Alberta Cancer Foundation

The Pledge: An Edmonton cancer researcher donates

Donations to the Alberta Cancer Foundation come in all shapes and sizes.

BEQUEST: Carol Cass and her husband Dave have planned to donate 20 per cent of their estate to the charity.

Dr. Carol Cass and her husband Dave for example, have planned to donate 20 per cent of their estate to the charity.

“It wasn’t hard for us to make this decision,” explains 69-year-old Cass, who has been a cancer researcher for more than 40 years in Edmonton. “I work in the field, but we’ve also lost family members to prostate cancer and leukemia, and several have had breast cancer.”

“I work in the field,” Cass says, “but we’ve also lost family members to prostate cancer and leukemia, and several have had breast cancer.”

This generous donation will be the culmination of a lifetime’s commitment to eradicating cancer. Since 1970, Cass has studied nucleoside transport, investigating membrane proteins that are critical for the delivery of an important class of anticancer drugs to cancerous cells. A significant discovery she and her colleagues made sheds light on how nucleosides cross membranes, potentially enabling better delivery of the most appropriate nucleoside-based cancer drugs to cancer cells for a given patient.

She was the academic chair of the Department of Oncology at the University of Alberta for 11 years and has also been director of the Cross Cancer Institute, vice-president of the former Alberta Cancer Board and scientific director of research for Alberta Health Services Cancer Care. She has won numerous awards, including election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and is considered an expert in the field. Today, she is Professor Emeritus of Oncology at the U of A and continues to work part-time in research. “I am doing what I trained to do,” she says.

Cass’s training began early on. She was raised in rural Oklahoma, the eldest of five children. Her father was a family physician and her mother was a homemaker. The family environment was stimulating, with books everywhere; for fun the kids would go out into the backyard and explore the beauty of the night sky through their father’s telescope. Despite the community being “brutally segregated,” Cass’ home was a progressive, equal-opportunity place. She was a bright student and was given the message early on that she would succeed at whatever she decided to do.

She took her undergraduate degree at the University of Oklahoma and her PhD at the University of California at Berkeley before moving with her husband – a plant biologist – to Alberta.

Life was moving along well; they were enjoying their work and colleagues and were active in the community. In 1990, all that was interrupted by a medical crisis. Cass developed a brain tumour (called a meningioma), which was wrapped around the optic nerve and cutting off blood supply to her left eye. She had successful surgery, a craniotomy, which removed the non-cancerous growth and she followed up with specialists at the Cross Cancer Institute. But, over time, her vision got worse. The eye eventually deteriorated to the point where it had to be removed and, in February 2011, it was replaced with a prosthetic eye.

“It’s actually a piece of coral – into which blood vessels can grow – covered with human sclera,” she explains. It is attached to the muscles that control movement, so when Cass looks up with her good eye, the prosthesis also “looks up.” The plastic part of the device is painted hazel and is an almost-identical match to her right eye. “Most people don’t think I have anything wrong with my eye,” she says. “They just think I have a droopy eyelid.”

The biggest consequence of losing sight is losing your “binocular vision” or depth perception, which is intact when you have two functioning eyes. “When I’m pouring water into a glass I need to have the pitcher right up against the side of the glass as it’s easy to pour just beside or in front of it,” says Cass. Adjusting to compromised vision over the years was easier than if there’d been a sudden loss of sight, she admits. “My brain was able to adapt to it over a lengthy period of time.”

Today, Cass is moving into a different phase of her life, but to call it retirement would be an overstatement. Her reduced work schedule has enabled her to get more rest. She is also hitting the gym more regularly and even has a personal trainer. Colleagues say she seems more relaxed; she admits feeling stronger and healthier.

The music-loving Casses are also newly addicted to opera. In 2012, they will attend performances at the New York Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles Opera, San Francisco Opera and Santa Fe Opera. They are also long-term supporters of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and attended its debut performance at Carnegie Hall in May.

For the foreseeable future, Cass will continue to be involved with her first love – cancer research. She’s mentoring the next generation of young researchers and is working with organizations, such as the Terry Fox Research Institute, to help shape the future of applied cancer research in Canada.

Her last hurrah will be to give that significant and generous financial contribution to the foundation. “We are happy to support the Alberta Cancer Foundation,” Cass says. “It has an extraordinary record of using its resources well for research and patient care.”

FIND OUT HOW: When donors contribute a percentage of their estates, like Dr. Carol Cass did, the Alberta Cancer Foundation can invest strategically in research, prevention and patient care to ease the cancer journey for all Albertans. To find out more, call: 1-866-412-4222 or email.