Breast cancer patients benefit from Ottawa-based study

Ottawa study is changing the standard of care for breast cancer patients world-wide.

The study that is changing breast cancer treatment around the world

There is such deep love in Gina Mertikas-Lavictoire’s eyes when she looks at her three young children. But there is something else, too: fear. Fear that one or even both of her daughters will develop the same aggressive breast cancer she’s had. So, when an opportunity arose to participate in a clinical trial through The Ottawa Hospital’s REthinking Clinical Trials (REaCT) program, she readily agreed.

Gina Mertikas, centre, and her family
Gina and family

“I’m really big on clinical trials,” says Gina, “so I had no hesitation helping…and I trusted Dr. Clemons.”

Dr. Mark Clemons, scientist and oncologist at The Ottawa Hospital, was Gina’s medical oncologist and also the one who launched REaCT in 2014, together with Dr. Dean Fergusson, senior scientist and Director of The Ottawa Hospital’s Clinical Epidemiology Program, and others. The purpose of REaCT was to make enrollment in clinical trials easier for cancer patients. The more patients who enroll, the more that can be learned, which leads to better treatments and practices.

“When you think the most common killer is now cancer,” says Dr. Clemons, “and only 3% of patients are involved in trials, it’s quite shocking. Patients are desperate to help, not just for themselves but for their children. They want their children to have better treatments if this happens to them.”

Study focused on safer care, less cost, fewer hospital visits

Gina participated in a study focused on a drug called filgrastim, which boosts the production of infection-fighting white blood cells. People with early-stage breast cancer often receive daily injections of the drug at the start of every cycle of chemotherapy, anywhere from five doses to seven to 10. Many cancer patients struggle with both the cost of the drugs, at more than $200 per injection, and the side effects.

“This is an incredibly expensive drug,” says Dr. Clemons, “but often patients feel horrible with it. It makes you feel miserable.”

Up to this point, there had been conflicting debate on how many injections worked best. So, after reviewing all the evidence and surveying doctors and patients, Dr. Clemons and his colleagues launched a clinical trial to find out, enrolling 466 patients from seven Canadian cancer centres.

Gina was among those patients, giving herself a daily shot of filgrastim 10 days in a row after each of her three rounds of chemotherapy.

Gina presenting a cheque to Dr. Clemons in support of the REaCT program at The Ottawa Hospital

“I’m so thankful I was part of this trial”

Gina says she had no hesitation volunteering to be part of this trial, “because I’m able to help future breast cancer patients,” adding, “We are helping the future generation with every trial we do, so I’m happy they asked me.”

She’s happy, too, with the results of the study, published in Annals of Oncology, which have helped change care globally. Researchers discovered that five doses of filgrastim are just as good as seven to 10 doses in terms of preventing infections. And when they looked at treatment-related hospitalizations, they found that five doses are better: patients who received five doses had a 3.3 percent chance of hospitalization for side-effects compared to 10.9 percent for people who had seven to 10 doses, a difference of more than three-fold.

“I believe this is how we will find the cure for cancer.”

– Gina Mertikas-Lavictoire

Results change global standard of care

“This study is already changing practice around the world,” says Dr. Clemons. “It is making our patients healthier and giving them more time with loved ones by reducing unnecessary hospital visits. It is also saving our healthcare system millions of dollars every year.”

The REaCT team wants to take this research one step further to find out whether even fewer doses can be prescribed. They have just applied for funding to start that study and are focused on several other clinical trials as well. With more than 2,700 patients participating in 17 trials in 15 centres across Canada, REaCT is now the largest cancer clinical trials program of its kind in the country.

“By thinking differently and using innovative approaches, we are efficiently answering some of the most important questions for patients and for our healthcare system,” says Dr. Fergusson. “The Ottawa Hospital is a leader in this kind of innovative research and our patients are among the first to benefit.”

Gina knows that well. She’s participated in two other clinical trials through REaCT and has become an ardent fundraiser, securing more than $25,000 for cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital.

“I believe this is how we will find the cure for cancer,” she says, “so we really need to continue to support this avenue, to support the next generation of cancer patients.”

Drs Mark Clemons and Dean Fergusson developed the Rethinking Clinical Trials or REaCT program
Drs. Mark Clemons and Dean Fergusson developed the Rethinking Clinical Trials or REaCT program

“This study is already changing practice around the world. It is making our patients healthier and giving them more time with loved ones.”

– Dr. Mark Clemons

“The Ottawa Hospital is a leader in this kind of innovative research and our patients are among the first to benefit.”

— Dr. Dean Fergusson

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health and research centre and teaching hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.

Donate today to give more patients like Gina access to groundbreaking clinical trials.

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A Conversation with the CEO

Join us for this exclusive opportunity to meet the new President and CEO of The Ottawa Hospital, Cameron Love. You’ll hear Cameron’s vision and strategy for the future of our hospitalYou’ll also get a glimpse of the new Civic development site on Carling Avenue. 

Our Speakers

Cameron Love, President & CEO of The Ottawa Hospital

Cameron Love:

Cameron Love is the President and Chief Executive Officer of The Ottawa Hospital. He took on this leadership role as of July 1, 2020, in an unprecedented time as Ontario’s health system adapts to new a service model in the wake of COVID-19.  Through this experience, and as Executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer of The Ottawa Hospital since 2014, he was responsible for the leadership and oversight of programs and services across the hospital, and their integration into regional programs throughout the Champlain region. He’s been with TOH for over twenty years.

Evan Solomon

Evan Solomon:

Evan Solomon is Host of CTV’s weekly political program, Question Period and host of Power Play. He also hosts a daily radio program on 580 CFRA. Solomon is a two-time Gemini Award-winner and best-selling author who has covered federal and provincial politics, news, and current events for more than 15 years.

