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St. John’s native recognized for breast cancer research

Dr. Timothy Whelan, who was raised in St. John’s, is the 2019 recipient of the O. Harold Warwick Prize for outstanding achievements in cancer control research from the Canadian Cancer Society.
Dr. Timothy Whelan, who was raised in St. John’s, is the 2019 recipient of the O. Harold Warwick Prize for outstanding achievements in cancer control research from the Canadian Cancer Society. - Contributed

Dr. Timothy Whelan credits mother with instilling the importance of education

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

In naming award recipients, the Canadian Cancer Society noted Dr. Timothy Whelan is considered a world leader by his peers, but in a media interview Monday, Whelan wanted to make sure one leader in particular got a shout-out.

And that is his mother, St. John’s resident Marie Whelan, who instilled the importance of education in her six children, the youngest of whom was a year old when her husband died, her son said.

“She was a real inspiration for being educated and helping others. She was a strong support,” said Whelan, who was 16 when he lost his father. His mother, who worked in a lab, then retrained as a school librarian to raise the family.

Whelan, a Memorial University graduate and a Rhodes scholar, is a professor in the department of oncology at McMaster University and a radiation oncologist at the Juravinski Cancer Centre of Hamilton Health Sciences in Hamilton, Ont.

“I am a mother. You know I am proud of all my children,” said Marie Whelan, whose four sons followed in the footsteps of their father, general surgeon Pat, and became doctors. 

Radiation oncologist and researcher Dr. Timothy Whelan — described as a game changer in the field of radiation therapy for breast cancer — has received one of the society’s excellence in cancer research awards, the O. Harold Warwick Prize.

The society noted Whelan has led research that showed a shorter course of radiation is as safe and effective as a longer course, and a new radiation strategy with benefits that include reducing the risk of recurrence and improving survival. 

“His studies have led to these new treatment strategies being adopted worldwide as the new standard of care, improving care for people with breast cancer and helping them live longer and fuller lives,” the society said in a description of award recipients.

After receiving his medical degree from Oxford University, Whelan’s early career included an internship in St. John’s and a stint at the Twillingate Hospital before moving on to Ontario to further his expertise.

Whelan holds a Canada Research Chair in Breast Cancer Research and is currently involved in several studies he hopes will make more strides for patients.

One particular trial is focused on a method to identify breast cancer patients who have such a low risk of recurrence that they may not require radiation therapy.

Whelan said his main motivation is wanting to make improvements for breast cancer patients’ care.

“It was treating women for breast cancer, realizing we could probably do better,” Whelan said of why he specialized in the disease.

“It’s nice to get the recognition, but what’s really been motivating my career was to able to change clinical practice throughout Canada and other places to improve care for women.”

Whelan noted the Canadian Cancer Society has been a strong supporter of his teams’ research. Unlike drug trials, his field hasn’t traditionally been financially supported by industry, so the main sources of funding come from charitable organizations and government.

But it has become more challenging because of the cost of research, and less government funds available.

Whelan said he draws many questions that have led to research projects from his clinic time with his patients.

Whelan’s sister, Mary Rideout, noted her brother’s passion for his work.

“He’s done a lot and continues to work hard in the research end of things, especially, which I think is great, and I’ve always been very proud of what he has been doing and what he has been working on,” Rideout said, also noting Whelan’s emphasis on studies that are useful to the patients.

One of  those helped patients faced with tough choices.

“One of the things he first worked on was a tool to help women decide what types of treatment would be their best options,” she said.

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