Olivia Chow, MP
Personal interview, January 13, 2008
Thyroid cancer doesn’t discriminate. It hits young children, senior citizens and many in between. The disease doesn’t care if you are rich or poor, unknown or famous. Among our ranks are rock stars, entertainers and politicians.
One of our members not only got thyroid cancer, but she very generously told her story to the media in 2005. As a well-known Member of Parliament and then spouse of the late Leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, the story was heavily covered in both print and visual media. Courageously, she cared not about the possibility of negative effect on her political career. To her it was more vital to build awareness about our rare cancer and encourage research, than it was to guard against discussing the “c” word in public. That fearless person is Olivia Chow.
Her story began in 2002, when both Olivia and her husband Jack Layton were City Councillors for the City of Toronto. While sitting in their kitchen one day, Jack noticed that Olivia had a lump on her neck. Like many of us, what followed was a series of tests including ultrasounds and periodic Fine Needle Aspiration biopsies (three times in total). Although all the tests came back negative, her doctor (Dr. Betty Chan) advised her to have a thyroidectomy.
A year passed and Olivia continued her life as a busy City Councillor for the Trinity-Spadina ward, as well as preparing herself to run for a seat in the 2004 federal election. By this time Jack had become leader of the NDP party and was also running as a MP candidate – thus their already hectic lives became even busier. Olivia wasn’t prepared to undergo surgery just yet.
Instead, she dove into internet research. She learned that the vast majority of thyroid nodules are benign, and she didn’t concern herself with the appearance of her lumpy neck.
One can get quite dizzy just watching the Chow-Layton couple in action. They are on the go virtually every waking hour of the day. The couple does not own a car and biked to work each day when they both represented wards in the city. They are very health and environmentally conscious: running in various marathons, taking their vacations on arctic treks, and canoeing on pristine northern rivers. Their home is a model of environmental efficiency and they do whatever they can to avoid the use of toxins in and around their home. Certainly if anyone was doing what they could to avoid environmental triggers and toxins that may influence the development of cancer, it was Olivia.
Despite Olivia’s best efforts, by 2004 there was a chorus of calls for her to “get that lump removed”. People who urged her on included her city hall “staffers”, her doctor, her husband, and her mother Ho Sze Chow, who lives with Laytons.
Additionally, during the SARS crisis in Toronto, Olivia participated on panel discussions with doctors. One of those doctors said “Councillor Chow, have you checked your neck?”
When Olivia ran for a seat in 2004 federal election, her advisors arranged to have the then egg-shaped neck lump air-brushed out of the photos in her campaign literature! She was often seen on TV at the time as well, and two different doctors called her office to say “Does Olivia Chow know there is a growth on her thyroid?” Even a network-news cameraman pulled her aside to tell her about the lump he noticed in his viewfinder.
In November 2005, with no definitive signs that her nodule was cancerous, Olivia (then 47) bit the bullet and had a total thyroidectomy. In her usual style, and with her otherwise excellent health, she had her surgery on a Thursday and was back at city hall on Monday. Two weeks later her surgeon (Dr. Jeremy Freeman, Mt. Sinai Hospital) gave her the results of her pathology. She had a 3.6 cm papillary tumour. Of course she found this news to be quite shocking. However, all the reading she had done in the previous years about thyroid nodules and cancer made the news a little easier to take and she found herself reassuring the other people in her life that she’d be okay.
Three months later Olivia had an ablative dose of radioactive iodine (RAI) at Mt. Sinai Hospital. The window of the isolation room at the hospital faces west – conveniently it gave Olivia a view of her own house a few blocks away. Ever the close-knit couple, while Olivia spent her three days in isolation, she and Jack occasionally flashed their room lights to each other to stay connected.
Again, Olivia recovered fairly quickly from her bout of hypothyroidism (for the RAI treatment) and was proud to say that since she had her treatment on a Friday, she only missed two days of work the following week. Her subsequent whole body scan was clear.
Dr. Paul Walfish, endocrinologist, has been following her since then. Olivia was kept on a dose of only Cytomel for her first year post-surgery. Dr. Walfish uses this unique protocol to allow his patients to become hypothyroid quickly if he thinks a RAI scan or withdrawal Thyrogobulin (Tg) test is needed. In 2006 she was switched to Synthroid.
Since then, Olivia’s life returned to a new normal. Healthy, strong and still very active, she works 16 hour days as a busy MP yet still finds time for swimming, doing weight training and biking. Over the Christmas break, she and Jack took a vacation down south that included two hours a day of snorkelling.
As with most thyroid cancer patients, Olivia continues to be followed annually with check-ups, ultrasound and blood tests. And once she makes some time, she’ll be having a Thyrogen-stimulated Tg test this year as well.
Olivia Chow’s story is a great one to start this new series with. As a Thry’vors Thriving Survivor, she is an inspiration in her strength and resiliency. Many of our members found out about Thyroid Cancer Canada because she was brave enough to come forward to the media with her story in 2005. To your health Olivia!