From leukemia patient to multi-marathoner – with a walker

Leukemia, radiation and chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant, and a blood clot in his intestine and neck haven’t slowed Robert Hardy down. In fact, he feels stronger than ever and is ‘walker-running’ marathons in support of The Ottawa Hospital.

Robert (Bob) Hardy has been in a fight for his life for more than 20 years. From a bone marrow transplant for leukemia, to a blood clot in his intestine and his neck, it seems nothing can slow him down. In fact, thanks to lifesaving care at The Ottawa Hospital, he’s stronger than ever and unwavering in his desire to compete in some of the most renowned marathons around the world — with his walker. Beating his personal best time, year after year, you wouldn’t suspect that this ‘Walker-Runner’ initially had only a 40% chance of survival.

A startling diagnosis

There was a time many years ago when Bob believed he only had six months to live. Feeling slightly fatigued, but healthy overall, he went for a routine physical. When his examination results returned, Bob received startling news. At only 46 years old, and long before experiencing any side effects of the disease, he was diagnosed with leukemia. Bob and his wife, Vittorina, were stunned. All they could think about was how they would tell their two young girls, Shannon and Leah, who at the time were only 13 and nine. “It was a really big shock for all of us. The thought of having to tell our children wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t something I was willing to hide from them either,” said Bob.

But if you’re looking for a woe-is-me attitude, you won’t get it from Bob. Even a diagnosis of this magnitude couldn’t bring him down. “When I told my youngest daughter, Leah, about my diagnosis,” said Bob, “she told me ‘you’re too strong to die, dad.’” That was the encouragement Bob needed to hear. It was her words that motivated him to fight back and beat the disease.

Robert Hardy, in 1997, standing by the water
Robert Hardy in 1997.

 

A fight for his life

Up until Bob’s leukemia diagnosis he was studying jiu-jitsu – and fit as ever. But while he waited for a match donor for a bone marrow transplant, the medication, interferon, that doctors prescribed to maintain his health was making him weak. Bob was struggling to continue with his training. “I wanted to get my black belt before undergoing my bone marrow transplant,” expressed Bob. He felt a black belt would give him the confidence he needed to begin the long road to healing and recovery. Knowing just how much this milestone would mean to Bob, his doctors allowed him to temporarily discontinue taking interferon for two months prior to Bob’s black belt test, so that he could continue training for the big day. And when that day came, he got his black belt – with honours. It was only then that he felt ready for his bone marrow transplant and the ups and downs that would follow.

A perfect match

After a year of taking interferon, a six-antigen match donor for the bone marrow transplant was found. At the time, performing a bone marrow transplant using an unrelated donor was still relatively new. But researchers discovered that patients can have a match donor outside of their family. “It isn’t common for two people to have the same set of six antigens if they aren’t blood related. I was lucky. They found a perfect match,” explained Bob. More recently, however, advances in research have allowed our experts to perform a transplant using an incompatible donor, significantly reducing the time patients must wait for a match donor. “What this means is that, where once many did not have a donor, now almost everyone has one,” explained Dr. Huebsch. “This research is truly groundbreaking.”

Robert Hardy during his leukemia treatment
Robert Hardy undergoing treatment for leukemia.

With a donor ready to help, the pre-transplant treatment of high doses of chemotherapy and radiation to suppress Bob’s immune system began. Four weeks later, his immune system was primed to receive the bone marrow transplant. He underwent this procedure at The Ottawa Hospital, and remained in our care for three weeks to ensure the transplanted healthy cells were multiplying – and they were.

Bone marrow is the soft, fatty tissue inside your bones, which produces blood cells. A transplant, inserted into the blood stream through a catheter, replaces the unhealthy blood forming cells (stem cells) with healthy ones.

Although doctors wanted Bob to remain in hospital for a few weeks post treatment, he was able to go home for the majority of his recovery. In fact, Bob benefited from our innovative outpatient bone marrow transplant program that has allowed thousands of patients to be treated and recover more conveniently from home. This program was one of the first in Canada and, since its inception, our patients have been surrounded by loved ones throughout recovery.

Thrombosis expertise in Ottawa

Over the course of the next two years, Bob was in and out of the hospital. “The first two years were the hardest. I had a lot of side effects from my treatment,” said Bob. One of the most severe side effects Bob experienced was blood clotting. The first to appear was in his stomach and a second in his neck. Cancer patients are often at greater risk of blood clotting as chemotherapy is hard on the veins. Approximately one in every twenty cancer patients will experience blood clotting – often a life-threatening complication. But Bob was in good hands. He benefited from the development of a tool to help diagnose blood clots quickly, known as the Wells Rule, after Dr. Phil Wells, an expert at The Ottawa Hospital. This tool is now used in emergency rooms and taught in medical schools around the world.

“We have one of the best thrombosis departments in Canada, attracting experts in the field from across the globe.” – Dr. Marc Carrier

Researchers have since implemented a comprehensive program for managing blood-thinning medications for patients at higher risk of developing blood clots, including cancer patients like Bob. This program has ensured that patients at our hospital are more likely to have optimal blood thickness, and less likely to develop blood clots.

More recently, our experts have developed a system to identify the likelihood that a cancer patient will develop blood clots. Although this was not yet available at the time of Bob’s diagnosis, this innovative tool can classify newly diagnosed cancer patients as being at greater risk and they can receive personalized care based on their unique circumstance to prevent blood clotting. “We have one of the best thrombosis departments in Canada, attracting experts in the field from across the globe,” said Dr. Carrier, Chief, Division of Hematology. “Our highly specialized and dedicated researchers are developing groundbreaking procedures that demonstrate our commitment to continuously moving research and treatments forward, so that we can continue to provide exceptional care to each patient that walks through our doors,” said Dr. Carrier.

