Gord Downie ready to 'blow people's minds' in wake of cancer diagnosis

The Tragically Hip announces that their lead singer received the diagnosis of an incurable brain cancer in December

TORONTO – Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie is determined to “blow people’s minds” with a raucous Canadian tour in the wake of learning he has an incurable brain cancer, his managers said Tuesday as fans tried to digest the shocking announcement about the singer’s illness.

Band managers Patrick Sambrook and Bernie Breen said doctors have cleared the 52-year-old father of four to hit the road following surgery and treatment for glioblastoma — the most common and aggressive type of tumour to start in the brain.

The details of the tour are set to be announced Wednesday.

“The will to do the tour, that was easy,” Sambrook said at a press conference also attended by Downie’s neuro-oncologist, Dr. James Perry.

“The (question was): ‘Can we do this?’ and ‘Can we do it to the level that (we want)?’ It’s a pro band, Gord absolutely doesn’t want to go out there unless he can really do his thing and so I mean, their head space, his head space is: ‘We want to blow people’s minds.'”

Perry, head of neurology at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, said it was “too early” to offer a prognosis but added Downie’s case is especially receptive to treatment, suggesting “a significantly higher chance of longer-term survival.”

But the physician also said Downie’s tumour, found in his front left temporal lobe, is impossible to completely remove by surgery and frequently recurs.

“Unfortunately, one day it will come back,” said Perry, dismissing the possibility of a complete recovery.

Downie was diagnosed in December after suffering a seizure. Surgery removed the bulk of the tumour, while six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy — completed about a month and a half ago — have reduced it even further.

“He has returned to his physical, emotional, mental strength well enough now to be able to get back doing what he loves doing,” Perry said of the charismatic frontman, known for powerful live performances and poetic lyrics.

Perry didn’t anticipate any medical issues in the short term, but said “medical contingencies” will be in place throughout the tour. He emphasized that Downie will need to avoid fatigue while on stage.

“We all know he doesn’t sit down in a rocking chair and play banjo, so I think we have to be cautious about things like hydration,” Perry said.

Neither Downie nor his bandmates attended the press conference. The Kingston, Ont., band broke the news online and by press release Tuesday morning.

“This feels like the right thing to do now, for Gord, and for all of us,” said the Hip, whose cerebral smashes include “Blow at High Dough” and “New Orleans Is Sinking,” in announcing the tour.

“What we in the Hip receive, each time we play together, is a connection; with each other; with music and its magic; and during the shows, a special connection with all of you, our incredible fans. So, we’re going to dig deep, and try to make this our best tour yet.”

The Tragically Hip’s 14th studio album, “Man Machine Poem,” is set for release June 17. The album was largely completed prior to Downie learning about the tumour, his manager said.

Breen said playing music together is what “they feel best doing as a group.”

“I think it’s appropriate and honestly awesome for everybody involved, to give and receive what happens when this band plays live and what they mean to people and the people to them,” said Breen.

“The hope is that this particular run is like most, which’ll be great and awesome and exciting and everyone will be happy at the end.”

Glioblastoma affects about two to three people per 100,000 in Canada, the United States and Europe, according to information supplied by Sunnybrook. It’s the same type of brain tumour discovered in Ted Kennedy, actress Ethel Merman and former Montreal Expos player Gary Carter.

FILE--Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip performs as one of the opning acts to the Rolling Stones concert in Moncton, N.B. on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2005. When asked how his family influences his music, Gord Downie is uncharacteristically grand in his response. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip. (Paul Chiasson, CP)

The Tragically Hip announced the news on its website and social media early Tuesday morning and reaction has been swift.

Justin Trudeau tweeted: “Gord Downie is a true original who has been writing Canada’s soundtrack for more than 30 years. #Courage”

Musicians also turned to Twitter to acknowledge Downie’s influence on the Canadian arts scene.

Indie rock band Stars tweeted: “Gord Downie is the poet laureate of the Canadian soul.”

Newfoundland band Hey Rosetta added: “Slapped awake by news radio this morning — we love you Gord Downie, and we owe you magnificently. Steady on skipper.”

Musician Ron Sexsmith tweeted: “Thoughts are of Gord Downie today family & road family Thx for having me on roadside & 4 letting me tag along with U to Madison Square XO RS.”

And actor Jonathan Torrens wrote: “No band in our history has embraced/defined #Canadianity more than The Hip. Gutted by this news. Gord IS Canada.”

From the archives: The Maclean’s Interview: Joseph Boyden talks to Gord Downie 

Here are five things to know about the glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) brain tumour:

WHAT IS GLIOBLASTOMA? It’s the most common and most aggressive cancerous primary brain tumour (a tumour that starts in the brain). Glioblastomas are made up of different cell types and are usually highly cancerous because the cells reproduce quickly and have a large network of blood vessels supporting them. Most of these tumours occur in the cerebral hemispheres but can develop in other parts of the brain such as the corpus callosum, brain stem or spinal cord. Like many brain tumour types, the exact cause is not known, but increasingly research is pointing toward genetic mutations.

PREVALENCE OF GLIOBLASTOMA: The rate of glioblastoma is about two to three per 100,000 people in Canada, the United States and Europe. Sunnybrook says it treats around 250 patients with glioblastoma each year. This type of tumour is more common in older individuals and more common in men than women. Each case is unique, but average survival, even with aggressive treatment, is less than one year.

SYMPTOMS: A patient’s symptoms depend on the location of his/her tumour. Some common symptoms include headache, weakness, nausea, seizure, memory difficulties, personality changes and vomiting. Sometimes the tumour starts producing symptoms quickly, but on occasion there are no symptoms until it reaches a larger size.

TYPES OF GLIOBLASTOMA: The American Brain Tumor Association cites two types of glioblastomas. These include primary, or “de novo,” and secondary. Primary tumours tend to form and make their presence known quickly. This is the most common form of glioblastoma; it is very aggressive. Secondary tumours have a longer, somewhat slower growth history, but still are very aggressive. They may begin as lower-grade tumours, which eventually become higher grade. They tend to be found in people 45 and younger, and represent about 10 per cent of glioblastomas.

TREATMENT: The first treatment step is surgery to remove as much tumour as possible. Surgery is almost always followed by radiation. Glioblastoma’s capacity to wildly invade and infiltrate normal surrounding brain tissue makes complete resection impossible. After surgery, radiation therapy is used to kill leftover tumour cells and in attempts to prevent recurrence. Chemotherapy is often given at the same time as radiation and may be used to delay radiation in young children.

Source: Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre; Brain Tumor Foundation of Canada; American Brain Tumor Association.

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