R.I.P. Gordon Downie

I have to admit I was never a fan of the Tragically Hip. However there is no denying their place in Canadian music. I only saw them live once, back when they were still a bar band, playing a basement club with three other acts the same night.

A few months later, I was out west and heard one of their songs on the radio – they seemed to explode overnight – and I thought it was cool that one of the hundreds of bands I’d seen gigging endlessly, playing tiny venues week after week, actually made it. They went on to sell a million albums in Canada alone.

They worked hard and earned their way up.

That work ethic showed itself again when Gordon Downie announced he had brain cancer, and then led the band on their final tour. He was diagnosed with glioblastoma, the same form of brain cancer that took my sister-in-law nearly two years ago.

Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie dies at 53

This is an especially aggressive form; even with surgery the tumors often come back quickly and chemo can only do so much. Patients are prone to seizures, exhaustion, nausea, temper flares and severe pain. Often diagnosis comes too late as well. In my sister-in-law’s case, we had no idea what exactly was wrong with her before she was diagnosed, only that something was. She’d had fainting spells in the past, and often acted irrationally. She had chronic stomach problems that everyone around her, including my husband and I, attributed to poor eating habits (she lived on take-out and fast food).

Now this is important:

One of the things that maybe should have clued us in sooner was that her temper had grown more volatile. This isn’t the case with every patient, but apparently it is a hallmark of the disease, where somebody flies off the handle at the slightest provocation, who cannot under some circumstances be reasoned with. Both my husband and I suspected there was something wrong with the way her brain functioned, at an organic level. We tried to get her to seek psychiatric treatment (you can’t force someone unless they’re threatening violence), to get herself checked out, to try to find the root cause behind her myriad health problems. Mental health screening probably would have helped identify the cancer sooner. Before she was hospitalized, I imagined some form of brain damage, schizophrenia, a lesion, I don’t know, but cancer never occurred to anyone of us around her.

The trouble with a disease affecting the brain is that it can easily be mistaken for so many other disorders. My sister’s bad eating habits probably did contribute to her nausea as much as the tumor had. She’d always been a bit spacey and easily distracted.  After she died, we learned she’d been in a traffic accident earlier that year and we wonder if it had been caused by her having a seizure* behind the wheel. She was always high strung and with mean a temper. However, we’d noticed her turn steadily worse in recent years. Ironically, her volatile temper made her difficult to be around. We attributed her personality changes to stress, taking care of her sickly mother who had recently died and difficulty coping. While the doctor assured us the tumor (which had grown to the size of a lemon by the time it was operated on) had only been growing for a few months at most, my husband and I aren’t so sure.

At any rate, if someone you know starts acting more irrationally, or disproportionately angry, and does suffer from nausea or vomiting, do insist they get checked out. Better to rule it out as a cause than catch it too late. Thankfully glioblastoma is a relatively rare form of brain cancer. However the less lethal forms will still show many of the same symptoms.

Having witnessed somebody suffering glioblastoma first hand, I am only that much more amazed at how Gordon Downie of the Tragically Hip spent his last year on earth not only touring and creating a multi-media project, but being a father of four and taking on activist causes as well.

He created a brain cancer research fund for Sunnybrook Hospital. Donations can be made here: https://donate.sunnybrook.ca/braincancerresearch

*I’d had a friend who was epileptic and prone to grand mal seizures. So I had it in my head that seizures involve shaking. They don’t always. I witnessed my SIL having a seizure in hospital, where she just seemed to freeze up or space out for a few seconds.

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