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Gord Downie and his Brain Cancer: Everything We Know

After the shocking announcement on May 24 about The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie’s diagnosis with incurable brain cancer, there was an update from his doctor. Here’s everything we know so far.

Downie was diagnosed in December with glioblastoma, a cancerous and aggressive form of brain tumour that affects two or three people out of every 100,000, making it a common form of brain cancer and a leading cause of death of Canadians between 40 and 60. It’s more prevalent in men than in women. The cause is unknown and there’s absolutely nothing to suggest the tumour resulted from anything in Gord’s lifestyle.

Gord’s tumour is the kind that results in symptoms very quickly. His first major symptoms came after he had a seizure–the most common warning sign of glioblastoma–in Kingston back in December. An MRI revealed a lesion on the left temporal lobe and subsequent surgery resulted in the diagnosis.

The diagnosis couldn’t be more dire. Glioblastoma infiltrates the brain tissue, making comprehensive surgery impossible. Although doctors were able to remove a big chunk of the tumour, traces of the cancer remains within the brain tissues. The treatment is chemo, and there’s a common standard used throughout North America. This is the same cancer that killed Dr. Donald Low, the man who came to explify Toronto’s fight against SARS in 2003. He later went on to plea for physician-assisted suicide before he died in 2013.

Gord kept his diagnosis quiet as he underwent six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, starting with some high-dose steroids. Specific biomarkers made Gord’s tumour amenable to chemo.  That treatment has “clearly shrunk” Downie’s tumour, said Dr. James Perry, a neuro-oncologist at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, and he believes Downie will be able to complete an upcoming tour with the iconic band.

Chemo can beat back the disease, but it always comes back. It can kill about one-third of the cells while radiation may take of another 25%. The rest, though, are unreachable.

“Gord has a primary brain tumour, this is one that started from within the brain itself; it’s not cancer that spread from another part of the body,” Dr. Perry said. “It’s unfortunately not a curable tumour.”

So how long does a typical glioblastoma patient have? It depends. If the surgery goes well (and in Gord’s case, it did) and they respond well to the chemo and radiation (with Gord, it went well), patients typically have a good run with a fine quality of life for five to ninth months. Gord falls into this category, having returned to his old self, physically, emotionally and his able to go back to work. After that, though, the tumours tend to reappear with a genetic makeup that is different from

After that grace period, though, the tumours tend to reappear with a genetic makeup that is different from the original cancer, making it a completely distinct problem.

You then might well then wonder how Gord will be able to perform, given that this kind of cancer often reaches areas of the brain that affect short-term memory and cause difficulty speaking and expressing themselves in full sentences. This is where a one of the mysteries of the brain comes into play. Music and speech are stored in different regions of the brain and musicians may develop certain redundant systems for memory. Lyrics, for example, seem to be stored in a completely different region, which explains why we can sing a familiar song like “Happy Birthday” without having to think about the words.

Global has this report:

“This will definitely be the most emotional Canadian tour of all time — maybe in the history of music,” says Alan Cross, host of Ongoing History of New Music on Toronto radio station 102.1 The Edge. “The Hip will try to control the emotional tone of the tour. I’m guessing that they’ll want to make this a celebration of Gord’s life, the band and their fans. They’ll do whatever they can to counteract any maudlin reactions. Expect some selfless gestures. If the Canadian Cancer Society isn’t involved on some level, I’ll be shocked.

“Much of the intensity of the shows will depend on Gord’s health and how well he can keep up the pace. Knowing him, though, he’ll want to give it everything he’s got — as will the rest of the band.”


Additional reporting here. And here’s a story about how the Hip have come to definite Canadian culture. Finally, here’s what some Canadians (including the Prime Minister) have been saying.

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Larry Lootsteen

Music is life and I love to write about all things music. Independent music blogger. Writer in general. I am a big fan of alternative and indie music but there's no genre I haven't found something to like.

Larry Lootsteen has 630 posts and counting. See all posts by Larry Lootsteen

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