Stacey Ivanchuk was in Simcoe Park Sunday, as she has been for many years, to help Joan King celebrate the 40th annual Terry Fox Run, even though there were no crowds of people waiting to participate in the community event.
There were, however, many people who stopped by before or after their One Day, One Way walk, run or cycle, which was the COVID celebration of the milestone. Some dropped off pledge sheets and money, and others picked up their participation stickers for completing their run.
In 2007, King’s first year organizing the local event, Ivanchuk, a St. Davids native, was there to help. Like King, she had read about the need for volunteers on the front page of the local newspaper, and had showed up to see what she could do. That day, she became the official photographer of the annual event, and most of the photos on the posters displayed in the bandshell Sunday were hers.
During her university years, and then working in Toronto, she had volunteered in Toronto for the Canadian Cancer Society in various capacities. “Cancer hits home for me, and I really just wanted to stay involved and do my part to help keep research funded.”
When she returned to NOTL for the run in 2007, she recalls King asking if anyone had a good camera. “I did, and became the de facto (and completely amateur) photographer for event day.”
She’s been doing that every year since, also actively fundraising and separately doing the run so she could be at Simcoe Park Sunday, where her heart is every Terry Fox Run day.
Her goal, as for all who participate, continues to be to help raise money for cancer research.
Ivanchuk has first-hand knowledge of how important that funding is, and a passion for seeing it continue.
As a 13-year-old, she lost her mother to glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer. Her mom, Bunny Ivanchuk, was just 35 years old when she died in 1984.
Ivanchuk recalls that when her mother was going for treatment, there was a five-year-old named David Fossey, from Niagara Falls, undergoing treatment at the same time.
In many ways, Ivanchuk says, her mother accepted what was happening to her, but to see David endure what he did, at such a young age, really affected Bunny. “She was a lifelong supporter of St. Jude’s Children Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee (she was American) as well as Sick Kids. Of course, ours is just one story of the so many . . . I don’t think there is a single person who hasn’t been affected by cancer directly or indirectly.”
David died just two weeks before her mother, says Ivanchuk.
And that’s when she decided she wanted to be a doctor.
“I’d always loved science, and I thought I’d be an engineer or an architect,” she says, but instead, she earned her PhD in brain cancer biology.
After attending St. Michael Catholic Elementary School in NOTL, Ivanchuk moved to Mary Ward in Niagara Falls to complete her elementary school education — it was closer to their home in St. Davids.
From there she went to Denis Morris Catholic High School in St. Catharines before heading to Queen’s University.
“I grew up on fruit farm in St. Davids, and Niagara very much remains home to me, despite all my years in Toronto,” she says. She expected she would stay in Toronto to complete grad school and then return home, “but opportunities for work kept me here (in Toronto).”
After completing a Master of Science at Queen’s, with a focus on cancer genetics, she moved to the University of Toronto for her PhD, doing the lab work at the Hospital for Sick Children, where she joined the Labatt Brain Tumour Research Centre.
“My PhD supervisor there is a paediatric neurosurgeon, with research interests into the biology of brain cancers, including glioblastoma multiforme. I was funded by a Terry Fox studentship from 1998 to 2002,” says Ivanchuk.
“A lot of us who go into science and research have a personal story,” she adds.
The field is very competitive, and money to fund it hard to come by, so she was extremely proud to be supported by the Terry Fox Foundation for four years as she completed her PhD.
“That’s the key,” she says. “The foundation is very good about supporting students though their PhD process.”
Foundation grants help in the development of young individuals who go on to become innovative cancer researchers, “the people who will come up with the breakthroughs,” she explains.
In the early days, the foundation would raise money and let the National Cancer Institute of Canada distribute it, but then took ownership of that arm and began deciding how the funds raised by the foundation are distributed,” Ivanchuk says.
“All cancer fundraising agencies do great work to support research, clinical trials and patient support. The Terry Fox Foundation partners with other granting agencies to leverage its dollars with matches, so the money goes further,” she explains. Those collaborative grants are important, she adds. “No one can do it alone, and TFF recognizes strength in numbers.”
“This is personal for the Fox family,” says Ivanchuk. “It is still so real for them. They focus on what matters. I have huge admiration for the Fox Foundation.”
Thanks to them, over the past 40 years, new, better treatments are constantly being discovered, she says. Although success in treating glioblastoma has not been so successful to date, there have been major advances in other cancers, where methods of early diagnosis have been much improved, resulting in better outcomes.
In order to continue that momentum, “we still have to concentrate on raising funds,” she says.
Ivanchuk, who is now working for a biotech company developing cell therapies for Parkinson’s Disease, says she’d love to get back to work in a lab, but there is never enough funding.
“It’s tough to keep talent in the lab in a meaningful way. It takes money,” she says. “Not everyone has that opportunity.”
Money is really critical to continuing advances. “We’re playing the long game, and that’s why these events are so important,” she says, gesturing to the small group of people gathered in Simcoe Park. “Labs that were closed during COVID are slowly reopening, and now, more than ever, that funding is so important. We’re still doing the research, but we have to keep the funding going.”
She also stresses the importance of patience, and believing in the strength and power of scientific inquiry. “So many people much more clever than me are finding new pathways to interrogate, new ways to stop cancer cells in their tracks and new ways to make the patient experience better.”
Ivanchuk is obviously passionate about the possibilities research presents. “I just love science,” she admits, “the purity of research, the tough questions that need to be answered, and the smart people who are finding those answers. It can be tough to get kids interested in science, but it’s so important. I’d especially like to see more girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).”
However, she adds, she can see changes coming, especially with the appointment of Gelareh Zadeh as the first female chair of neurosurgery at the University of Toronto, and the first female neurosurgery chair in all of Canada.
“The future is in good hands. The kids of today will help us get across some of these challenging boundaries. They’ll be the ones that find the breakthroughs. We have to keep the fundraising momentum going for them.”
Last year the Terry Fox Foundation distributed $29.7 million in cash grants for cancer research, with 47 research projects and 435 researchers received funding.