Miners around the North working for a cure – by Lindsay Kelly (Northern Ontario Business – May 14, 2013)

Established in 1980, Northern Ontario Business provides Canadians and international investors with relevant, current and insightful editorial content and business news information about Ontario’s vibrant and resource-rich North.

When Wayne Tonelli and Allan Epps proposed getting some co-workers together for a little pickup hockey, it was intended as a fun way to socialize amongst colleagues. Today, their small idea is producing big results for the Northern Cancer Foundation.

It was 1996 when the friends, who both worked as general foremen for Inco in Sudbury (now Vale) at the time, proposed getting their co-workers together for inter-mine and inter-office hockey and baseball games as a way to socialize outside the workplace.

But as the games grew into tournaments and the tournaments started generating money, the pair decided to donate the earnings to the Northern Cancer Foundation, the Sudbury-based medical centre that offers treatment to cancer patients from around the North.

To date, Miners for Cancer has raised more than $700,000 for the cancer foundation, and Tonelli anticipates hitting the $1-million mark within the next year.

“Primarily, in the past, everything ended up in southern Ontario and we got little bits and pieces here up north,” said Tonelli, president of Miners for Cancer. “But the fact that the money stays in the North to help people in the North was the biggest contributing factor.”

Miners for Cancer organizes an annual hockey tournament, golf tournament, and Christmas gala, all of which consistently sell out, drawing participants from across Northern Ontario. This past January, 14 teams registered for the hockey tournament, attracting 400 participants and raising $60,540.

Run entirely by volunteers, the organization comprises miners, cancer survivors, industry representatives, and retirees. Tonelli said companies in the industry have embraced the initiative.

“They’re big-time supportive,” he said. “Since we’ve started, we’ve basically had the same people stick with us, and even more people are wanting to come on board now, because it’s pretty high-profile.”

The effects of the organization’s work are appreciable, said Tannys Laughren, the Northern Cancer Foundation’s executive director. Miners for Cancer has earmarked all monies raised to go directly to cancer research.

“A lot of people want to give money to equipment, which we desperately need, of course, but research tends to be a bit more esoteric—people think it’s not tangible,” Laughren said. “So it’s really great that they’ve supported our researchers.”

Five core principal researchers work at the cancer foundation, and Laughren said they’ve made huge inroads in unlocking the mysteries of the disease, particularly in relation to breast and prostate cancers.

One of those researchers, Dr. Amadeo Parissenti, studies how specific classes of chemotherapy drugs halt the growth of, or kill, breast tumour cells. He also aims to identify mechanisms by which breast cancer cells resist the action of these chemotherapy agents.

In 2010, Parissenti and his research team discovered a way to check a woman’s DNA to determine how effective chemotherapy will be in her cancer treatment. That mechanism has now been patented through Parissenti’s offshoot company, Rna Diagnostics.

“Chemotherapy’s not always effective and it has a lot of side effects,” Laughren said. “So if it’s not going to be effective in the breast cancer diagnosis, then they’ll do other treatments which are equally if not more effective.”

Laughren said the foundation allots $600,000 annually to its researchers, and Miners for Cancer contributes nearly $100,000 of that funding, making a significant impact on research.

“Cancer is a terrible disease,” Laughren said. “But when you look at the rates of survival, even just in Northern Ontario, of those cancers, the survival rates have gone up and up and up since the cancer centre opened and since we started this amazing research program.”

After a hiatus, Miners for Cancer is reintroducing baseball to this year’s lineup of events, with a co-ed Slo-Pitch tournament this summer, and the organization will hold porketta bingo at local pub On the Rocks starting this fall. One hundred per cent of the proceeds will go to the cancer foundation.

Miners for Cancer has gained so much in popularity, an affiliate will soon open in Newfoundland, along with a potential branch in Timmins. Tonelli believes it will continue to grow.

“I’m very proud of our community for what they’ve contributed,” Tonelli said. “Even given the labour dispute that we just went through, we still had a phenomenal year.”