Michael Woods has received the Canadian Cancer Society’s National Medal of Courage for his personal battle with cancer and his professional commitment to enhancing the lives of those living with the disease.
A molecular geneticist at Memorial University’s faculty of medicine, Woods was president of the Newfoundland and Labrador division of the Canadian Cancer Society when he was presented with the award during a volunteer appreciation event earlier this year.
Now the past-president, he is also a member of the society’s national board of directors.
Woods obtained his PhD from Memorial in 2001 and then received a post-doctoral fellowship from the National Cancer Institute of Canada to study colorectal cancer genetics at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital.
He was diagnosed with testicular cancer during his time at Mount Sinai.
He had surgery and has been cancer-free for a decade.
Woods’ primary research interests are in studying the genetics of colorectal cancer, familial pulmonary fibrosis and intracranial aneurysms.
“I’m trying to identify the inherited cause of these conditions in Newfoundland families.”
Woods had no idea he was getting the Medal of Courage — the recognition came as a total surprise, he says.
“I wasn’t sure if I deserved it, but it’s a great honour. It’s humbling.”
What is your full name?
Michael O’Neill Woods.
Where and when were you born?
February 1972 at St. Clare’s.
Where is home today?
What motivates you?
Challenging myself and competition. I play a lot of sports. I’ve always been a competitive kind of person, not just against other people but I compete within myself. I always want to try to do better, no matter what I’m doing. The status quo is not good enough.
What was one act of rebellion you committed as a youth?
My mom (Linda Woods) and dad (Michael Woods) are still alive. They both live in the U.S. My father was my high school basketball coach. He didn’t want me to play rugby and my mother didn’t either. She was afraid I was going to get hurt. People who don’t play rugby think it’s a game played by barbarians. I went and bought cleats and went and played on my own. I didn’t tell them. They found out later and were OK with it. I guess I didn’t come home beat up.
What is your greatest
Getting the Medal of Courage is on top of my mind right now, but I’m hoping my greatest accomplishment hasn’t come yet. Making it to 41 was actually a big accomplishment for me, too. I didn’t think I was going to make it this far. Not necessarily because of my cancer diagnosis, but I always thought, as a young person, that I wasn’t going to live that long.
How old were you when you were diagnosed with cancer?
I was 31. … I had early stage testicular cancer. If you’re going to have a cancer that’s a good one to have because it can be identified fairly early and something can be done about it.
What were you told about your diagnosis?
I had three options. I could have had chemo or I could have had more surgery or I could go on surveillance for five years. The problem with surveillance is young men don’t often stick with it. Every month you have to get blood work done and every month or two you have to get CT scans or X-rays. But I was working in a hospital, so I thought if anyone can do this, I can do it. So, I took the chance and it worked out well. It’s been 10 years now.
What is the most difficult thing you’ve ever done?
What was your favourite year?
1989. My last year of high school. It’s really the last year where there are no worries. Then you become an adult and there are so many more pressures on you. I enjoyed that last year so much. Ignorance is bliss.
What is your greatest regret?
My grandmother (Mary O’Neill) died more than 10 years ago. She was from Northern Bay. My grandfather (Dolph O’Neill) is still alive. He is from Bell Island. But I wish I’d appreciated my grandmother more as a young person, than I did. She was a remarkable woman and I still think of her to this day. I really loved her.
What are you reading these days?
“Don Quixote.” It’s the only book that I’ve read where I laugh out loud. And I read “Star Wars Legacy” comics.
What is your personal motto?
Go big or go home.
Do you have any hidden talents?
I don’t have any hidden talents. All my talents, I’m quite boisterous about.
What are your best and worst qualities?
One of my best is honesty. One of my worst is my impatience. Sometimes it gets the better of me, but I think I have improved over the years. Maybe I’m mellowing with age.
Who inspires you?
Volunteers. People who give up their time for a cause or to help someone else.
What is your most treasured
Who would you like to be stuck
in an elevator with?
Anthony Bourdain. He’s a journalist and a TV personality. He has a number of travel and food shows. He has similar likes as I do, such as travelling, eating and drinking. He’s also a bit irreverent so he’ll say anything about anything. It would be interesting to have a chat with him.
Which person, alive or dead, would you like to have lunch with?
Frederick Sanger. He’s a double Nobel Prize winner. One of his prizes was for determining a way to sequence DNA. This is something that we do in the lab every day. So he’s one of the fathers of the field that I work in. It would be nice just to ask him where he thinks genetics and medicine are going in the future.
Does being a cancer survivor drive you even harder in your research endeavours?
It makes me appreciate what it’s like being unhealthy and what other people who are sick, and their families, are going through. So I think it’s more empathy than drive. And I appreciate what people (who participate in genetic studies) are doing for me. Without them I wouldn’t be able to do my work.