World-class care in Hematology

Throughout Bob’s treatment, he was cared for through The Ottawa Hospital Hematology and Thrombosis Program, one of the best and largest in Canada. Unlike many other hospitals, where patients must travel to different hospital departments and satellite locations to receive treatment, our unique program provides centralized care for patients with diseases of the lymph glands, blood, and bone marrow for patients across eastern Ontario and beyond.

“We are among the best. Ottawa is at the centre of all sorts of blood transfusion medicine and we’re one of the leading centers in the world for doing, and researching, transplantation for life threatening diseases.” – Dr. Lothar Huebsch

Robert Hardy and Dr. Lothar Huebsch in 2001.
Robert Hardy with Dr. Lothar Huebsch, 2001.

The program, which has attracted leading researchers from around the world, is renowned for the development and advancement of world-first procedures that are changing lives. “We are among the best,” explained Dr. Huebsch, Clinical Hematologist and former head of hematologic oncology. “Ottawa is at the centre of all sorts of blood transfusion medicine and we’re one of the first in the world to successfully perform transplantations for life threatening diseases.” Our Hematology and Thrombosis Program has led the way for decades, researching transplant techniques with other illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, autoimmune diseases, and lymphoma. “This is the kind of research we’ve done for 25 years, and we are one of the leading centers in the world for doing these transplants in the outpatient setting, rather than in a high intensity ward as an impatient,” said Dr. Huebsch.

Road to recovery inspires ‘walker-running’

Bob Hardy, walker running
Robert Hardy walker-running.

With so much time spent in and out of hospital throughout his treatment, Bob needed something to do to keep himself busy while he recovered. So, he got creative. “A few of us used to take our IV polls and race them down the hallways. The nurses couldn’t believe how fast we were moving!” What Bob didn’t realize at the time was racing IV polls would later spark aspirations to participate in some of the most renowned marathons.

Following treatment for the blood clot in his neck, Bob lost his sense of balance. Although he can walk short distances without an aid, he’s unable to run or walk long distance. That’s when Vittorina suggested he get a walker. “At first, I was hesitant about using a walker, but then I realized how fast I could move!” said Bob. And so began his passion for ‘walker-running’.

Bob started his walker-running career participating in the Wobbly Walker-Walk-a-thon, but soon shifted into high gear signing up as a marathoner in Run for a Reason at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend. His marathons not only accomplished a personal goal, but also raised funds in support of The Ottawa Hospital.

A new appreciation for life

Bob’s road to recovery hasn’t been an easy one, but there hasn’t been a day he’s felt sorry for himself. Over the years he started to get stronger and complications were fewer and far between. “I am so thankful for the treatment I received. The nurses and my doctors were outstanding – absolutely incredible,” said Bob. “I’m here today, pursuing my passion for walker-runner marathons, because of them. They saved my life.”

Of course, there are still some days that Bob feels more run down than others. On those days he tries to take a walk to reminisce on how far he’s come in his recovery. “I know what it takes to get over things and to get through things. Not only did I have the very best care at The Ottawa Hospital, I had something to live for. I was able to watch my girls grow up. And now, here I am at age 69, almost 70, I’ve overcome countless obstacles and have jumped over hurdles, and I’m really quite happy with my life. I’m really very happy.”

“I am so thankful for the treatment I received. The nurses and my doctors were outstanding – absolutely incredible.” – Bob Hardy

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.

Your support today, will help patients like Robert keep moving.

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Defying the odds in the battle against pancreatic cancer

As a seven-year pancreatic cancer survivor, Sindy Hooper continues to defy the odds. She’s putting her faith in cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital to save her life again one day.

Devastated and shocked – that’s how Sindy Hooper and her family reacted to the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in 2013. Especially considering pancreatic cancer survivor rates are so low. The diagnosis came at a time when Sindy would have described herself as being in the best shape of her life. But suddenly, she was facing the fight of her life, and she looked to the specialized cancer treatment and research at The Ottawa Hospital to help her fight back.

In the months leading up to Sindy’s diagnosis, she had been feeling great. She had completed her first Ironman in August 2012, and that fall she was training to complete another one. Then, in December, she started experiencing discomfort in her upper abdomen and pain in her upper back. However, towards the end of the month her skin started to get very itchy, she became a lot more tired, and she started to lose a little bit of weight. The day before her diagnosis, she woke up and her eyes were yellow. She was jaundiced.

Sindy’s husband, Dr. Jon Hooper, an ICU physician at The Ottawa Hospital initially thought it could be gallstones. The couple headed to hospital unprepared for what they were about to learn. Later that day, an ultrasound would reveal it was pancreatic cancer. “We couldn’t believe the news. I was relatively young. I had just turned 50. I was in the best shape of my life. I had no family history of cancer whatsoever,” says Sindy. Even more alarming were the survival rate statistics.

An aggressive, potent cancer

The pancreas is part of the endocrine system, a group of glands and cells that make and release hormones into the blood, controlling growth, reproduction, sleep, hunger, and metabolism. The cells in the pancreas normally make and release digestive juices to help break down food.

Pancreatic cancer starts in the cells of the pancreas. A malignant tumour of the pancreas is a group of cancer cells that can grow into and destroy nearby tissue. It can also spread to other parts of the body. There has been little progress in the fight against pancreatic cancer in the last 40 years.

The five-year survival rate is only eight percent. The average survival is six months and 75 percent of the people diagnosed with this form of cancer die within the first year.

“We see what people are going through and how we need to do better than we’re doing so far. It gives us a focus and purpose because we know here’s an urgent need for new and better therapies.” – Dr. John Bell

Pancreatic cancers are resistant to most kinds of therapy. The cells have a biology that scientists don’t completely understand, which makes them hard to detect early and hard to treat with conventional kinds of therapies that are currently available. Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are working to offer hope to pancreatic cancer patients and while she didn’t realize it at the time, this would become very important to Sindy and her journey.

