Jack Knox: Money and heart come together in hopes for cure

Jack Knox mugshot genericEven growing up in Central Saanich, Bob Conconi was an entrepreneur.

He had a big, sprawling Daily Colonist paper route, then went to milking cows for a buck an hour, before and after school.

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At 13, he spent 12-hour nights in the barn at the Saanich Fair, making sure the show cattle didn’t bed down in their own manure. If they did, he washed them. He took care of up to 100 animals, charging farmers $1 a head — $100 a night was unheard of for a 13-year-old in 1963.

Conconi graduated from Claremont, worked in the Bank of Montreal at Cook and Quadra, was barely 20 when he headed for the mainland, where he soon went into business on his own.

His biggest success was with a company called Canadian Securities Registration Systems, which eventually led to 2003’s establishment of the family’s Robert L. Conconi Foundation, a philanthropic outfit that has granted close to $5 million so far.

All that wealth, all that charity, didn’t stop him from getting throat cancer in 2010, though. Cancer is an equal-opportunity affliction, hitting rich and poor, sinners and saints alike. It doesn’t look in your wallet or measure your philanthropy.

In fact, the disease that struck Conconi was the same one that hit his father. “He died of the identical cancer as I had.”

By the time the son got sick, though, treatments had improved. Chemotherapy and radiation are still blunt instruments, but have been refined.

“I was cured forever within 60 days. That’s the difference between 1979 and today.”

What has Conconi excited now is the next big leap in treatment: customized immunotherapy.

So excited that he and wife Diane Conconi just gave the B.C. Cancer Foundation $2 million (that’s their own money, not the foundation’s), some of it going to put leading-edge, made-in-Victoria research into practice. The “clean room” being built at the B.C. Cancer Agency’s Victoria facility will allow Dr. Brad Nelson’s customized immunotherapy work to go to clinical trials.

Listening to Nelson and others at the cancer agency get psyched up while talking about their efforts, it’s easy to see how their enthusiasm could be infectious. There’s a research assistant named Katy Milne who plays the keyboard of her $400,000 microscope like a concert pianist and makes staring at cancer cells sound like a dream job — which it is, when you think of the importance of what she’s doing. (Don’t you wish you had paid more attention in science class? Aren’t you grateful that someone else did?)

The thing to remember, though, is that this work relies almost entirely on grants and donations.

Although the provincial government pays for the treatment of cancer patients, it does not typically fund research labs — yet it is those facilities that attract top scientists such as Nelson and that lead to advances in treatment.

The B.C. Cancer Agency wouldn’t have been able to do its immunology research were it not for close to $5 million raised through the B.C. Cancer Foundation in the past two years. Nelson wouldn’t be in Victoria at all were it not for the foundation’s Daring to Believe campaign, which raised $6 million to build and equip a research component when the $40-million cancer centre opened on the grounds of Royal Jubilee Hospital in 2001.

The campaign turned the corner in May 2000 with a $1-million donation from Trev and Joyce Deeley of Sidney. That might sound like just another of those rich-guy-hands-over-a-cheque stories, but few who were at the Empress that day will forget the romance of the moment, an emotional Trev making the donation as an expression of love for the terminally ill wife he was about to lose. Joyce stood at his side, exuding an elegance startling for a woman who had been living with cancer for 31Ú2 years.

She died the next spring. He followed her almost a year to the day later. In 2003, the facility they helped build was renamed the Trev and Joyce Deeley Research Centre, which is how it is known today.

It’s a reminder that A) cancer research doesn’t pay for itself and B) those who join the fight often do so for very personal reasons, to the best of their ability.

A 2011 quote from Campbell River’s Shawn Hall, who had lost his mother to cancer when he was just 16, has long resonated. Asked his reason for riding the 1,000-kilometre Cops for Cancer Tour de Rock, he replied: “I’m not a research scientist, a doctor or a millionaire.”

Money raised by the Tour goes to a different charity — the Canadian Cancer Society, not the B.C. Cancer Foundation — but you get the point.

We all do what we can.

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