OTTAWA – Liberal MP Arnold Chan, 48, remembers feeling the small lump beneath his armpit one night as he was trying to fall asleep in his Ottawa hotel room.
“Oh, damn,” Chan said he thought to himself that night in February as he realized the cancer had resurfaced.
Then suddenly, Chan was once again forced to confront that his personal life was entwined with his political one, affecting everything from missing votes for chemotherapy appointments to how he talks about Bill C-14, the proposed doctor-assisted dying legislation the Liberal government has been struggling to pass before the June 6 deadline they were given by the Supreme Court.
“I’m not sure I would ever avail myself of that,” said Chan. His initial diagnosis of nasopharyngeal carcinoma — a cancer that began in the back of his nasal cavity and spread to his lympathic system — came not long after he won his Toronto-area seat of Scarborough-Agincourt in a 2014 byelection. It was followed by seven weeks of radiation combined with six months of chemotherapy.
“I don’t know. I’m just saying I would like the option, if I knew I was approaching certain kinds of circumstances where there is no return, where it’s terminal and it’s the difference of a few weeks, but I face a few weeks of such degraded quality of life that it’s pretty meaningless, or I am in such dire pain that it’s not worth it,” said Chan.
In a wide-ranging phone interview with The Canadian Press from his Toronto home, Chan discussed how he would not want his personal experience with cancer to be the primary motivating factor for his decisions as a legislator, on this or any other issue.
“Your moral values are important, because it gives you a frame for how you look at the world; but our role is that of parliamentarian,” said Chan, who plans to vote for C-14 although he does share concerns about its restriction to those whose death is “reasonably foreseeable” and would personally prefer greater accessibility.
“We are legislators and that is a different responsibility. I don’t feel it is my responsibility to impose my moral values on everybody else. They apply to me,” said Chan, who is deputy government House leader.
Yet, his illness and its difficult treatment have forced Chan to confront the personal side of politics, and his own limitations, in a way he never expected.
He struggles with the need to slow down.
“We’re all triple type-A personalities and I don’t like being on the bench,” said Chan, a lawyer and long-time political aide at the Ontario legislature before he came to federal politics.
“But I’m also a realist. I know that if I go too hard, I am injuring myself long-term. So I need to find that balance, psychologically, where I feel I am continuing to contribute where I can, but not to the point where I am doing myself serious harm in terms of overworking,” Chan said.
“Because chemotherapy, it sucks the energy out of you. It literally sucks the energy out of you and sometimes it hits you at times you had no idea it is coming,” he said.
So, it occasionally means having to tell the whip that he cannot attend question period that day. Or staying home from the Liberal policy convention in Winnipeg this weekend because a pneumothorax —a small air pocket in his right lung that is a side effect of one of the chemotherapy drugs he is taking — means it is too risky to fly. Or having a staffer, or a Greater Toronto Area caucus colleague, go to evening events in his stead.
Just saying no sometimes.
But his wife Jean Yip, 47, who joined the interview, said Chan was speaking more about how she would like him to do his job, and less about how he really does it.
“He does way too much,” she said.
Yip, who works as a lunchroom supervisor at the middle school their 12-year-old son attends — they have two more, ages 14 and 16 — has been travelling to Ottawa with Chan more than usual to help make sure he eats healthy food and gets enough rest.
“Even before cancer, it is a very difficult work-life balance,” she said.
Chan said that is one of the things the Commons standing committee on procedure and House affairs, of which he is a member, is trying to tackle.
“If you want to have diversity in representation that is reflective of Canadian society, you’ve got to try to create the conditions that make it possible to function with people with various different kinds of responsibilities,” Chan said.