Eugene Chang
Dr. Eugene Chang, a rehabilitation physician with Toronto Rehab and the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, brought cancer rehab to Toronto after beating his own cancer diagnosis. (Photo: The KITE Research Institute at UHN)

Dr. Eugene Chang is Canada's first fellowship-trained cancer physiatrist, better known as a rehabilitation doctor, with the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute and the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

It was his own life-changing experience with cancer as a first-year resident that revealed a gap in the healthcare system around rehabilitation services for cancer patients, and inspired him to get special training.

Here's what Dr. Chang says, in his own words, about his experience with cancer and how he helps others with their recovery.

It was fall 2005 and I had just started residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of British Columbia. I started feeling really tired – but everyone was tired. I was active, playing hockey and riding my bike to work. But I was light-headed and nauseous after my bike rides; I threw up after biking to work. At night, I was getting chills and sweating.

I thought I had an ulcer, so I went to a walk-in clinic and got antacids and had blood work done. The next day, I received my results, and read them myself. I was shocked by what I saw. My blood counts were highly abnormal, and it said, right on the report, “likely leukemia."

I talked to my supervisor and he got me connected immediately to a hematologist. That was a Tuesday, and by Friday, I not only had my diagnosis, but was back in Toronto getting treatment at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. I had myelodysplastic syndrome with acute myeloid leukemia, which is a form of blood cancer.

At first, I was really lucky: I went into remission after the first couple of treatments of chemotherapy. I went home to rest and get healthy enough to get a bone marrow transplant, which was my only hope for a cure.

But in early 2006, I developed pneumonia and ended up in the hospital with sepsis and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). My lungs were so bad I was put on a ventilator and was in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for a month. Eventually, they moved me to a ward that had regular beds, where I just lay there, waiting to get better. I couldn't move without getting short of breath. I had no muscle mass. I could not stand up on my own; my legs felt like jelly.

I knew I needed rehabilitation, so I requested a physiotherapist and asked for a walker so I could start moving around and get stronger. I was requesting things that I felt should have been automatic, that should be standard of care. I worked really hard and asked my doctors to discharge me, and send me home with oxygen and a walker – I had to ask for these things.

After that, I was on a mission to get my life back on track. I weaned myself off the oxygen, and my fiancée, Ashley, and I got married that spring. In August 2006, a year shy of my diagnosis, I got a stem-cell transplant. I had a few setbacks after that, including getting graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), a common immune response after getting a transplant, and anemia, but in 2007, I finally got back to my residency and started working again to fulfill my dream of becoming a physiatrist.

To move forward from all I'd been through, I had to look forward. I was cured, at least in theory, but cancer can always come back. I just wanted to live my life.

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