The Current

Doctor who helped people meditate through pandemic fears diagnosed with stage 4 cancer

After finding a lump on his neck in May, Dr. James Maskalyk has been processing a diagnosis of cancer in the midst of the pandemic.

ER doctor and author Dr. James Maskalyk processes the shift from physician to patient

Dr. James Maskalyk in March, testing the protective gear he would use to treat patients on the front lines of the pandemic. Months later, he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. (Submitted by James Maskalyk)

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Originally published Oct 27, 2020.

An ER doctor says being diagnosed with a rare and serious form of cancer has been like "coming out as human."

"I thought I knew all this stuff, I learned in school how to prevent these types of things, and now I'm just human after all," said Dr. James Maskalyk, an ER physician at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.

Maskalyk was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in May, after he found a lump in his neck. A biopsy showed it to be a rare type of thyroid cancer.

Within 10 days, he was in surgery to have it removed.

"It was on my laryngeal nerve, the nerve that gives me my ability for us to have this conversation," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

To remove it, the surgeon had to cut within a margin of 0.1 millimetres, to avoid damage to the nerve, he said.

Maskalyk feels the universe is firmly on his side. (Courtesy of James Maskalyk)

Maskalyk is now waiting on another biopsy to see whether he'll need more treatment. But the fact the nerve wasn't damaged makes him feel that the universe "is firmly on my side." 

At 47, he feels like he has "a lot more life to live and a lot more to give," but he's not angry about his diagnosis.

"My body's experienced mitosis 340 trillion times, more or less," he told Galloway.

"That single cell that happened when my mom and my dad came together — 340 trillion times, has repeated itself," he said.

"And made one mistake."

Complexity of healing process

Maskalyk is the author of Six Months In Sudan about his work abroad with Doctors without Borders, and Life on the Ground Floor, a book about ER medicine.

He's now working on a new book titled Doctor, Heal Thyself, but had to call his editor when he was diagnosed. 

He told her he had good news and bad, and she asked to hear the good news first.

"I said: 'Well, my title makes a lot more sense now,'" he said.

"And the bad news is, I don't know if I can do it."

Maskalyk has decided to continue writing the book, which looks at healing practices around the world. From the medicine practised in western hospitals, to Chinese traditions, to First Nations, the book explores where these practices overlap, and what they can learn from one another.

"That's the healing process. It's just a more complex idea of something that includes the mind and the body, and includes the community and ecology," he said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Maskalyk was leading people in daily meditation sessions on his social media accounts — and talked through that practice with The Current.

ER doctor teaches how to practise mindfulness during self-isolation

2 years ago
Dr. James Maskalyk, ER doctor and meditation teacher, guides us through a breathing and mindfulness exercise. (Photo by James Maskalyk) 2:30

Now, he misses his friends and work in the ER, and "the chance to make someone who's afraid laugh, and make them feel like the world makes sense a little bit."

But he hopes to get back to work, and be able to say to his patients that now, "I know what it's like."

Maskalyk spent part of the summer at Indigenous healing centres (the Turtle Lodge in Manitoba, and the All Nations' Healing Hospital in Saskatchewan), and said observing and working with elders there has helped him to process his diagnosis.

He recalled advice he received from a knowledge keeper named Dave Courchene, who said that whenever anyone's time comes to die, they "only get asked one question."

"Did you bring love into the world? ... If you did, you've done it, you've done the work," Courchene told Maskalyk.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crysler.

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