UN envoy rallies students to fight cancer

The former leader of Ontario’s NDP has a challenge for the G8 nations and for Canadian university students: Control cancer.

Stephen Lewis whetted University of Toronto students’ political appetites Wednesday evening by urging them to get involved in the fight to cut cancer diagnoses in half by 2015.

The U of T was the last stop on a university tour across Ontario, given by the “People vs. Cancer” for the Campaign to Control Cancer. Lewis is a founding member.

He challenged students in the audience to begin their own conversations about curing cancer within their disciplines, in coffee shops and meetings with MPPs and city councillors.

“It’s worth saturating the prime minister’s office and the minister of health,” Lewis said. “If the universities could give leadership, then politicians might act. This is a cause who’s time has come.”

As the director of the Stephen Lewis Foundation and former UN special envoy for HIV and AIDS in Africa, Lewis has experience in raising public awareness on health.

He told a full house at the U of T Medical Sciences building that preventative measures could cut cancer in half within a generation. He said changing personal habits, such as smoking and drinking alcohol, will decrease chances of contracting the disease.

“It’s not just about the fundraising, the research and the cure,” Lewis said. “It’s placing non-communicable diseases, of which cancer is a part, at the centre of the global health edifice.”

Stephen Lewis has fought pitched battles against poverty and the spread of HIV and AIDS in Africa. As the Toronto Observer’s Vanessa Brown reports, Lewis has now set his sights on conquering cancer.


The “People vs. Cancer” tour began with an informal conversation in Ottawa last September.

Pat Kelly, CEO of the Campaign to Control Cancer, told U of T students that she and Lewis were astonished that one in three Canadians will face a cancer diagnosis in a lifetime.

“We know how to control cancer, and have known for years, but we need to mobilize,” Kelly said.

In order to galvanize student interest, Lewis and Kelly looked to Barack Obama’s 2008 Iowa caucus, which drew strong support for his presidential campaign.

“Stephen (Lewis) said, ‘You are on the verge of an amazing world-wide campaign to control cancer. What’s missing is leadership: moving knowledge into action…and engaging a new generation of people,’” Kelly recalled.

Later this year, the Campaign to Control Cancer will draft a report of their findings, based on people’s ideas and tips from their own conversations, and turn it over to Parliament Hill.

Lewis wants to see non-communicable diseases on the agenda during the G8 and G20 Summits, which roll into town this summer.

For Sarah Collier, an epidemiology student at U of T who attended the talk, Lewis’ plea struck a chord.

“Tonight I’ll be thinking about where I sit politically and what I can do to move the agenda forward,” Collier said. “Sometimes we sit back and let politicians make the decisions. I am challenged to challenge politicians.”