Alberta Cancer Foundation

FIELD AND STREAM: A doc sees patients in the clinic and solves puzzles in the lab

If you’ve ever been to the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, you may have walked down a long hallway to the left of the entrance on the main floor. If so, you walked past large pieces of art adorning the hall, past the library and elevators. Just behind those elevators are the Department of Oncology offices. Through the department’s doors, past a reception desk, down another hallway and through a maze of cubicles is the office of Dr. Don Morris. It’s a small corner office, made smaller by a tall file cabinet and a large desk, covered in organized stacks of papers. While the office is extremely ordinary, the man sitting in it, dressed in a white lab jacket over a brown striped dress shirt, is anything but.


A PERFECT DAY: In his rare time off, Morris kicks back skiing or fishing on the beautiful Bow River.
Photo Brian Buchsdruecker

Morris is both a clinical oncologist and a translational researcher. His time is split between laboratories near his small office, and lung and sarcoma patients he sees in the clinic. “I’ve sort of made a hybrid career,” Morris says.

Research was always a focus for Morris, from his undergrad and graduate work at Queens’ University through his medical school training at the University of Calgary. He ran a lab through his medicine and oncology training, but realized he needed to do more than research.

“I needed to directly apply research to patients,” Morris says. “That’s how the medical and clinician moniker came to be.”

Juggling the two titles, clinician and researcher, has turned into a career that’s as busy as it is satisfying.

Juggling the two titles has turned into a career that’s as busy as it is satisfying. Morris typically spends three half-days seeing patients in the lung and sarcoma area and one full day doing administration activities. The remainder of his workweek finds him in the labs – running his own lab, and as director of the Translational Laboratories at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. If that weren’t enough, Morris also teaches, and his educational activities are a part of his work at the lab, and with patients. These many hats have made for a changing, challenging career.

“I can honestly say that there have been few days in the last 15 years that I haven’t wanted to come to work,” Morris says. “Every day is different.”

As director of the Translational Laboratories, Morris oversees investigators who keep busy examining new methodologies for looking at cancer cell behaviour. In his own lab, Morris and his teams’ research focuses on manipulating reovirus, a common respiratory virus, in the treatment of breast, prostate, renal cell, kidney and lung cancers.

Morris’s work is encouraging for lung cancer patients. “I have a strong research interest in lung cancer,” he says. “Both the translab and clinic involve these patients. There are several large research initiatives that I’m working on to help our lung cancer patients.” Morris, the current provincial lung cancer tumour group chair, says the Alberta Cancer Foundation is planning to provide significant support for Morris’s lung research.

Over the past few years, his team in the lab has tried to capitalize on the virus’s affinity for cancer cells to kill the tumour. Reoviruses have oncolytic properties, meaning they like to infect some tumour cells. Once inside a cell, they replicate, like viruses do, until the cell bursts and dies, spewing out lots more reovirus. If the cells that are bursting and dying are cancer cells, this is a good thing – uncontrolled cellular growth is a defining point of cancer. The virus is harmless to surrounding tissue and the therapy holds promise for use in conjunction with, say, chemotherapy that weakens the body’s ability to find and destroy the virus. While the research hasn’t yet come to clinical trials, Morris says his team is getting close.

The research and clinical work combine to allow Morris to clearly connect the work he does in the basement lab with the patients he treats upstairs. “Even though I’ve not had a relative with cancer, I feel like these [patients] are my family, if you will,” Morris says. “That’s one of the reasons that motivates me to go to the lab, when I see patients that are running out of viable treatment options.”

Morris was born with a need to stay busy. “I’ve always liked to multitask,” he says. “I’ve always liked to be involved in multiple things.” The soft-spoken doctor says choosing to pursue science was a decision influenced by a strong dislike for the humanities. The Toronto native says he’s the black sheep of his family. His grandfather, uncles and father were lawyers and his older sister and younger brother are in business. After doing work in McGill, Maryland and Memphis, Morris moved to Calgary for medical school in 1991 and has called the city home ever since.

“I didn’t come out here to stay but having said that, I fell in love with the mountains,” Morris says. “It’s a great place to have kids.”

More than a decade ago Morris, his elementary-schoolteacher wife, and their seven-year-old blue-eyed and blonde-haired son travelled to an orphanage in Guangzhou, China, to meet a four-year-old girl who’d soon join their family. The Morrises had friends who had adopted three girls from China and seeing the process had inspired the couple to adopt.
“It’s probably the best thing we ever did,” Morris says. “Just an absolutely cool process and I can’t think of life without her.”

When the family travelled back to Canada, their new daughter saw snow for the very first time. Within a week, she was on skis, an activity the family of four continues to enjoy. Morris’ children are 17 and 15 and the family frequents the mountains. Morris is also an active fly-fisher. Both activities allow Morris to enjoy the outdoors and unwind after a busy week at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre.

Morris thrives on juggling a career as an oncologist and researcher. No matter what floor he’s on at the Tom Baker, he’s happy. Helping patients, making progress in the lab, educating students and publishing papers motivate him. “There’s something new every day, whether it’s a patient issue, a finding in the lab, or even something as mundane as an HR issue,” says Morris.

“There are problems to be solved every day I come to work.”

In Deep with Don Morris

When you’re at a party and somebody asks about your job, how do you explain it?
I try not to. I tend to get enthusiastic and start going overboard and then people just walk away. How do I describe it? I have to try to be minimalistic in terms of details. I say, ‘I supervise cancer research and I’m a clinical oncologist.’ Generally when people hear the word oncologist, if they know what it means, they go, ‘Oh.’ If they don’t know and I say, ‘A cancer doctor’, then they say, ‘Oh.’

What is your ideal day off work?
It’s a warm, slightly overcast day with me standing in the middle of the clear waters of the Bow River, fishing.

What’s your favourite food?
There’s no food I don’t like.

What do you like to do with your family?
Everyone is busy. At least twice a week we actually sit down to a meal and just to hear about the week’s stuff, that’s pretty important to me. The kids are now at an age where it’s not the same old, same old, conversation. They’ll actually talk. The other thing is skiing and biking activities.

What’s the best advice that you have ever received?
I had a clinical mentor when I was in medical school. He was a hematologist and a number of us asked, ‘Why do you do hematology?’ He said, ‘Even if patients end up passing away from the disease, as long as they died with dignity and symptom control, that’s not a failure, that’s actually a win.’ That was a pretty neat, sage piece of advice. That was one of those things that sort of stuck in my mind and I carried it forward. It affects me every day.