Palliative care (still) in need of better PR and a new spokesperson

This article is dedicated to a former patient of mine. He described himself in our initial meeting as “acerbic, sardonic, sarcastic and irreverent. Can you handle that?” I think he would have liked this article. But if you can’t handle it, maybe stop here.

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending Hospice Palliative Care Ontario’s (HPCO) annual education conference in Richmond Hill. I will be covering Sandy Buchman’s lecture in a future article so I thought it would only be fair to cover a few others as well.

One was a talk by Naheed Dosani and Nadine Persaud. I won’t bother with an introduction because you should know who they are by now.

Their talk was about one of the highlights of the conference. I even took notes:

  • Note to self: racism is bad, just don’t do it.
  • Don’t be a douche waffle.
  • Equal is not equitable.
  • Being homeless isn’t helpful.
  • Sometimes old people die, too.

Despite the trigger warning, there was one comment in particular that hit me.

During his presentation, Dosani said that “Palliative care has a PR problem.”

Well, duh, as Billie Eilish would say.

I wrote about this in Healthy Debate back in 2020. It was a cheeky and sarcastic piece (like this one), but the core message was simple: We cannot continue the same tactics and expect different results.

One of those tactics was to use the power of social media to reach out to Canada’s own Ryan Reynolds. Ryan had just taken up the cause for Ottawa Public Health to help with COVID; his role as Marvel’s Deadpool would have made him a sure thing for palliative care. Who else to talk about end-of-life care than someone who can’t die, amiright? But unlike his Aviator gin, Reynolds’ silence left a bad taste in my mouth.

So, the time has come to pick a new spokesperson for palliative care in Canada. We need to look beyond funny man Ryan Reynolds and find someone who can get the message across to the thousands of Canadians who could benefit from a palliative approach to care and those who care for them.

The obvious place to start is Hugh Jackman. Jackman is a more attractive and funnier version of Reynolds. His coffee, Laughing Man Coffee, is a fine brew and frankly, everyone loves Australians. His run as Wolverine will probably never be bested and his demise in Logan stands as one of cinema’s crowning achievements. The feud between Jackman and Reynolds was chronicled by People magazine and it is finally time to declare The Greatest Showman the undisputed champ. Here’s a guy who knew how to die with style and panache.

Next, I would consider Jackman’s X-Men co-star Patrick Stewart, who played Professor Charles Xavier in 20th Century Fox’s X-Men movie series (before the Mouse House bought them anyway.) Stewart is well known and recognizable for many roles including Jean Luc Picard from Star Trek TNG as well as his new Picard series.  But his role as a demented Charles Xavier in Logan would serve as a great reminder that palliative care is not just for cancer diagnoses but non-malignant ones as well, such as dementia, ALS and Parkinson’s disease.

Of course, palliative care is still appropriate for malignant diagnoses and who better than Natalie Portman, who plays Jane Foster in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) also known as the Mighty Thor. Diagnosed with cancer, Jane comes to inherit the power of Thor. But every time she becomes the Mighty Thor, it reverses her chemotherapy treatments and her disease progresses. This creates a terrible choice for Jane each time she transforms. Now, I checked with my oncology colleagues and none of them are aware of this phenomenon, but I trust Marvel comics more than textbooks and journals, so …

Brolin’s Mad Titan would help remind us that nearly 100 per cent of all patients would benefit from a palliative approach to care.

Who better than Jeffrey’s Wright’s The Watcher to champion comfort care? As a being who sees all and vows not to interfere, The Watcher was finally compelled to act in the Disney+ series “What If…”  This would be a great analogy for initiating a palliative approach and the need to have difficult care discussions rather than continuing the status quo and false hope.

Best known for his role as Jonah Hex, Josh Brolin also had a small role in the MCU as Thanos. With a snap of his fingers, he was able to blip 50 per cent of the population out of existence.  Brolin’s Mad Titan would help to remind us that end of life care is not that simple and that nearly 100 per cent of all patients would benefit from a palliative approach to care. Thanos’ obsession with death would also serve to remind us that we all die eventually. Yes, all of us.  Even you. And you. And you.

Maybe we should look to Chadwick Boseman, who played Marvel’s Black Panther. Boseman epitomized “living while dying.” Boseman was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer in 2016, which progressed to stage IV in 2020. He continued to act , choosing to keep his illness private, and starred in numerous films including Captain America: Civil War, the aforementioned Black Panther, Avengers Infinity War and Endgame. Wakanda forever, indeed.

Or someone like Matthew McConaughey, who gave an impassioned plea for gun safety at a recent White House press conference. Anyone who has watched Wolf of Wall Street  knows Matthew can sell just about anything.

Perhaps we should consider someone Canadian. Someone like Gordon Downie and The Tragically Hip, who were literally the soundtrack to my life, from the release of Road Apples onward, up to and including Saskadelphia. Despite a diagnosis of glioblastoma, Gordon completed one last cross-country tour with The Hip in 2017, culminating in an event in Kingston we shall soon not forget. I attended the Hip’s last concert in Toronto on Aug. 14, 2017, sitting in the lonely end of the rink at ScotiaBank Place one last time. I would go on to write my Royal College exam two years later in September 2019. I studied weekly at our local Starbuck’s drinking nothing but Cold Brews and listening to nothing but the Hip on shuffle. When I think of palliative care, I now think of Gord, literally and figuratively.

What about Terry Fox as an inspiration?  A man whose legacy is as Canadian as the beaver, maple syrup and apologies. Fox’s Marathon of Hope has raised millions for cancer research. If the Bank of Canada has one job, it is to put this man on the $5 bill as soon as humanly possible (and deal with inflation maybe?)

Who would you pick as a spokesperson for promoting palliative care in Canada?  Please include your answers in the comments box below.

As for Reynolds, he seems too busy with his Jolly Rancher telephones and soccer team (I’m personally a fan of Ajax, Arsenal and AFC Richmond but if he sent me a signed scarf and kit, I might consider Wrexham.)

But one day when he is standing on the shores of the River Styx and when the boatman Charon comes to collect his fare and provide passage into the afterlife, there will be one question Reynolds will have to answer:

“Bru, Green Lantern?!”

The comments section is closed.

  • Amar says:

    Maybe you can keep it simple. Using regular everyday people that are battling their illness, would help people better understand palliative care. The problem with using actors is that most people find it difficult to relate to them.

    • Darren Cargill says:

      Great idea. I have been writing about patients for almost ten years now.

      I actually have an article in the hopper about the power of narrative medicine.

      Thanks Amar!

  • Darren Cargill says:

    Honourable Mentions:

    Balfour Mount – he coined the phrase “palliative care”

    John Candy – Canada’s original funny man

    Martin Brodeur – he saves everything

    Austin Matthews – because he has Hart (and Lindsay too)

    Simu Liu – Canada’s own MCU superstar

    Even McGregor – he has the high ground


Darren Cargill


Dr. Darren Cargill is a fellow of the College of Family Physicians of Canada, the Royal College of Physicians of Canada, and American Association of Hospice Palliative Medicine. He is the past medical director for the Hospice of Windsor and Essex County and lead physician for its community-based Palliative Medicine Program. He is one of only two certified hospice medical directors in Canada and has his designation as a certified Canadian physician executive.  He received HPCO’s Larry Librach award in 2017 for excellence in leadership and advancing palliative care through mentorship.

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