Rallying the troops against cancer
By Katelynn Northam - March 29, 2010
At first glance, Stephen Lewis doesn’t seem especially different from the average Canadian. Small in stature and unassuming, he carries himself with a quiet humility that belies his enormous international reputation as a politician, diplomat, author and humanitarian.
But the moment he opened his mouth last Friday to a crowd of around 200 at Ondaatje Hall, everyone was listening. Speaking articulately, passionately, and with cadences reminiscent of an era gone by, Lewis spoke about the need to begin focusing health policy on non-communicable diseases – with an emphasis on cancer.
Mr. Lewis’s talk was part of Dalhousie Stands Up 2 Cancer, a day of speakers, workshops, and panel discussions organized by the Department of Health and Human Performance in partnership with Go Public: The Campaign to Control Cancer. Mr. Lewis extended his Ontario public speaking tour (themed ‘The People Vs. Cancer’), to make a special stop at Dalhousie.
Lighting a fire
Many have wondered why Mr. Lewis – a well known activist who has made a name for himself by raising awareness of the ravages of HIV/AIDS on Africa – is speaking on behalf of the Campaign to Control Cancer. He simply reminded the audience that “there is no reason in the world why one’s view can’t expand to encompass other issues. Social justice doesn’t work in compartments. It’s all-encompassing, and I feel very strongly about this issue, and what might be achieved.”
Pat Kelly, the program director for the Campaign to Control Cancer, spoke about the campaign’s desire to make the cancer campaign as public as the HIV/AIDS campaign has become – with the hopes of getting this important issue on the discussion tables in time for the G8 and G20 summits. “We wanted to know, how do you take a situation like cancer and light a fire under people. What’s the magic formula?” she said.
One recurring theme in the speeches regarded the startling statistic that 50 per cent of cancers are preventable. By shifting more focus to issues of cancer prevention, Mr. Kelly, Mr. Lewis, and other advocates believe they can dramatically decrease incidences of cancer in Canada and the world. Non-communicable diseases are simply not on the political agenda, they believe, even though cancer and other health-related issues tie in strongly to the Millennium Development goals.
'I love students'
Mr. Lewis also spoke about his admiration for students’ enthusiasm. He pointed to numerous global social justice campaigns that have been primarily kick-started by university students, and his desire that a cancer prevention movement be among them. “I love students,” he said, “because you do so much more (for social justice issues) than you’ll ever realize.”
“I feel very bitter that I haven’t spent my entire life in a university environment,” he joked. (Mr. Lewis has over 30 honourary degrees from universities despite never having earned a degree himself.)
The campaign is hoping that by engaging Canadians in a dialogue about cancer, they can help to reduce the statistic that one in three Canadians will get cancer.
“The most important thing about these social justice issues is that you never give up,” said Lewis. “I’m almost levitating with the possibilities of engagement.”