Ready for specialized care

With the alarming news of the diagnosis, Sindy prayed to make it to one year. Her team at The Ottawa Hospital developed a three-pronged care plan. “I am very thankful for having such amazing care close to home – really world-class care,” says Sindy.

The treatment would begin with Whipple surgery. “It’s a seven-hour operation – it’s huge. It can only be done in very specialized centres. I was very fortunate to have that done here in Ottawa.”

In fact, The Ottawa Hospital is one of the few hospitals in Canada to offer this type of surgery. It is used to remove tumours in the head of the pancreas or in the opening of the pancreatic duct. A team that specializes in surgery of the pancreas, liver, gallbladder, and bile duct work together to support the patient through the operation.

Sindy in hospital recovering from Whipple surgery.
Sindy in hospital recovering from Whipple surgery.

In Sindy’s case, the complex surgery removed half of her pancreas, half of her stomach, her gall bladder, bile duct, duodenum, and the tumour. She was in hospital for ten days and then recovered at home for the next five weeks. “Just as I started feeling better in mid-February, I started chemotherapy. I went through 18 rounds of chemo that took me to September. There was also 28 days of radiation in between,” remembers Sindy.

“Whipple surgery is a seven hour operation – it’s huge. It can only be done in very specialized centres. I was very fortunate to have that done here in Ottawa.”
– Sindy Hooper

She was able to withstand the effects of chemo and radiation very well. Her doctors attributed that to the great shape Sindy was in. It helped her power through the treatments. “Through all my treatments, I was still training for Ironman Canada.”

Powering through to Ironman Canada

Sindy Hooper competing in 2013 Ironman Canada during cancer treatment
Sindy crossing the finish line at Ironman Canada in 2013.

Feeling good, Sindy and Jon booked a trip to Whistler, B.C. to take on Ironman Canada in August 2013, even though Sindy was still undergoing chemo treatment. She wasn’t expecting to complete the biking or running portion, but Sindy felt she could tackle the 3.86 km swim. In fact, she not only finished the swim, but also the 180 km bike, and the marathon. “We started the marathon, and it was miraculous. I just felt so good that day. I had lots of energy.”

In the end, together, they finished the Ironman at 11:37 p.m. – 23 minutes before the cut off. But it was bigger than just crossing the finish line. Sindy’s incredible strength to power through an Ironman in the middle of chemotherapy treatment attracted significant media attention. She not only increased awareness for pancreatic cancer, but she also raised $50,000 for cancer research. “Completing the Ironman, raising awareness, and all that money was an absolute gift in the midst of everything I was going through,” says Sindy.

Fundraising for all cancer patients

That $50,000 was just the starting point for this crusader. Sindy has dedicated herself to fundraising for cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital since 2014 through Run for a Reason at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend. Her running team is the MEMC crew (Making Every Moment Count). She tries to instill her passion for life in other people and not take things for granted. Along the way, she’s raised over $225,400 for cancer research.

Sindy does it not only for herself but also for other patients. “Cancer research is going to one day save my life again, I’m sure of it.”

“Cancer research saves lives. That’s the bottom line. Whether it’s finding new treatments or early detection methods so cancers can be picked up earlier and treated more effectively – cancer research really does save lives.” – Sindy Hooper

Sindy running in support of cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital
Sindy participating at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend in support of The Ottawa Hospital.

For Dr. John Bell, a senior scientist, who’s been investigating this complicated disease for decades at The Ottawa Hospital, it’s patients like Sindy who inspire him and his team of researchers. “I’m really privileged to have a lab at the Cancer Centre. That means every day, I get to see the people we are trying to help, like Sindy, who we want to have a good quality of life and a long life.”

Dr. Bell adds it’s those patients who push him to find answers and that elusive cure.“We see what people are going through and how we need to do better than we’re doing so far. It gives us a focus and purpose because we know there’s an urgent need for new and better therapies.”

One way to find those answers is through clinical trials. And it’s not lost on Dr. Bell that the patients who participate are both courageous and altruistic. “Every patient seems to say the same thing when I speak with them: ‘I don’t know if this is going to work for me, but I hope you learn something from it so that I can help somebody else.’ That’s, really what we get inspired by, that sort of attitude. Sindy has that attitude for sure.”

Finding hope for pancreatic cancer patients

Sindy with Dr. John Bell at The Ottawa Hospital
Sindy meeting Dr. John Bell in his lab.

While treatment options for pancreatic cancer are still limited, there is hope. Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are leading the world in developing viruses that can attack cancer cells without harming normal cells. These viruses have been tested in clinical trials for other types of cancer, and Dr. Bell’s team is currently working in the laboratory to see if they can be customized for pancreatic cancer. Dr. Bell says that, “absolutely,” the findings from those previous trials could be used in future pancreatic cancer patients.

“It really is I think a burgeoning field, and I like to think we were critical in getting this started.”

As Sindy continues to put her faith in what this research will have to offer in the future, she has a simple message for Dr. Bell and his team. “Thank you for the work that you’re doing.”

“Keep working really hard because there’s a lot of people out there, like me, who are relying on research to find new, better treatments and hopefully one day a cure.”
– Sindy Hooper

2020 brings a new health concern

Even before the emergence of COVID-19, 2020 offered a new challenge to Sindy. On a flight to Hawaii, last winter she, started experiencing intense gastrointestinal pain. As soon as her flight landed, she went straight to the hospital and learned she had a partial obstruction in her GI tract. While she started to feel better, her surgeons back at The Ottawa Hospital encouraged her to return home as they were the best equipped to handle her complicated case should she develop another obstruction and she need surgery.

