Giving thanks

Giving thanks

Actor Michael Douglas visits Montréal to raise money for the doctors who saved his life
June 1, 2011
Michael Douglas speaking during the 17th
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Michael Douglas speaking during the 17th fundraiser for the McGill Head and Neck Cancer Fund.
Howard Kay

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good,” Michael Douglas’s character famously declared in the movie Wall Street. “Greed is right. Greed works.” It was after filming last year’s sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, that Douglas noticed a strain in his larynx and soreness in his jaw. His doctors in New York prescribed nothing more than antibiotics.

But in August 2010, while at his vacation home in Mont-Tremblant, Que., with his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones, Douglas decided to consult Saul Frenkiel, a specialist at the Jewish General Hospital in Montréal and chair of McGill University’s department of head and neck surgery. After an initial examination and biopsy, Frenkiel diagnosed what other doctors had missed: The actor had a walnut-sized tumour in his throat and was suffering from Stage IV cancer. By the time the Wall Street sequel opened, Douglas was already undergoing intensive radiation and chemotherapy.

Frenkiel examined Douglas on the ninth floor of the Segal Cancer Centre, located in the west wing of the hospital. Opened in 2005, the centre now has roughly 300 medical and nursing staff, receives approximately 70,000 patient visits a year and houses extensive research programs.

“But the very beginning of the centre,” notes its director, Gerald Batist, “was the CFI grant.” The original $3 million infrastructure award the centre received in 2000 for the construction of a clinical floor space about the size of two NHL hockey rinks, pointed the way to its birth as one of the leading comprehensive cancer centres in the country.

In medicine, the link between basic research and patient treatment is not always straightforward. “We’re now working toward personalized medicine,” says Batist. He points to the molecular pathology group, whose work allows researchers to profile tumours and identify specific treatments, not just for one type of cancer but for all of them.

“We’ve made enormous strides in treating head and neck cancers,” says Frenkiel. While the incidence of throat cancer has fallen in recent years — likely because fewer people smoke — rates of thyroid and HPV cancer continue to rise. The research conducted by Frenkiel’s team extends across McGill’s four teaching hospitals, but he benefits directly from his base at the Segal Cancer Centre. His research group uses the centre’s labs and research assistance. “It has extremely qualified researchers, who work with our clinicians and students.”

Michael Douglas returned to Montréal in May to thank Frenkiel and his colleagues and to raise money for the McGill Head & Neck Cancer Fund. Speaking prior to the gala event at Le Windsor, Douglas admitted that the diagnosis had not come as a total surprise.

“I had it in my head that something was going on. But Stage IV … I must say, I think I had to put my head between my legs for a minute.”

Thanks in large part to Douglas’s willingness to give back to those who saved his life, the McGill Head & Neck Cancer Fund gala raised almost $2 million. Generosity, in his own case, is good. Generosity is right. Generosity works.