Lunar New Year is a time to gather with friends and family, to express gratitude and set intentions for a positive path towards prosperity for the year ahead by giving back to help others in the community.
BC Cancer radiation oncologist Dr. Roy Ma moved to Vancouver from Hong Kong when he was 11, and so his childhood memories of a traditional Chinese New Year are limited to cash-filled red packets and visiting his grandmother and relatives. And yet his career, life and leadership are the epitome of the celebration that decrees blessings are best when shared.
As the recipient of the BC Cancer Foundation’s Catalyst Award — presented every Lunar New Year to honour an individual who makes an outstanding contribution of time, leadership or financial support — Dr. Ma is being recognized for his dedication, integrity and compassion that goes way beyond the bedside.
His work in precision radiation has inspired a community of philanthropic support which has advanced cancer care across the province. And the kindness and emotional support he gives to patients, friends — and even strangers — facing cancer has inspired millions in donations to fuel life-saving treatment and technology at BC Cancer.
In 2014, a patient with a brain tumour was undergoing radiation and saw Dr. Ma every week for six weeks to check in on side effects. The patient was being treated on a unit made possible by philanthropy and he mentioned the donor recognition plaque, says Dr. Ma.
“I explained that the treatment he was having was actually due to a lot of generous donors. And he said, ‘Well, let me know if you need something to help.’ He was very persistent and kept saying it week after week. It wasn’t until the fourth week that my lightbulb went off.”
Dr. Ma connected the patient with the BC Cancer Foundation and he made a significant donation to help bring the most advanced radiation technology in the world to BC Cancer.
Another donor stepped up to complete the purchase of the state-of-the-art technology after a journalist interviewed Dr. Ma about its potential to provide more targeted radiation that spares healthy tissues, and reduces harmful side effects, in hard-to-treat cancers. To Dr. Ma’s surprise, the article piqued the interest of a man who asked to meet with him.
“It was short notice, and I didn’t have time to prepare anything. He came in off the street and brought the newspaper article and asked if it was true. We chatted for about 30 minutes and then at the end he pulled out his chequebook and said, ‘I want to donate $2 million. It just blew me away.”
Despite a busy practice specializing in brain and gastrointestinal cancers, Dr. Ma says one of the most important parts of his job is to look beyond the cancer to the person facing the disease.
“Sometimes, short of a miracle, there is nothing I can do. I have to look at other ways to help. I try to give people a safe space to be vulnerable. Time is the most precious commodity for a lot of us in this busy world. If I give my patients my time it sends a strong message — that they’re important.”
Most often, that’s what patients express their gratitude for, says Dr. Ma “They don’t thank me for the brilliant radiation or diagnosis, or the other things we doctors cherish, they thank me for listening.”
These days, Dr. Ma rings in the New Year over a quiet dinner with his family. But he stays connected to the community, and the language, through volunteer speaking opportunities. After being featured as a cancer expert on several Chinese radio and television stations, requests started rolling in from other Chinese organizations and now they’re a regular pastime.
Dr. Ma enjoys engaging with members of the Chinese community facing cancer, as an opportunity to create more space for people who aren’t necessarily his patients and clear up any misconceptions or worries they have regarding treatment. He’s also happy, as he’s sometimes asked, to act as an interpreter to help other oncologists experiencing language and cultural barriers with their patients.
While all of this doesn’t leave Dr. Ma with a lot of free time, he can’t imagine it any other way.
“There’s a big emphasis, not just in the Chinese culture but in human culture, on living a long time. But I don’t really put much emphasis on longevity of life. God has that time on his hands before we’re born. Whatever time I have, I want to make it useful.”
“For my profession, that means helping people — physically, emotionally and sometimes spiritually. Because what you’re blessed with, you’re supposed to bless other people with. It’s not for you to keep.”
And when it comes to cancer — a disease that affects all of us, says Dr. Ma — we all have something to give.