Cancer Our People

How this doctor helped patient beat rare nasopharyngeal cancer twice

Kevin Yu was referred to see Dr. Thamboo when his nasopharyngeal cancer relapsed. He described his recovery post-surgery as smooth and seamless, thanks to St. Paul’s incredible care team. In a month’s time, he regained his appetite and was able to return to exercise. (Photo courtesy St. Paul's Foundation)

It’s an unfortunate reality that genetics put some people at higher risk of contracting certain diseases. Nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC) is one example. It is a rare cancer of the head and neck that grows in a hard-to-reach area behind the nose. The single biggest risk factor for NPC is being Chinese.

Right now, doctors at St. Paul’s Hospital are advancing our understanding of NPC and other cancers that are more prevalent in the Asian community.

Cancer affects voice, vision, swallowing, taste, smell

NPC is particularly challenging to diagnose and treat. It doesn’t usually show symptoms until it has already spread. And because of the tumour’s location, treatment can drastically affect your voice, vision, ability to swallow, and even your senses of taste and smell.

Kevin Yu was first treated for NPC seven years ago. After a relapse in 2020, he was referred to Dr. Andrew Thamboo at St. Paul’s.

Dr. Thamboo is a sinus and skull base surgeon and research director of St. Paul’s Sinus Centre. He’s an international leader in rhinology, and he’s also the only physician in Western Canada regularly performing an innovative day surgery to remove NPC.

Minimally invasive surgery

Using an endoscope, Dr. Thamboo can access and remove the tumour through the nostrils. This is much less invasive than other surgeries which require an incision in the neck, face, or soft palate (the roof of your mouth).

Kevin was thrilled at how quickly he recovered. “I only had a little numbness after the surgery,” he says. “And within a month, I was exercising, jogging, and hiking!”

Dr. Thamboo’s technique goes beyond helping to save his patients’ lives: it’s about improving the quality of their lives.

“I want them to be able to speak well, to smell the flowers, to enjoy their food – all the simple but important things,” he says.

Kevin is beyond grateful. “The care I received has not only given me a new lease on life, it’s also given me a tremendous appetite!”

A rendering of the new St. Paul's Clinical Support and Research Centre
Rendering of the new St. Paul’s Clinical Support and Research Centre (Photo courtesy of Diamond Schmitt).

Dr. Thamboo’s approach to NPC is one of the countless life-saving therapies developed and perfected here over the last 130 years. The old St. Paul’s has achieved so much in a hospital built for – and in – another era of medicine.

The new St. Paul’s Hospital will be connected via a sky bridge to the Clinical Support and Research Centre (CSRC). This bridge is a corridor to the future of medicine, ushering in a new era of swift and impactful medical discoveries.

By using leading-edge technology and collaborative research efforts, the CSRC is set to develop novel treatments at an unprecedented pace, offering hope to patients in need faster than ever before.

A big part of improving patient outcomes is finding better, faster ways to diagnose and treat them. For example, Dr. Thamboo and his team are working with the BC Cancer Agency to identify NPC blood markers that could provide an early warning.

Dr. Andrew Thamboo (Photo courtesy St. Paul’s Foundation)

The innovative idea of finding a blood marker to screen for NPC in its earliest stages speaks to how the CSRC will fast-track discoveries from the researchers to the patients.

“With scientists, researcher partners, and patients all in the same place, we’ll be able to push the envelope across the board to discover new treatments and therapies, to teach the next generation of health care providers, and to improve care for people across BC,” Dr. Thamboo explains. “It will truly put us on the international stage.”

This year’s Scotiabank Feast of Fortune honoured the history of Providence Health Care serving Vancouver’s Chinese community, opening the first clinic to care for this community more than 100 years ago, when no one else would.

This year’s event raised a record total of $5.52 million, which will go towards the CSRC.

Story by Kris Wallace, St. Paul’s Foundation.