Part of the Solution

Frank Sojonky's legacy goes beyond dollars raised. His passion lives on in friends, family and researchers working toward a cure for prostate cancer

Amie Filkow - 08 January 2016

In the summer of 2011, in an air-conditioned conference room overlooking the University of Alberta Hospital, cancer biologist John Lewis sat at the centre of a U-shaped table faced with steely looks and enormous expectation. He was already exhausted - jet-lagged and on hour 14 of his two-day-long interview for an endowed research position with the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. But this hour was different; this audience was unlike the academics who had been grilling him all day. Sitting around the table were the donors whose grassroots fundraising efforts had established the chair in prostate cancer research. Led by Frank Sojonky, a businessman who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer more than 20 years earlier, the group was fully committed to creating something real and tangible that would actually change men's lives.

"I identified with that immediately because I approach my lab in the same way - like a business," Lewis says. "There are real people out there suffering from a disease we have a lot of knowledge about, and we're driven to create useful tools that can be used in the clinic."

Sojonky spent years advocating, inspiring, organizing and driving a campaign that has raised more than $14 million for prostate cancer research at the Cross Cancer Institute and establishing a chair at the University of Alberta. Though he died in October 2012, that dream continues today, inspiring the work of Lewis, Sojonky's wife, Carla, and his friends who continue to support the research.

Sojonky was the kind of person others describe in colourful, moving metaphors: he was a "dynamo," he was "born running," he was "not a noun, but a verb - always in motion." So when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, his reaction to beating it was, "of course I can." He survived for 23 years, undergoing multiple rounds of radiation, hormone therapy, chemotherapy and a variety of new drugs in Phase 3 trials.

For 15 years, Sojonky told few people about his cancer. Then one day, while discussing treatment options with his oncologist, he learned that the Cross Cancer Institute lacked state-of-the-art 3D ultrasound equipment. He forgot all about his own condition and saw a way to help others. "How much do you need?" he asked his doctor. Three days later, Sojonky and a dozen of his business partners had raised 115 per cent of the money needed to purchase the equipment. "That was fun," Sojonky said. "Now what?"

Sojonky and his partners quickly realized that research is what drives innovation - in the clinic, in patient care. When they discovered that Alberta, the richest province in Canada, had no formal prostate cancer research program, they made it their mission to create one. Working in partnership with the Alberta Cancer Foundation, and encouraged by matching grants from that organization, Sojonky set out to raise the funds to endow a research chair at the University of Alberta.

He gathered friends, some of whom had been touched by cancer, sharing his story and inspiring them to contribute to the campaign by writing a cheque and recruiting others. Sojonky made it easy: "You just introduce me to people and I'll ask them for the money," he told potential partners. "You can just be like a bird dog. You point out the birds, and I'll be the hunter and I'll go get them."

Having rescued seven real "bird dogs" (German shorthaired pointers) over the years, Sojonky knew what he was talking about. The metaphor was perfect: bird dogs are bred for their ability to point, flush and retrieve game. Before long, his fundraising speeches would end with the call to action: "We are Bird Dogs. We are pointing to the cure."

His passionate persistence won over many.

Lewis and Sojonky clicked right from the start. Sojonky teasingly called Lewis the "boy genius" and, when the researcher's young family arrived in Edmonton from London, Ont., the Sojonkys showed up at the hotel with a gift bag for Lewis's daughter. Combining business, friendship and philanthropy just made sense to Sojonky. "That's the kind of people we are," says Carla.

Even today, nearly three years after Sojonky's death, Carla and Lewis remain friends, enjoying time with each others' families.

Lewis's lab hit the ground running and has since seen tremendous results. The prostate cancer research group that Lewis initiated has grown to a team of 120 scientists across Alberta who collaborate to solve the problem of metastasis - or spreading - in prostate cancer. The researchers have pioneered a technique to stop cancer cells from leaving the tumour site using an antibody Lewis calls "tumour glue," which detects cells that want to move and completely blocks them from metastisizing. If the team can identify which cancers will spread, up to 50 per cent of men who are diagnosed could live a full life without treatment. "No man has ever died from prostate cancer that stayed in his prostate," Lewis explains.

The financial backing and advocacy of Sojonky and the Bird Dogs have supported aspects of the research program that, according to Lewis, would not have been funded otherwise. "Their support helped put the building blocks in place to allow us to do great things," says Lewis. "Now we can focus on therapies - new drugs that will make an impact on survivorship of prostate cancer. I wish Frank were here. It would be great to show him what we've done."

When asked to reflect on why her husband and the Bird Dogs were so successful, Carla stops to think. "Frank was determined, he was focused, and it was never about him."

Yet in an important way, it was about him - in the sense that he was a real patient with incurable prostate cancer. He would leave chemotherapy treatment sessions and go to a fundraising lunch. He was determined to be part of the solution to a problem affecting not only him but also millions of other men. And his ability to rally those around him to action fed his passion.

"When I was teaching I had a little sign on my desk that said, 'No one can do everything, but everyone can do something,' " Carla says through tears. "Frank loved that. He was a go- getter and really believed until the end that the cure was coming."