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Refugees from Uganda, Arif Bhalwani and his family were part of a mass exodus of nearly every Ugandan of South Asian descent in 1972.
Five years later, after a traumatic journey filled with fear and uncertainty, they were given asylum in Canada and moved to Toronto where they diligently worked to establish themselves and create firm roots. Embracing the cultural values of generosity and service to humanity, the Bhalwani family pledged to show their gratitude by giving back with life-saving philanthropy to the country they now call home.
As part of their efforts, The Bhalwani Family Charitable Foundation proudly gifted an additional $1.5 million to Princess Margaret Cancer Centre's Familial Cancer Clinic. Canada's largest genetics clinic dedicated to cancer patients, it is led by Dr. Raymond Kim, medical geneticist and Director, Cancer Early Detection.
At the newly-named Bhalwani Familial Cancer Clinic, Dr. Kim and the team of genetic counsellors provide counselling, genetic testing and risk-assessment services to individuals who are at high risk of hereditary cancers. Caused by an inherited gene mutation, hereditary cancers account for up to 10 per cent of all cancer cases in Canada.
Dr. Kim and his team have two goals in mind: detect cancer at its earliest stage and prevent the disease from developing in the first place.
They use a simple blood or saliva test to screen for dozens of genes behind hereditary cancer and use the results to personalize surveillance and prevention measures.
"Cancer patients play the role of a lighthouse for their family," Dr. Kim says of the screening tool's role in early detection. "Their DNA is the informational legacy that they leave to the next generation as genetic testing allows us to identify other family members at risk of developing cancer."
The Bhalwani family's gift is driven by the attentive care that Arif's mother received at the Princess Margaret while facing advanced ovarian cancer.
"We credit the team at the Princess Margaret for saving her," says Arif, the foundation's Director. "Inspired by my mother's courage and the cancer centre's compassionate and comprehensive care, we wanted to support the bold ideas and patient-centered programs that have given the cancer centre its global reputation as a leader in cancer research and care."
Enables earlier intervention and better patient outcomes
Supporting the clinic piqued his interest as he shares the same vision as the leading genomics expert: a future where all cancer patients at the Princess Margaret – and across Ontario – have access to genetic testing.
"The clinic advances awareness of genetic cancers and makes detection a path to a cure," Arif says. "We hope cancer gene panel tests become the norm so that we can be a step ahead with better treatment options and prevent some cancers altogether."
With the support of their gift, Dr. Kim is leading a universal genetic testing program with 1,300 breast cancer patients at the Breast Site Group – the largest and most comprehensive breast cancer research and care centre in Canada. The program provides genetic testing for patients as part of standard treatment to screen for dozens of genes responsible for inherited cancers and other syndromes.
"The program's goal is to demonstrate that universal genetic testing can lead to the identification of cancer susceptibility genes that otherwise would have gone undetected, therefore allowing for earlier intervention and better patient outcomes," Dr. Kim says.
While researching the accessibility of genetic testing for Ontarians, the Bhalwanis were surprised to learn that if a person does not meet the Ontario Ministry of Health's eligibility criteria or have access to the Ontario Health Insurance Plan, they must pay for the test. To further access, they launched The Bhalwani Compassionate Care Fund to provide financial support to cancer patients.
To date, The Bhalwani Family Charitable Foundation has generously gifted a total $2.5 million to support world-class hereditary cancer research and screening programs at the Princess Margaret. In 2019, they donated $1 million to create The Bhalwani Family Hereditary Cancer Fund, which supported the clinic's establishment and operations.
"By leveraging the renowned expertise and infrastructure of the Princess Margaret, we have been able to help create a comprehensive familial cancer clinic and fill an important clinical gap," Arif says.
"The Princess Margaret sets the highest standards for excellence in cancer research and clinical care. We are proud of our continued partnership with them and to know that together we are expanding cancer screening and addressing disparities so our entire community can benefit."