startling result: lung cancer.

Mavis said her husband initially felt “total devastation.” But, in typical form, he rose to the occasion. “Paul was determined to not be victimized,” says Mavis. “He was a very independent person.” He took on this disease and treatments as his job.

“He made a very clear decision; he wasn’t going to let this define him. How he lived was far bigger than cancer.” Paul’s approach reflected his positive character. After all, this was the man who had conceived the idea of the Canadian Pacific holiday train, which travels nationwide each December to raise millions of dollars and collect tonnes of food for community food banks. He remained optimistic.

They investigated treatment options. The Clarks travelled to Seattle for a second opinion but were told equally good treatment existed back in Calgary. While Paul underwent treatments at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in consultation with Dr. Don Morris, the couple learned that lung cancer received little funding. Dr. Morris talked about improving outcomes, by individually targeting cancer through viruses and new drugs. The Clarks took note.

Throughout it all, the couple was determined to enjoy their lives. They socialized, travelled and were visible. In June 2009, Paul received a call from Canadian Pacific president Fred Green. Would he run the Olympic Torch relay? It was an acknowledgment for his work in securing Canadian Pacific’s Olympic sponsorship. “Paul said, ‘I’ll only run it if I can do the distance like everyone else,’ ” Mavis recalls. And he did. The route was lined with Paul’s friends for the January 2010 relay. It was a proud moment and a testament to his strength. The Clarks travelled to Hawaii shortly after. But, in April 2010, Paul succumbed to the cancer. Like most people with lung cancer, he hadn’t lived five years past the diagnosis.

Could this change? About eight months after Paul’s death, Mavis Clark visited Dr. Morris. “I asked him, ‘If you had a wish list, what would it look like?’ ” Morris cited prevention, screening, awareness, research equipment and funds, fellowships, and a chair in lung cancer research at the University of Calgary. He talked of Calgary becoming a leading centre for lung cancer research and treatment.

Mavis acted. First, she created the Paul Clark Fellowship in Lung Cancer Research. She then joined forces with Calgarians Bev Longstaff and Peter Valentine to help form the Lung Cancer Translational Research Initiative at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre and University of Calgary. The goal is to fund research and improve patient outcomes.

Mavis has gone on to become an integral member of the Alberta Lung Cancer Research Initiative, a provincial initiative facilitated by the Alberta Cancer Foundation that seeks to leverage lung cancer research and discoveries and make a difference for Albertans.

As her group found, the disease has an image problem. “There’s a feeling that, if you smoked, then you brought this on yourself,” says Mavis. Lack of advocates doesn’t help. “When you look at breast and prostate you have people out in the community talking about being survivors. Lung cancer doesn’t have that.” So the initiative powerfully states in its case: “Each year more Canadians die from lung cancer than breast, prostate and colorectal cancers combined.” Yet, despite this, there are no runs, no ribbon campaigns. By chance, lung cancer awareness month is November but it’s been claimed as “Movember” by thousands of men who proudly grow mustaches for prostate cancer research.

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MEMORIES: Mavis Clark in a rare moment of relaxation.
Photo by Brian Bookstrucker

“I think lung cancer is where prostate cancer was 15 years ago,” says Mavis. Her colleague Bev Longstaff agrees there’s work to be done. Many know Longstaff as a popular Calgary alderman and mayoral candidate. She lost a friend, Peggy Valentine, to lung cancer. Longstaff served on the United Way board with Paul Clark but didn’t know Mavis until lung cancer brought them together. “She does work tirelessly,” Longstaff says of Mavis Clark. “She’s dedicated, she’s very effective, she’s committed to make sure something happens,” Longstaff says.

At Calgary’s Tom Baker Cancer Centre, oncologist Don Morris treats patients and runs a lab researching viruses that he hopes will ultimately attack tumours. Calling this a “cool and exciting era,” he is heartened by the opportunity to make a difference. Like many, he credits the work of Mavis Clark. “What’s uncommon is that she’s a doer; she gets right in the mix.” Already, donations financed new scientific equipment allowing researchers to “interrogate” tumours more quickly and understand their genetic makeup. He’s also hired scientific personnel.

The lungs are a challenge. They are very sensitive. They don’t react well to surgery, or needle biopsies; chemotherapy can be very tough on the lungs. “Chemotherapy will be used, but it’s is not the way of the future,” says Morris. The work is important because the toll is high.

“What I say is that lung cancer, not breast cancer, is the women’s cancer. It kills more women than breast cancer.”
For unknown reasons, lung cancer among non-smokers is rising. That’s a fact that Mavis Clark knows well. As she photocopies documents for me, she says it’s not important to her why someone has lung cancer. “No one deserves to suffer.” She’s focused on advancing research and care.

“Sometimes you can’t change your own personal circumstances, so you focus on what you can change.”

AT WORK: Medical oncologist and research scientist Dr. Don Morris, expert in lung and other cancers, founded the Translational Laboratories at the Tom Baker Cancer Center in 1999. And for more than a decade, the Translational Laboratories has been promoting cutting edge research in advanced diagnostics and novel therapeutics. Morris and his team have an interest in creating and improving effective and efficient strategies for the treatment of cancer patients. Check in to watch the research grow at translab.ca.

One Response to Research Comes Alive

  1. Natasha Ruddick says:

    Thank you for writing this article: it is one that I can connect with strongly as my dad succumbed to lung cancer in 2007, less than four months after his diagnosis. He, too, was an active and adventurous man who loved to travel. And it still bothers me when people ask if he was a smoker! We were interested in participating in trials when he was diagnosed. There were no options for him. He ended up going to Vancouver to try an alternative therapy that was questionable and costly, not to mention detrimental.
    Being an RN myself, I am always interested in research and and trials. Please let me know if there are opportunities for volunteering in this specialty. I would be excited to help you in your mission to advance lung cancer treatment strategies!

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