MAY 15, 2006


Dr Béliveau, cancer samurai

Oncology researcher draws strength from Japanese art

Dr Richard Béliveau in his Zen retreat
Photos: Liam Maloney

The Charles-Bruneau Cancerology Centre, at Montreal's St Justine Hospital, is your typical sterile laboratory — all fluorescent lights and gleaming linoleum. But turn one doorknob, the one with the Asian stuffed toy dangling from it, and suddenly you're in a Zen oasis. The walls are a deep red and covered in Japanese art. Two samurai swords stand carefully arranged on a wooden table. A Japanese shade filters light from the large window. Welcome to the world of Dr Richard Béliveau, PhD, director of the centre's molecular medicine laboratory, author of bestseller Foods That Fight Cancer, and one of Canada's leading collectors of Japanese and samurai art.

"I fell in love with Japan at 11 years-old," Dr Béliveau explains. "But even before that, I remember being seven years old and cooking an egg and I would place it asymmetrically on the plate because I found it looked nicer. And I'd put cayenne pepper just on the yoke because I liked the contrast of the red and the yellow. When I discovered Japan I said, 'Wow, there's a whole culture like me!' Now, most of my Japanese friends say I'm more Japanese than they are."

Dr Béliveau's tea ceremonies cancer fighting in action

When he was 15, he used his first paycheque from a job in a garment factory to buy a Japanese print. From that moment on, he became a dedicated collector of Japanese art and cultural artifacts. His home is filled with hundreds of calligraphy scrolls and prints, tea ceremony bowls, roughly 20 samurai swords, and his most valued possession: nine samurai suits of armour. His collection of armour is considered the largest in Canada — people have even come from Japan to inspect it — but Dr Béliveau insists he's not in it for the money.

"When I sit in front of my samurai armour I get a feeling from them," he says. "They have beauty and strength, and they give me this strength. I don't collect these for materialistic purposes, and definitely not for investment. I collect them because they give me something: a vision of life, peace and harmony."

Dr Béliveau sees a connection between the ancient Japanese samurai code of honour Bushido (meaning "way of the warrior") and his work. "The word samurai means 'the one who serves,'" he says. "And for me the book and being a medical researcher have one purpose: to help mankind." Foods That Fight Cancer has become a surprise bestseller in Quebec, the land of poutine and cigarettes, selling more than 130,000 copies to date. The English version is released this month.

Besides helping people, Bushido emphasizes perseverance, imagination, compassion, minimalism and appreciation of nature. "Dedication is also very important," adds Dr Béliveau. "You cannot do research part time, you have to be completely dedicated. Just like you cannot be a half samurai, " he says. "There's also the life and death issue. Samurai lived with the idea of dying. As a researcher in oncology, death is always present."

Dr Béliveau's ceremonial tea sets also attest to the harmony between vocation and avocation. His home is filled with the sets, and one is tucked inside his office so that he and colleagues can enjoy a relaxing cup whenever the stress of work is too much. Tea is also a part of his work: he believes it contains a larger quantity of cancer-fighting properties than any other natural product. "My love of Japan and my work have really come together."

Before I leave Dr Béliveau goes to his desk and opens a drawer. He turns and hands me a business card, ceremonially, with one hand at each end. He bows his head.

"Arigato," he says. Even his business cards come in Japanese.



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