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Brain Cancer and Research: A Personal Look

January 8, 2014

I am very happy to be back blogging on behalf of the BC Cancer Foundation, a fun way to launch 2014.

It’s been two years since I last introduced myself though this forum. Things have changed modestly since then; I stepped down as the BC Cancer Agency’s Provincial Chair of Neuro-oncology in the spring of 2013 and have since become the Head of Neurosurgery for the University of British Columbia and the Vancouver General Hospital. I am also currently the President of the Canadian Neurosurgical Society.  For nine years I proudly led the neuro-oncology group and I feel we made tremendous strides towards curing brain cancer. I am pleased that Dr. Brian Thiessen has now taken the helm.

Despite a change in leadership, the commitment and creativity to cure brain cancer remains progressive and undaunted. And this is the greatest sign of sustainability. Treating and curing brain cancer is a team sport, and the best reflection of the team is that its success transcends any one individual. A well-crafted team will score results based on process, infrastructure and depth of talent- not on individuals. The brain tumour team at the BC Cancer Agency has all of that.

I was considering a blog simply recounting the cancer research process – how it works (or doesn’t), different research strategies and the political influences upon it. But that really is a dry read, and not what the blog is all about. Instead I will make it a more personal look at brain cancer and brain cancer research. Hopefully it will also end up providing the same insights about cancer research.


I don’t know how other oncologists develop their interest in oncology; meaning I don’t know if it begins as an academic curiosity or if it is a more personal investment. For me it was definitely more personal.

When I graduated from neurosurgical training at the University of Western Ontario I had a specific interest in neuro-vascular diseases. Corralling ruptured brain aneurysms and cleaning out fat-infested carotid arteries was a specialty at Western and one I imagined I would pursue as my career path.

Young doctors and in particular young surgeons often ask me about how to pick a sub-specialty area of practice, and after two decades of practice my answer is the same. The largest part of that equation is how compelling you find the patients you treat. If you aren’t partial to hearing about pain-related issues, spine surgery isn’t for you. If you aren’t keen to work at all hours of the night, trauma surgery isn’t for you. And if you aren’t comfortable helping people deal with a cancer diagnosis, oncology isn’t for you.

But as it turns out, oncology was tailor-suited to me.

In the next blogs I will recount some patient experiences and how they have compelled me to question how my colleagues and I do things and how we will find a cure.