Watching Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip perform their final concert from the Revue Cinema in Toronto
On August 20, 2016 The Tragically Hip performed their final concert. An event that millions of people around the world would watch - from cottage docks, backyard patios and, for the lucky ones, in person in the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario.
My friends and I went to a Toronto movie theatre to see it on the big screen. Whether or not you were a Hip fan, it was the Canadian thing to do.
The Tragically Hip were one of the country’s most beloved bands. Although I couldn’t count myself as one of their lifelong fans I did get caught up in the farewell fandemonium.
Part of my reason for wanting to watch the show was to see the band’s lead singer Gord Downie perform that night. Only a few months earlier it was announced that he had stage 4 brain cancer, specifically called glioblastoma (GBM).
A terminal cancer with no cure, I was curious to watch how he would do under the pressure of performing to the country.
Back in May I was driving in my car listening to the breaking news of Downie’s brain cancer diagnosis. His oncologist, Dr. James Perry at Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, described “the incurable disease” and what lay ahead for his patient as some of us were learning about glioblastoma for the first time.
The most common and aggressive cancerous primary brain tumour, it affects 2 to 3 per 100,000 adults every year and accounts for 52% of all primary brain tumours. (American Association of Neurological Surgeons)
A day after the announcement the band would announce a cross-country farewell tour.
Canada went crazy. The shows would sell out in every city, while the final one would take place on August 20.
The day of the final show, my husband wasn’t feeling himself and chose to stay home instead of joining us at the theatre. A summer marred by exhaustion and personality changes I chalked these traits up to him overworking himself.
Little did we know that while Gord Downie was performing the show of his life, my husband would also learn that had the same disease.
Looking back it would be art imitating life for us.
Two weeks later we were preparing for a trip to see the US Open in New York City. It would be the first time attending the celebrity-filled tennis event and we were very excited about it.
Realizing that his symptoms were still prevalent, my husband decided to press for in-depth medical testing.
A CT followed by MRI scan would confirm that his behaviour was being caused by a cancerous tumour, growing in the healthy tissue of his brain.
A full craniotomy would be performed only 2 weeks later with weeks of rest, and then months of radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
Our children were in Grades 9 and 12 at the time. Important years for both with the start of high school and university applications in the midst.
As we focussed on his treatment and rest, I gave our children one job. To focus their best on school and maintaining good scores because we couldn’t manage it if that failed.
As we continued on this new cancer treatment path, I followed any of Gord Downie’s public appearances and interviews.
Despite a television interview with CBC where he divulged that he could no longer drive and experienced seizures, he had a year celebrated with the release of a new album, performed 3 live shows for his solo work and published a book.
He made what would become his final year really count.
That year made me think that he could make all of the doctors wrong and he would beat brain cancer.
Then on October 17, 2017 it was announced that he passed away.
Again, I was in the car when the news broke. Radio stations played The Hip’s music throughout the day. Social media filled with posts honouring Downie for his courage and thanking him for the music and inspiration.
My husband was already back at work at this point in time. He called me while I was driving and said, “Did you hear the news?” “Yes”, I said with tears in my eyes.
I didn’t know Gord Downie but felt that he was our beacon of light on these stormy waters. Now that light was permanently out.
The average life expectancy with glioblastoma is 14 months. My husband has surpassed this number thanks to the amazing efforts of Dr. Perry and this team at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and Dr. Sunit Das at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
It’s been two years since Downie’s death.
Since then The Gord Downie Fund has raised over $2.2 million dollars for brain cancer care at Sunnybrook.
According to Danielle Stonehouse with the hospital’s Advancement office, “Donations supporting this fund have gone towards ‘The Gord Downie Fellowship in Brain Oncology’ and the construction of the G. Hurvitz Brain Sciences Centre, a new clinical and research space for neurologists who care for patients with brain cancer.”
Recently, the Downie family decided to direct funds and future donations to support Dr. Arjun Sahgal’s work in Image Guided Research for glioblastoma.
It’s thanks to developments in research and patient care that our family is able to benefit from the personalized treatments to treat glioblastoma.
The future is uncertain where this disease will lead us, but I take a page out of Gord Downie’s songbook using courage to live our lives to the fullest, regardless of what may hold us back.