Gord Downie and brain cancer: What you need to know about the Tragically Hip singer’s terminal disease
Gord Downie received the diagnosis last December: glioblastoma, or terminal brain cancer. The Tragically Hip says the band is standing by their lead singer as he keeps “fighting hard.”
Downie, 52, is battling glioblastoma, what experts treating him say is an incurable cancer that’s also among the most common and most aggressive brain tumours.
“A few months ago…Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer,” the band said in an announcement posted on their website.
“Since then, obviously, he’s endured a lot of difficult times, and he has been fighting hard. In privacy along with his family, and through all of this, we’ve been standing by him,” the statement said.
Dr. James Perry, the head of neurology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, said that Downie had a seizure while visiting Kingston, Ont., last September. That’s what tipped him off that something was wrong.
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Downie’s manager joined the experts at Sunnybrook, where he’s being treated, to shed light on the singer’s condition at a press conference on Tuesday.
Downie’s cancer is a primary brain tumour, meaning it started from within the brain itself and didn’t spread from another part of the body.
“It’s my difficult duty to tell you that [his] brain tumour is incurable. He has one of the most aggressive forms of brain cancer,” Perry told reporters.
Downie underwent surgery to remove a “bulk” of his tumour on the left temporal lobe of the brain. He took on radiation treatment for six weeks paired with chemotherapy.
While MRIs reveal that the swelling in Downie’s brain has subsided, Perry couldn’t say what Downie’s long-term prognosis would be.
Other celebrities have encountered glioblastoma, Perry noted, including Joe Biden’s son and Ted Kennedy.
“Even with the greatest connections and money, there’s no way to buy your way out of this. It’s too early in [his] trajectory to understand what his prognosis will be,” Perry said.
WATCH: Doctor impressed with Gord Downie’s ‘resilience and courage’
What makes glioblastoma incurable is that it’s “rapidly growing,” according to Dr. Sunit Das, a surgical neurologist at St. Michael’s Hospital. He hasn’t treated Downie but works with glioblastoma patients regularly.
“It uniformly returns. If you look at the average time to tumour recurrence, it’s just under seven months. The average survival even with aggressive surgery and treatment is 14.5 months,” he told Global News.
That’s the median, though – some of his patients don’t make it that long while others thrive and outlast the average.
The Tragically Hip says it’s going on tour and Downie will be joining them.
“This feels like the right thing to do now, for Gord, and for all of us,” the band wrote.
WATCH: Gord Downie developed first symptoms of brain cancer in December 2015
Perry said Downie is continuing with chemotherapy. His cancer care team has “anticipated” Downie’s return to music for some time, so he’ll have medical contingencies available for any unexpected medical emergencies should they arise.
But they don’t anticipate any issues beyond fatigue and dehydration.
“He has returned to his physical, emotional and mental strength well enough now to get back to what he was doing,” Perry said.
“Unfortunately, one day [the cancer] will come back,” he warned.
Das has patients who go back to their daily routines, too.
“They’re not rock stars but they return to work and they’re doing well enough that that’s the case. It’s more the exception to the rule that people do that well,” he explained.
When patients receive this diagnosis, Das said the focus typically shifts to improving quality of life for the remaining months. It’s no longer about aggressively battling the disease.
“We prepare them for the reality that at some point the disease will recur and what we lose in fighting it is not worth what we gain,” Das said.
“We mediate for our patients what’s important for them. How fantastic is it that this guy goes back on tour and does what he loves?”
Unlike lung cancer which is tied to smoking or colon cancer which has links to eating too much processed meat, for example, it’s unclear what triggers glioblastoma.
Two to three people per 100,000 encounter the disease in Canada, the United States and Europe. It’s more common in older individuals and in men than women.
Common symptoms include headache, weakness, nausea, seizures, memory difficulties, personality changes and vomiting.
- With files from the Canadian Press
© 2016 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.