Back home, Sindy continued to have severe episodes of pain, developed a fever, and then a blood infection. By mid-April, COVID-19 had arrived in Ottawa and doctors were hesitant to operate, but the pain became so severe they had no choice.

Surgeons discovered a significant number of adhesions in the area of her obstructions and removed them. Sindy admits it was a stressful time being in hospital during a global pandemic. “It was so scary by myself – not having my husband there for me.”

Although, she gives credit to the incredible staff who were at her bedside for six days. “I have to say everybody was going above and beyond to make the patients feel comfortable during this time. I was impressed.”

Making plans for the future

Today, Sindy celebrates as a seven-year pancreatic cancer survivor and takes nothing for granted. After she got past that first year of survival, she prayed for two years of survival. “Every year that has passed is just completely incredible to me, Jon, and my sons.”

Every six months Sindy returns to The Ottawa Hospital for a CT scan. While it’s stressful waiting for the results, so far, each scan has resulted in good news, allowing Sindy and Jon to make plans for the next year.

Sindy biking at the International Triathlon Union
Competing at the ITU (International Triathlon Union) Olympic Distance World Championship in Cozumel, Mexico in 2016.

This year, that plan included welcoming a new member of the family – Lexey, a French Bulldog – filling their home with joy. Sindy’s plans also include more running, swimming, and biking. She’s feeling strong again after her surgery, back to training for a 50 km Ultramarines Run in November and a triathlon next summer. She continues to look to the future.

“I’m just so amazed to be defying these odds and to get to continue living, enjoying and loving life.” – Sindy Hooper

You could say that Sindy is making every moment count.

Listen to Sindy Hooper’s story in her own words during a guest appearance on Pulse: The Ottawa Hospital Foundation Podcast.

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.

Your donation can give patients like Sindy hope for better treatments in the future.

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Life-changing cancer diagnosis and treatment inspires donor

When test results came back showing George Knight had prostate cancer, he was determined to act quickly and beat it. Now he’s equally determined to support the hospital that saved him and to become a volunteer to help future patients.

George was faithful when it came to his annual health checkups and was fortunate enough to have always been relatively healthy. For that reason, he didn’t think too much of it when his prostate-specific antigen (PSA) numbers started to creep up. But his family doctor referred him to The Ottawa Hospital where he met urologist Dr. Brian Blew who ordered a biopsy. The results were shocking – prostate cancer. It was the beginning of a health journey George never anticipated, finding himself at the centre of a cancer battle under the care of an exceptional team of doctors, nurses, and radiotherapists. Now, more than a year later, George is a proud monthly donor to the hospital, determined to give back through philanthropy and volunteering his time to help other patients.

George and Maria on vacation
George and Maria on vacation.

Shocking news

In April 2019, George and his wife Maria, had just returned from an annual trip to Mexico when he received the news that the biopsy results showed he had prostate cancer. George’s PSA levels had always been on the higher side and the recent increase could very well have been a result of aging, so he was shocked to learn that he had intermediate risk prostate cancer. Dr. Blew offered George two options: have the prostate removed surgically or undergo radiation. George wanted to act quickly and felt radiation was his best course of action. “I wanted to get on this right away, so I immediately started radiation. I had 20 treatments in total. I felt very fortunate because I know some men need to have more.” said George.

“We have a rare gem of a facility here in Ottawa and by giving, I know it will help future patients receive the same level of care I received.” – George Knight

Compassionate care

George was grateful for the quick treatment and for how well he was taken care of. “I had excellent care from all of my doctors. Dr. Blew, Dr. Alain Haddad, and Dr. J.M. Bourque, and all of the nurses and radiotherapists. They were all absolutely amazing. I couldn’t have asked for any better.” While he was understandably worried, his care team quickly put him at ease.

George Knight
George Knight

Following his radiation, George is feeling better than ever. He is back to doing his many hobbies and he and Maria are back at the yoga studio where he practices twice a week. “I feel 100% — better than I’ve felt in a long time. I have more energy now and my PSA numbers are back in an acceptable range. I got very lucky. I’m feeling wonderful.”

“George’s donation will allow us to continue to develop the best tools for assessment and treatment.” – Dr. Blew

Accordingly, he thinks the excellent care he received helped him get back to good health quickly, and he wants his story to encourage others to get checked. “We caught it really early so that made a really big difference. Now I nag my male friends that are over 50 years old to go and get checked. They hum and haw but it’s important because sometimes you feel fine, even when you aren’t,” said George.

Dr. Blew is quick to echo the importance of regular screening. “Mr. Knight was very knowledgeable about PSA screening and understood a high PSA is not always due to prostate cancer but requires assessment to determine if treatment is needed instead of monitoring. George’s donation will allow us to continue to develop the best tools for assessment and treatment.”

Turning gratitude into action

The care George received has inspired him to sign up to be a volunteer at the hospital, something he has never done before. “I saw a quote online by Jim Rohn that said, ‘Only by giving are you able to receive more than you already have’ and it really struck a chord with me. This is why I need to give back.” In this same spirit, he has also decided to become a monthly donor. “I trusted the hospital with my health and now I trust it with my support. I want the hospital to have regular support that they can count on. We have a rare gem of a facility here in Ottawa and by giving, I know it will help future patients receive the same level of care I received.”

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.

Join George in becoming a monthly donor and help patients like him receive the very best care and latest treatment available.

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“Exemplary” HIV and prostate cancer treatment spanning decades

Lorne Blahut can’t brag enough about the treatment and care he has received over the past two decades at The Ottawa Hospital for HIV and prostate cancer. He describes the care as full person – physical, mental and emotional.

When Lorne Blahut was diagnosed with HIV in 2000, he thought he was going to die. But experts at The Ottawa Hospital, armed with incredible advances in research, had a different plan. Then in 2017, he again found himself face-to-face with another significant health scare — prostate cancer. But Lorne knew he was in good hands.

