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MP Arnold Chan carries on in Parliament, despite battle with cancer

A self-described ‘parliamentary geek,’ Liberal MP Arnold Chan, says he has learned to adapt to his circumstances as a cancer patient, and has yet to stop working, despite his diagnosis.

Dave Chan/Dave Chan

Arnold Chan wasn't among the hordes of politicians and staffers who gleefully gathered at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's summer garden party earlier this week on the grounds of historic 24 Sussex Drive.

Instead, the Liberal MP for Scarborough-Agincourt in Toronto was at his hotel residence, resting, so he could attend an hour-long round of votes in Parliament later that night beginning at 10:30 p.m.

The late start, a reflection of the Liberal government's attempt to pass legislation before the House of Commons rises for the summer, would be hard on most people. But it was especially gruelling for Mr. Chan, 50, who has been battling cancer on-and-off for more than two years.

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No matter the hour, however, missing votes is not an option.

"I have to," Mr. Chan said recently, sitting in his office across the street from Parliament Hill. "That's my job."

The self-professed "parliamentary geek," who serves as his party's deputy house leader, came to prominence this week after delivering an emotional plea for civility in the Commons. Speaking only from rough notes, he urged his colleagues to ditch the "canned talking points" and treat the institution – and each other – more honourably. He also advised his fellow MPs to "use our heads, but follow our hearts."

The speech was spurred in part by a visit from his parents, who'd never seen him address the Commons, but also from what Mr. Chan described as the "increasing toxicity of the House" from all parties following his government's attempts to change procedural rules, such as Question Period.

His 20-minute speech was well-received, not only for its thoughtfulness and depth, but also because it came from Mr. Chan – a man who admits his health is declining and is choosing to spend his time in Parliament.

For Mr. Chan, the answer to why he continues to work as an MP is simple: because he still can.

"I have this privilege. I want to exercise it to the best of my ability," he said. "One should just continue to live one's life, despite whatever challenges you happen to have. And that's how I choose to deal with it."

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Mr. Chan, a lawyer and long-time Liberal party member who worked for former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, was elected in a by-election in June, 2014. He was first diagnosed in January, 2015, with nasopharyngeal carcinoma – a head and neck cancer that tends to affect Asian men between the ages of 35 and 55. He took a leave from Parliament to undergo six months of chemotherapy and radiation. Follow-up CT scans showed he was in the clear, and he ran successfully for re-election in October, 2015. Then, in February, 2016, he discovered a lump under his arm.

"I went, 'Damn, it's back,'" he said.

He didn't resume his intensive chemotherapy. Instead, he undergoes various treatments at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, usually on Fridays. He is currently on a clinical trial of pills.

Always a slight man, Mr. Chan's weight has dropped to little more than 100 pounds on his 5-foot 9-inch frame. Because of his radiation treatments, he has permanently lost 95 per cent of his saliva production, and constantly carries around a black water-bottle. On a recent day in his office, his wife and mother of their three teenage sons, Jean Yip, filled it with warm water for him to drink.

Mr. Chan says he has learned to adapt to his circumstances, including the fact that his own mortality may be more self-evident than it is for others.

"Anyone who faces a chronic or debilitating illness is just a little more aware," he said. "What choice do you have? Carry on. That's my advice to everyone. I'm not unique."

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For Mr. Chan, the most touching moments on Parliament Hill have been the simple ones: colleagues who offer to carry his backpack; an MP from another party, living in the same hotel, who told him to call if he ever needed anything; a moment with Conservative MP Blake Richards, who agreed to slow down with Mr. Chan on their way into the Procedure and House Affairs Committee, so they would both be late together.

"It's those little, little things," he said.

As Parliament prepares for its summer break, Mr. Chan says he has every intention of returning to work in the fall. Still, he acknowledges that "three months is a long time when you're a cancer patient."

"Life will take me where life takes me," he said. "This thing that unfortunately I have, will take me where it will take me. That's all."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Laura Stone is a reporter in The Globe's Ottawa bureau. She joined The Globe in February 2016. Before that, she was an online and TV reporter for Global News in Ottawa. Laura has done stints at the Toronto Star, Postmedia News and the Vancouver Province. More

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