Glioblastoma: The Brain Cancer That Ended Gord Downie’s Life
Canadian rocker Gord Downie faced a highly complex form of brain cancer, but recent advancements in the treatment have provided a better quality of life for patients.
Gord Downie ended his life with the same grace and affirmation that he lived it. Diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive malignant brain tumour that is almost always terminal, he said his farewell to his fans and to the country that loved him with music.
The farewell tour of the Tragically Hip raised money for glioblastoma research—a disease few people knew about before Downie became ill.
It’s also the same brain cancer that U.S. senator and former presidential candidate John McCain has.
Not everybody knew that Downie’s neuro-oncologist, Sunnybrook Health Science Centre’s Dr. James Perry, accompanied him on the tour.
A glioblastoma diagnosis generally comes as a shock. The disease often strikes seemingly healthy, active people in midlife. About 1,000 Canadians are diagnosed every year.
The initial symptom may be a seizure, which is what Downie experienced in December 2016.
Glioblastoma, the worst kind of brain cancer, is confirmed by a biopsy after a CT scan and MRI reveal the tumour.
Typical life expectancy after diagnosis is 18 to 24 months. The median survival rate is generally 15 months. The average five-year survival rate is 10 per cent.
Glioblastoma is treated with some combination of surgery to remove accessible tumours, with radiation therapy and with chemotherapy.
But treatment is difficult because the malignancy develops in the brain’s supportive tissue, or glia—a tentacled network with its own rich blood supply that nurtures the tumour and helps to promote its invasiveness.
That also makes it more challenging to protect healthy areas of the brain linked to vision and speech during surgery and targeted radiation.
“With glioblastoma,” explained Sunnybrook radiation oncologist Dr. Sahgal in the Sunnybrook Magazine, “everything shifts around to accommodate the tumour and there is only so much you can see with a traditional MRI.”
As well, glioblastoma is highly genetically unstable, more so than most cancers, according to Dr. Perry, internationally recognized glioblastoma specialist at Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Centre.