A group of well-heeled donors and high-flying doctors will gather in Toronto Monday to celebrate cancer-care leader Mary Gospodarowicz, medical director of the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre – even though she would really prefer they didn't.
"It's not about me," Dr. Gospodarowicz says briskly as she hurries into her office for a brief interview. The event is both a tribute to a figure the hospital considers an unsung hero and a fundraiser that is expected to contribute $5-million for projects that can be strategically targeted at her chief objective, building Princess Margaret as one of the top cancer centres in the world. That money in turn is only a small part of Princess Margaret's current billion-dollar campaign to "conquer cancer in our lifetime."
Dr. Gospodarowicz oversees a vast web of professionals dedicated to both patient care and research while continually advocating nationally and internationally for progress against cancer; she dismisses the television image of doctors as individual mavericks riding to their patients' rescue.
"The days of Dr. Marcus Welby with his bag are long gone," she said. "Cancer care especially is a team sport … Not only do we work with nurses, technologists, physicists and social workers, but we also work with many different medical disciplines."
Still, teams need strong leaders and many others cite that as Dr. Gospodarowicz's great ability as she has lead both Princess Margaret and the Union for International Cancer Control, where she will soon complete a two-year term as the association's first female and first Canadian president.
"Mary has done a tremendous job of harnessing the collective might of experts in cancer prevention, detection, treatment, care and research," said John Seffrin, head of the American Cancer Society. "… Due in large part to her leadership we have, for the first time, a global movement to reduce human suffering from non-communicable diseases."
Once the dubious privilege of rich countries, cancer is just starting to emerge as a global health issue because increased life expectancy, Westernized lifestyles and tobacco use are pushing up the rates in developing economies.
"We can predict that in the next 30 years the number of cancer cases will dramatically rise: There is a tsunami of cancer coming," she said.
She took the rotating presidency at the UICC because she feels Canada should contribute to the global effort. She thinks international organizations must now look beyond preventive measures like smoking-cessation programs and supportive care for those stricken toward actual treatments: "Not all cancers are preventable," she points out.
Dr. Gospodarowicz never planned to become a leader, nor would she describe herself as selfless. She was born and raised in Poland where she studied medicine before arriving in Canada in the 1960s to continue her studies at the University of Toronto, becoming a radiation oncologist.
"I wish I could tell you I was motivated to help people. I think I just found it interesting, a good job and a good career," she said, adding she fell into administrative roles when she discovered she could change things. "I never really wanted to be head of a department but at some point we didn't have resources to do good treatment – so you become active."
Her colleagues say she is relentless in fighting for progress against cancer.
"And she does it with personality, and a smile, and a diplomacy that allows her to get the results she's looking for," said Pamela Fralick, president of the Canadian Cancer Society. "She simply pushes for what she knows has to happen, and she'll do whatever she needs to do, to get there. She knows what her patients need, and it's all about them."
Indeed, despite the administrative load, Dr. Gospodarowicz spends about a quarter of her time with patients: "Fundamentally, it's what I am. I'm a physician. It keeps you real."
She never finds cancer medicine a sad job, saying progress in the field can be highly motivating: "It's a huge opportunity and a huge need. We are not going out of business unfortunately."
So, can cancer be conquered in our lifetime, as the slogan says?
"We don't say eliminate; I don't think we believe cancer will ever be eliminated as a disease ... I would define it as making sure cancer is not a fatal disease ... [and] that we conquer the stigma that exists even in Canada today; that people are not afraid to say that they have cancer. That cancer stops being a life-alternating event."
It's complicated work against a complicated foe, requiring both a great deal of research and a great deal of co-ordination of care. That takes a lot more money than is forthcoming from government.
"In Canada, everyone is equal; we fund adequate health care for all, best buy for the population. If you want a cancer centre that is better than that, you need philanthropy," she said, pointing out that the top cancer centres in the U.S. are usually supporting by massive donations, including a single $100-million gift made last week to New York's Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
"My ambition is that Princess Margaret be one of the top cancer centres in the world. Not for me – although if I got cancer, that would be nice – but I just hate seeing patients and not offering them the best there is," she said.
So, she will be there for Monday's fundraiser – just don't tell her it's all about her.