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Gord Downie 'like a Terry Fox in the modern day,' says doctor

Last Updated Oct 19, 2017 at 9:06 pm EST

The Tragically Hip's Gord Downie THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Gord Downie’s openness about his diagnosis with terminal brain cancer will leave a lasting legacy that makes him “a Terry Fox in the modern day,” says a radiation oncologist who treated the late Tragically Hip frontman.

“He is an icon for Canadians everywhere. What Terry Fox did for cancer lives until this day, and what Gord has done for brain tumours I think will live on for generations to come,” said Dr. Arjun Sahgal, director of the Cancer Ablation Therapy Program at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital, in a phone interview Thursday.

Downie revealed his diagnosis with glioblastoma – an invasive brain tumour with one of the poorest survival rates of any cancer – in May 2016. He died Tuesday night at age 53.

In the 24 hours after his death was announced, donation activity to a research fund named in his honour “increased notably,” said Pamela Ross, executive vice-president and chief operating officer of the Sunnybrook Foundation.

As of Thursday afternoon, donations for the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research had reached $1.8 million, up about $100,000 from the previous day.

“We have never had daily expectations for this fund,” said Ross. “The activity has increased and I think that’s obviously in response to the tragic news of his loss and people’s interest in simply doing something.”

The fund will support the Gord Downie Fellowship in Brain Oncology and construction of the G. Hurvitz Brain Sciences Centre.

“It’s helped us and motivated us further to really try to invent the future of health care, now with brain tumours at the forefront,” said Sahgal.

Downie’s determination to embark on a cross-country tour, release various music projects, and press politicians on Indigenous issues throughout his treatment also inspired other cancer patients.

“I think he gave a lot of people an understanding that you can have a brain tumour and you can function and you can live and you can get through treatment,” said Sahgal.

“So there’s that piece of hope … because people don’t know what it means to have a brain tumour. When patients are diagnosed, they’re scared and they think treatment is just going to wipe them out and they’re not going to be able to function.

“And then you had Gord, who was able to go on tour right after we were done the initial set of radiation and chemotherapy.”

Sahgal treated Downie every day for six weeks in the initial period after his diagnosis.

“The first time I met him, the first thing he did was give me a hug and he kissed me on the cheek and he said, ‘We’re in this together and we’re going to get through this,’ Sahgal recalled.

For physicians who treat the type of tumours that Downie had, it can be difficult “because all your patients are dying,” said Sahgal.

“So it’s a real calling for people to get involved in this business as opposed to other forms of medicine which are not so intense, and one that you have to be very emotionally ready to deal with.”

It’s never easy, he added.

“In some ways you feel relieved that someone is not suffering but on the other hand it’s just hard to let patients go sometimes,” said Sahgal.

“With everything that Gord did to raise awareness for brain tumours and how grateful we are for his impact in our world of brain tumour research and awareness, you feel a huge sense of loss.

“He was a very special person, and also we have a loss to our community because he was also truly a giver to help brain tumour patients and the entire movement.”

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