Dr. Jackson Wu
On Cancer Care, Committee Work, and Jazz on the side
Dr. Jackson Wu has a system to ensure he doesn’t become overwhelmed with the intensity of his job as a radiation oncologist at Tom Baker Cancer Centre. His system is a stereo hi-fi that includes a full wall of acoustic panels and a collection of digital music files ranging from classical to 1950s jazz, filling nearly one terabyte of hard drive.
“I go down to my sound cave and I get totally absorbed in the music … I actually feel like I’m there at the performance,” said Dr. Wu. “I don’t travel much geographically, but instead I time travel through compositions and recordings of concerts. I put on Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald recorded in 1956, and I’m immersed in the most beautiful sound and interaction. It takes my mind away.”
This is one type of outlet for a man whose life’s work is centered around the health of others. For the past 20-plus years, Dr. Wu has worked with patients with advanced cancers, particularly those with metastatic bone cancer disease. For over a decade, he has been a member and Associate Chair of the Health Research Ethics Board of Alberta (Cancer Committee), and from 2017-2020 he served as oncology liaison in support of Calgary Zone MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying) Care Coordination Service. In other words, music induced time travel is likely the only escape Dr. Wu’s schedule affords.
“What it means to be an oncologist is highly variable, but what it means to me is to have the ability to assimilate, assess, appraise information that is relevant to the practice, and then provide a certain level of care in a meaningful, interpretive and hopefully, scientifically valid way,” said Dr. Wu. “Along those lines I find my role not so much a prescriber but as an appraiser of relevant cancer information.”
Aside from the many cancer patients Dr. Wu attends to, he has his own family stories of critical illness and suffering; experiences that have deepened his resolve and added context to his perspective on end of life care.
“Before MAID was made available in Alberta, my father-in-law was dying from pulmonary fibrosis and in his last six months of life he was really struggling with breathing. He wanted to go to Switzerland to have assisted dying, but it just wasn’t possible,” he shared.
Dr. Wu also lost his sister after a short survival with cancer. She too wished for assisted dying, but there was not enough time to prepare family members and enact the MAID process.
“Those experiences and others have given me some orientation to what having end of life choices and options actually means to people who are suffering. I see my obligation to society as doing what I can to relieve the suffering, and so I view it as a privileged to be involved with MAID, and in some small way, be able to fulfill that obligation.”
Wellspring fills a Gap
Dr. Wu first became familiar with Wellspring in 2017, when he was invited to do a presentation on MAID for Wellspring members.
“Very quickly it became apparent how well-designed and essential Wellspring is,” he said. “It has a strong mission; a consistent welcoming message to cancer affected people and their families; and I was struck by the strong sense of community and connection there.”
Doctor Wu said he believes the cancer community is fortunate to have this level of non-medical support available in the province, and says he could imagine how this support might have been beneficial to his own family.
“What I have learned in practice, and what I came to understand more clearly after my sister passed away, is that many people living with disease suffer silently. This issue of ‘silent suffering’ keeps me wanting to engage … wanting to stay open and have some freedom to engage patients and family members about what they are going through,” he said. However, Dr. Wu is also well aware of the toll this type of investment can take on oncologists who are already overburdened with magnitude of cancer patient care.
“In cancer care we recognize that our patients have mental, emotional, and financial impacts that need addressing; however, the logistics of treatment, assessment and service delivery are just so complicated, we are limited in how much we can offer in that regard. This is why I believe Wellspring is so essential,” he said.
Given Dr. Wu’s longtime focus on palliative care, it seems impossible to imagine how he bears the burden of loss that dominates his work.
Remarkably, Dr. Wu shares that he is not the only doctor in the house; his wife is a practicing obstetrician and gynecologist of 18 years. “She brings home entirely different stories of events, the other extreme of life really. So we balance each other out. It’s mostly her stories that make it into our dinner conversation,” he said.
Notwithstanding this formidable home support, Dr. Wu shares there is something deeper that must prevail.
“As oncologists, each of us brings our own little bit of humanity to the practice, and it is demanding on us as individuals to different degrees, based on our experience, exposure, and how we reconcile things for ourselves.”
For Dr. Wu, reconciling is key. “To ensure the burden does not become too much for me, I’ve look for meaning in my encounters and reconcile conflicting wishes and emotions as I’m capable of. There will be some winning and some losing. All I can do is my best,” he said.
No doubt, his music escape helps.
Wellspring Calgary Welcomes Dr. Wu to its Board of Directors
When Sheena Clifford, Acting CEO of Wellspring Calgary suggested to Dr. Wu that he might like to join the Wellspring Calgary Board of Directors, he indicated he wasn’t sure what value he could offer. Sheena had no doubts about his value.
“Dr. Wu is a vital and esteemed contributor to the cancer care system, a partner we strongly value and rely on as we strive to meet the non-medical needs of those living with cancer,” Sheena said.
“In Dr. Wu’s role as an oncologist, he has a front row seat to the complex emotional and practical needs of cancer patients and their families, and he often communicates relief knowing that Wellspring offers a support community to complement the medical cancer treatment model,” she added.
Sheena further shares that Doctor Wu has been a presenter for Wellspring Calgary speaker events, and he consistently refers patients to Wellspring. Now as a Board member, he will perform an integrated role in the benefits and positive impacts of our allied efforts.
“We couldn’t be happier to welcome him to our Board, and look forward to reaping the benefits of his knowledge, experiences, and shared interest in the well-being of our members,” said Sheena.
Dr. Wu responded by calling this a meaningful role for him, and stating that he is happy to lend his expertise to the Board.
“I find Wellspring’s vision, ‘No one has to face cancer alone’ very compelling. It is the kind of work I aspire to do in my clinical practice, but it’s just not possible to extend myself in this way and still be an effective oncologist. Belonging to a community that provides support that mitigates the effects of cancer feels very natural to me,” he said.