“Several years ago, my doctor, Stephen Kravcik, told me, ‘You better start planning for your retirement, because you’re not going to die,’” said Lorne. And he was right. The 67-year-old retired 7 years ago from a career at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

Lorne’s original fears of dying when first diagnosed with HIV were well founded. It is estimated that more than 32 million people have died from HIV since the early 1980s and the high fatality rates from early-on in the epidemic remained staggering for years. But then research turned the tide.

Excellence in research

“Certainly, the mid-90s was the heyday of HIV research when new drugs were developed. The Ottawa Hospital group did revolutionary research led by Drs. Bill Cameron and Jonathan Angel,” said Dr. Kravcik, who came to The Ottawa Hospital in 1994 specifically to do HIV research and clinical trials for new drugs under the guidance of Dr. Cameron. He said at that time about 125 of their HIV patients passed away every year.

Today, HIV is no longer a death sentence.

“It’s not even a chronic disease. Most people like Lorne take one or two pills a day and their lives are totally normal. The pills are superb. They are well-tolerated and with them patients do really, really well.” – Dr. Stephen Kravcik

Lorne Blahut grateful for care received at The Ottawa Hospital
Lorne Blahut grateful for care received at The Ottawa Hospital

When Lorne was first diagnosed 20 years ago, patients diagnosed with HIV/AIDS were living longer thanks to the antiretroviral medications, but it wasn’t common for patients to survive for decades.

“Being diagnosed was a horrific shock,” said Lorne. “And for a while I kept the diagnosis to myself. Being in the gay community, there was the fear that people were going to find out. It was intimidating, it was daunting, but there’s the saying that your worst fears are only realized in your head.”

Lorne’s fears proved unfounded when he realized he was in competent, caring hands.

Helping patients navigate their disease

Dr. Kravcik
Dr. Stephen Kravcik

“A number of people helped navigate the whole disease piece. There was a team around from the beginning,” said Lorne. “Dr. Kravcik explained what was going to happen with the various medications and took the time to listen when I asked for clarification. Kim Lancaster, the social worker on the team, helped with the initial diagnosis, with moving forward, and with issues I was dealing with personally.”

Kim Lancaster, who worked in the infectious diseases clinic for nine years, said the main stay of her job was helping people emotionally manage the impact of receiving an HIV positive diagnosis, and helping them figure out how to conduct themselves in their professional, social, and emotional lives. She said there’s still such a stigma attached to the disease.

“Lorne knew he needed help and was courageous to reach out his hand like that,” said Kim. “In the HIV world, many of the people who don’t live well with the disease are those who are too mired in shame, or fearful of discrimination, to access medical and psychosocial support. They don’t invite people into their medical experience.”

“The care was all encompassing. I’ve not only been looked after physically – bodily – but also, I have had mental support.” – Lorne Blahut

Lorne said the numerous levels of care he received during his treatment in the early years helped him cope with having an illness that is so stigmatized. He also benefited greatly from the research conducted at the hospital, and the antiretroviral drugs developed over the years to keep the disease in remission. Lorne survived. Then he suddenly found himself faced with another life-threatening disease – prostate cancer.

“When you get a diagnosis of cancer, it takes a while to sink in,” said Lorne. But he wanted to be informed about his treatment options.

Minimally-invasive robotic procedure

Lorne read up on the two prostate cancer surgery options before deciding that the robotic surgery, offered at The Ottawa Hospital, was the right one for him. The da Vinci Surgical System is a state-of-the-art robotic system that the surgeon operates remotely, using cameras and tiny surgical instruments. This operation is easier to recover from because it is performed through small incisions rather than the traditional larger incision in the lower abdomen. The Ottawa Hospital was the third hospital in Canada to acquire this minimally invasive surgical system, which was purchased with funding from the community.

The da Vinci Surgical System is a state-of-the-art robotic system
The da Vinci Surgical System, a state-of-the-art robotic system

“What particularly struck me when comparing the two surgeries was the recovery. The recovery time is longer with the traditional operation because of the significant incision the surgeon has to make, and you wear a catheter for months. There is also a tendency for there to be more nerve damage because it’s not as precise. So, for me it was a no brainer.”

Preparing for surgeryThe da Vinci Surgical System used in robotic surgeries

Lorne met with surgeon Dr. Chris Morash, who talked about the possible side effects of prostate cancer surgery. Some individuals experience incontinence and/or sexual dysfunction and some might require hormone therapy after the surgery. Several days later, Lorne met with social worker Liane Murphy and expressed his concerns about all of this.

Liane meets with individuals diagnosed with prostate cancer to help them prepare for their surgery and recovery and to talk through any of their concerns.  Her advocacy on Lorne’s behalf led to a positive pre-operation discussion with Dr. Morash who better addressed Lorne’s concerns.  In February 2018, Lorne underwent three-hour robotic surgery. He recovered well and is back to enjoying retirement.

World-class care, right here at home

“I moved here in 1992.  When I retired seven years ago, someone asked me if I was going to move back to Saskatchewan. First thing that came to mind was, ‘I won’t because I can’t get the healthcare I get at The Ottawa Hospital,’” said Lorne. “Overall, my experience with The Ottawa Hospital has been exemplary. The staff has treated me well and been very supportive. I can’t brag enough about them.”

Lorne is certainly not alone in navigating through the diagnoses and treatment of HIV and prostate cancer. Many men go through similar experiences with these diseases. But when it comes to HIV, Lorne is also trailblazing a new domain in healthcare.

“We don’t have a lot of men his age who have survived HIV,” said Tim Hutchinson, former Director of Social Services at The Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre who has known Lorne for many years. “He’s a pioneer and role model in what happens next as this population ages, and how it is as a gay man, navigating a healthcare system.”

