Five thoughts of a dying professor
Dr. Scott Leatherdale addresses the Class of 2023
Dr. Scott Leatherdale addresses the Class of 2023By Faculty of Health
Dr. Scott Leatherdale, a professor in the School of Public Health Sciences who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, gave this address to more than 600 students at the University of Waterloo's 126th Faculty of Health convocation:
When I was originally approached to be the speaker for this convocation ceremony, I was told that I should provide an uplifting and motivational speech. So here I am with my talk titled “Five thoughts of a dying professor.”
Don’t worry, despite the title, I think it might actually fit the bill of uplifting and motivational.
I came from a poor rural family where education was valued, but going to university was a far-off dream. My dad stopped school in grade 3 because he was old enough to start working on the family farm; it is a shame because he is quite brilliant and would have been an excellent engineer. My mom finished high school and graduated top of her class; she excelled in math and wanted to be an accountant, but she wasn’t allowed to go to university. Out of all my extended family, my older brother and I were first and the only ones to ever go beyond high school. When it came time for my undergraduate convocation, I didn’t really feel like going. It didn’t mean much to me at the time, but I went, and I am glad I did. I didn’t fully appreciate just how important that moment was to my parents; they never had that opportunity. Graduates, I hope you all take a moment today to realize that the people here supporting you are all incredibly proud of you (even if they don’t say it). More importantly, I hope you are also proud of yourself. What an amazing accomplishment; you just graduated from one of the top universities in Canada, and for that matter, the world. Well done.
After finishing my undergraduate degree, I decided to continue and do a master’s degree. My very scientific and well-thought out plan when making this important life-altering decision was based on evidence that ‘my girlfriend at the time still had a year left in her degree,’ so why not. While that relationship didn’t work out, taking this risk and applying for graduate school did. After completing my master’s, I finally had a sense of what I wanted to do and I was accepted into two PhD programs: here at the University of Waterloo, and at Harvard University. While most people in my life were pushing me to go to the prestigious school in the U.S., I took what seemed like a risk to many and decided to come here instead. This is one of the best career decisions I have ever made. Not only did Waterloo provide me the exact same knowledge and skills as I would have got in the Harvard program, but the innovative and unique culture here gave me all of the tools and confidence I needed to take the necessary risks required to launch my scientific career. Remember, there is nothing wrong with taking a calculated risk.
In the cancer prevention research I do, the landscape is complicated by a wide swath of competing researchers, stakeholders, advocates and industry partners, all with different agendas and political and financial motivations. However, I have found this relatively easy to navigate because of some advice one of my PhD advisors gave me years ago. Dr. Steve Brown, a now retired UW Statistics Professor said, ‘Scott, before you start your career in research, you need to decide if you are going to be a scientist or an advocate; you can’t ethically or effectively do both.’ While I chose scientist, this doesn’t mean I think any less or don’t value those who choose a different approach to their work. Being successful in my domain of research has required a lot of tolerance and understanding for different viewpoints, beliefs and biases and learning how to navigate these effectively. As you move forward in life, try not to be the person who simply shouts the loudest if someone has a different opinion than you, but rather strive to be the person who effectively works for change while also listening and trying to understand why some people may see the world differently. That understanding may provide you with the best insight for charting a new and potentially more effective path forward.
Most of you have progressed through school at a time where the system has been redesigned to shelter students from failure. I may be wrong, but I think this is a big mistake. Learning how to deal with failure is an important life skill to master. For example, back in the early 90s when I was a teenager, I dropped out of high school. After spending some time working as a mechanic, I decided maybe finishing high school wasn’t a bad idea, so I returned and completed my diploma. After that, I started applying to undergraduate programs. I quickly learned that most universities were not interested in a transcript that looked like mine. Lots of rejection. In hindsight, I think the program that rejected me the fastest was the Health program here at UW…. which is funny because here I am today as a Professor in that same department. Anyways, I didn’t let those original rejections define who I was or what I could do. Instead, I used the rejection as motivation, and I kept trying and improving. Too often I have seen the fear of failure or rejection limit the careers of people around me. Brilliant people who dampen their ability to thrive because they are afraid of being rejected or failing. Don’t let failure define you, learn from it, keep improving and don’t stop trying.
To recap, so far we have: be proud, take risks, be tolerant and don’t be afraid to fail.
On July 24, 1980, my mom loaded me in the car and took me to Yonge St. in Richmond Hill. We stood on the sidewalk in front of Hillcrest Mall on that hot summer morning for what seemed like an eternity. Then, after some time, the crowd started cheering. I stood there as an impressionable six-year-old, watching in awe as Terry Fox ran past me. That moment changed my life. Terry Fox is one of my heroes and a catalyst for me dedicating my career to cancer prevention research. However, in recent years, he has become a hero to me for a different reason, as I myself have become a cancer patient. In 2018, I was diagnosed with metastatic CRC. In the last two years, it has since spread to my liver, and again to my lungs. To date, I have already had six surgeries, 28 rounds of radiation and 60 rounds of chemo. You may not know this, but Terry Fox ran a marathon a day for 143 consecutive days. I know my limits, and honestly, there is no way I could run one marathon, let alone 143 of them, but I know I can at least show my kids, family and friends what resilience looks like by continuing to live my life to the fullest. Anyone who knows me would say this hasn’t slowed me down one bit, and those who don’t know me would have no clue I am even sick.
So back to my title, ‘Five thoughts of a dying professor:’ a few months ago, I was told my cancer has returned yet again. I now have seven new tumours in my lungs; I am also now considered a terminal patient.
I am dying. I can’t hide from that fact.
On one hand, knowing you are dying sucks. I will be missing out on so many wonderful experiences with my family and friends. I am not afraid of dying, but I am scared of the pain I am going to cause to the people I love. However, on the other hand, this experience has given me wonderful perspective on life. I actually feel enlightened. I experience more joy than I have in the past, and I appreciate the little things more than I ever thought possible. You have no idea how meaningful the small moments in day-to-day life mean to someone in my position.
So, while it appears that I am failing at something yet again, I am choosing to be resilient. I am not letting this failure define me or who I am. I will continue to thrive through this adversity as best I can. As you inevitably face adversity in your own life, maybe my story can be a small motivation to remain resilient. Trust me, it is worth it.
Before I finish, since this speech is meant to motivate and inspire this awesome group of graduates, I had better try to at least say one profound statement. Borrowing from an old Nietzsche quote, I will say, “Recognize that there will always be rocks in the road ahead of you. You have to choose if those rocks are stumbling blocks that stop you on your journey or stepping stones that create a new path.” That is your decision to make. In my life there have been many rocks in my path, but I keep stepping on them as I move forward.
I am so proud of all of you. Go off into the world and do great things that make you and the people around you proud.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak to you today.
The University of Waterloo acknowledges that much of our work takes place on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples. Our main campus is situated on the Haldimand Tract, the land granted to the Six Nations that includes six miles on each side of the Grand River. Our active work toward reconciliation takes place across our campuses through research, learning, teaching, and community building, and is co-ordinated within the Office of Indigenous Relations.