The Ottawa Hospital is establishing a Research Chair in Gay Men’s Health to create a comprehensive healthcare agenda that will help improve access to, and delivery of gay-relevant healthcare for men of all ages.

Donate today to support the kind of cutting-edge research at The Ottawa Hospital that has helped save patients like Lorne.

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Celebrating a “re-birthday” each year since having a cancerous brain tumour removed

Nine years ago, The Ottawa Hospital saved Kimberly Mountain’s life after the discovery of a cancerous brain tumour. Today, she’s confident if the cancer comes back, The Ottawa Hospital will be ready to save her again.

We each have a defining moment in our life — a moment that changes our life forever. For some, that moment is not as clearly defined as it is for others. For Kimberly Mountain, that moment was the discovery of a cancerous brain tumour.

In February, 2011, Kimberly was 28 years old and out with her then-boyfriend, Matt Mountain, when she felt a weird, strong twitch on the right side of her face as they were driving. “Then all I remember is waking up. Our car was pulled over on the side of the highway. Paramedics were there, and I heard Matt say, ‘Kim just had a seizure’,” recalls Kimberly.

Kimberly was rushed by ambulance to the trauma centre at the Civic Campus of The Ottawa Hospital. She would have another seizure, and then an MRI revealed a brain tumour on her right frontal lobe. That moment changed her life.

For two weeks, The Ottawa Hospital became Kimberly’s second home. Her family and Matt never left her side. “Oddly enough, my memories of being in the hospital aren’t of a sad time at all. They are actually some of my favourite memories, filled with friends and family. Everyone I loved was there. And we made friends with the amazing nurses and staff,” says Kimberly.

Kimberly Mountain at The Ottawa Hospital

Awake brain surgery

On March 7, 2011, Kimberly had brain surgery. Her surgeon, Dr. Charles Agbi, would keep her awake for the operation. This is a highly-specialized surgical procedure that requires a team approach led by an experienced neurosurgeon and a neuroanesthesiologist. It enables the neurosurgeon to remove tumours that would otherwise be inoperable because they are too close to areas of the brain that control vision, language, and body movement. Regular surgery could result in a significant loss of function. By keeping Kimberly awake, the medical team was able to ask her to move certain body parts and speak during the procedure.

When she thinks back to the operation, she remembers never being worried. “I guess the hospital staff had made me feel safe and confident.”

During surgery, Kimberly could feel the vibrations of the team drilling into her head, but she didn’t mind it. “I kept talking, laughing, and singing Disney songs, like “Hakuna Matata.” I was telling them how I was going to go to Disney World when it was over. Five hours seemed like just one,” says Kimberly.

For Dr. Agbi, this type of interaction is critical to the success of the surgery. “If they’re only answering questions [surgery staff] are asking them, sometimes we might miss something.”

Transformational technology

It is advances in technology like Kimberly experienced that allow neurosurgeons at The Ottawa Hospital to provide transformational care.

In fact, donor support brought a specialized microscope to Ottawa, allowing surgeons to perform fluorescence-guided surgery. The technique requires patients to drink a liquid containing 5-aminolevulinic acid (5-ALA) several hours before surgery. The liquid concentrates in the cancerous tissue and not in normal brain tissue. As a result, malignant gliomas “glow” a fluorescent pink color under a special blue wavelength of light generated by the microscope. This allows surgeons to completely remove the tumour in many more patients, with recent studies showing that this can now be achieved in 70 percent of surgeries compared to the previous 30 percent average. The first surgery of this kind in Canada was performed at The Ottawa Hospital.

Dr. Nicholas sat down, held my hand, and said the word — cancer. Everything went blurry, and this time I couldn’t stop the tears. I had been strong up until that moment.” – Kimberly

Oncologist reveals brain tumour is cancerous

When pathology tests on the tumour came back several weeks later, Kimberly met with her oncologist, Dr. Garth Nicholas, and he revealed the news she feared the most. “Dr. Nicholas sat down, held my hand, and said the word — cancer. Everything went blurry, and this time I couldn’t stop the tears. I had been strong up until that moment,” remembers Kimberly.

During her cancer treatment, Kimberly faced 30 rounds of radiation, followed by chemotherapy. Matt, who had proposed during Kim’s long stay in the hospital, took her on trips to amusement parks or convertible drives to help get her through the difficult times. The couple even made a special trip to Disney World. “All I could think of during my brain surgery was how happy and carefree it was there. The world was suddenly much more exciting, and I was aware of every little smell, feeling, and moment—something I think maybe only cancer patients can appreciate.”

This all provided Kimberly with a distraction from the side effects, the tiredness, and the hair loss. Losing her hair was one of the most difficult parts of treatment. “I hated losing my long, beautiful hair.”

.Kimberly Mountain

Less than a year later, on January 6, 2012, Kimberly received her last chemotherapy treatment. “I asked those pills to eat that cancer.” Her wish would be realized when an MRI could not detect any residual cancer. Kimberly transformed into a cancer survivor.

Kim Mountain and her family as she rings the bell.

Through a mother’s eyes

Kimberly has become known for never showing up for an appointment without a small contingent of supporters. She always has her family by her side, including her mother, Cyndy Pearson. Cyndy laughs that Kimberly always has an entourage—even when she learned her tumour was cancerous. “We were all there. When there’s something important, we’re all there. When Dr. Garth Nicholas leaned over, and said, ‘Kim you have cancer,’ we were all crying.”

A mother and a daughter hugging
Kimberly Mountain and her mother, Cyndy Pearson

Cyndy is grateful to The Ottawa Hospital for saving Kimberly, her youngest of three children. She points out March 7, 2011 is a new date circled on the family’s calendar—Kimberley’s re-birthday.

Cyndy is also forever grateful for Dr. Agbi’s care. “If this surgery hadn’t happened, she wouldn’t be having any more birthdays. If the hospital had not been able to save her…” Cyndy’s voice trails off.

 

Kimberly Mountain

“Even if the cancer does come back, I am confident that The Ottawa Hospital will be able to save me again, thanks to its constant innovative research and clinical trials that are making treatment better and saving lives.” – Kimberly Mountain

Cancer survivor nine years later

Today, Kimberly has a tattoo on the back of her neck that reads “Hakuna Matata – March 7, 2011”. She celebrates every milestone — including being cancer free — with family, friends, and of course Matt, who never left her side and who is now her husband. You could say it’s like a Disney ending.

Not everything went back to normal. “My precious hair will never be the same,” says Kimberly. “There’s a big spot where my hair will never grow back. The whole right side of my head is permanently bald.” However, always finding the positive, Kimberly says she can do her hair in ten seconds these days, thanks to a few different wigs, “I may actually own more wigs than shoes.”

All joking aside, Kimberly is grateful for each day. “Even if the cancer does come back, I am confident that The Ottawa Hospital will be able to save me again, thanks to its constant innovative research and clinical trials that are making treatment better and saving lives.”

For now, Kimberly takes it one day at a time, celebrating life’s little moments each day.

Donate today to ensure we can provide patients like Kimberly with the advanced care they need.

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REaCT
Program

REaCT: REthinking Clinical Trials

REthinking Clinical Trials (REaCT) is a unique research program aimed at improving the lives of people with cancer through patient-centred, pragmatic clinical trials.

Based at The Ottawa Hospital, the REaCT program engages patients and their loved ones in research every step of the way, from generating ideas to setting priorities to designing studies and sharing results.

Unlike most cancer clinical trials, which are focused on evaluating experimental treatments in a very narrow patient population, REaCT trials compare standard approved treatments in a real-world setting with a broad range of patients. In this way, REaCT trials can efficiently answer some of the most important questions for cancer patients and the health care system.

REaCT is the largest pragmatic cancer clinical trials program in Canada, with more than 2,700 patients participating in 17 clinical trials at 15 centres in Canada.

REaCT is a key component of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute’s Cancer Therapeutics Program and is supported by the Ottawa Methods Centre.

Gina Mertikas-Lavictoire grateful for her care at The Ottawa Hospital

“We are helping the future generation with every trial we do. I’m so thankful I was part of this trial.”

— Gina Mertikas-Lavictoire, REaCT trial participant

World-first clinical trial aims to protect cancer patients from COVID-19

Our researchers are leading the way in a world-first clinical trial to protect vulnerable cancer patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Surgeon-scientist Dr. Rebecca Auer is leading a world-first clinical trial that she hopes will protect cancer patients from COVID-19 and other respiratory infections by boosting their immune systems during treatment. The trial was funded in part thanks to donor support to the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund.

“A cancer diagnosis is scary at the best of times, but the pandemic has made it even worse,” said Dr. Auer, surgical oncologist and Director of Cancer Research at The Ottawa Hospital and associate professor at the University of Ottawa. “Cancer patients have weakened immune systems, which makes them more likely to get severely ill from COVID-19.”

At best, a severe infection could delay a patient’s cancer treatment. At worst, it could kill them.

Patients receiving cancer treatments are the most at risk because the treatments further weaken their immune system. This at-risk population is quite large – over 90,000 people received radiotherapy or chemotherapy treatments in Ontario alone in 2019.

“While there are many specific vaccines for COVID-19 in the works, they won’t be available for at least a year. Cancer patients need protection now.” – Dr. Rebecca Auer

Boosting the immune system during treatment

Dr. Auer and her team at The Ottawa Hospital came up with the idea of testing whether boosting cancer patients’ immune systems during their treatment could help prevent COVID-19 and other respiratory infections. In collaboration with scientists at the Ontario Institute of Cancer Research, they explored an immune-stimulator called IMM-101. Then she worked with Canadian Cancer Trials Group at Queen’s University to design and run the clinical trial at nine cancer centres across Canada.

The researchers will recruit 1,500 patients currently receiving cancer treatment to this clinical trial. Patients will be randomly assigned to receive either regular care, or regular care plus IMM-101. This preparation of harmless heat-killed bacteria had been developed as an anti-cancer therapy because it stimulates the immune system. It has already been safely given to 300 advanced cancer patients in earlier trials.

Training the innate immune system

This trial takes advantage of a lesser-known aspect of the immune system — innate immunity. This first-response arm of the immune system plays a key role in detecting viruses.

Innate immune cells recognize features that are common to many viruses, allowing them to attack viruses the body has never seen before. This is different from the adaptive immune system, which only recognizes viruses the body has already encountered through prior infection or through a vaccine.

The research team hopes that because the IMM-101 treatment can train the patient’s innate immune system, it will help to fight off the COVID-19 virus, in addition to other viruses that cause respiratory infections.

Dr. Rebecca Auer speaks with a colleague
Dr. Rebecca Auer speaks with a colleague (Photo taken before COVID-19)

“There is good data to suggest that the reason some people have no symptoms from COVID-19 while others get very sick is their innate immune system’s ability to respond early and quickly to the virus. This made us consider whether we could use an innate immune booster to prevent COVID-19 infections.” – Dr. Rebecca Auer

Based on data from other immune stimulators, it’s likely that this immune-boost would be temporary. But researchers hope it will last long enough to get a patient through their cancer treatments. Once the treatments have ended, the patient’s immune system would return to its regular strength and be strong enough to fight off viruses on its own.

Protection from more than COVID-19

The advantage of this immune-boosting approach is that it could help cancer patients fight off all sorts of viruses while they are undergoing cancer treatments and are at their most vulnerable.

“The treatment we’re using trains the immune system to do a better job fighting the next viral infection,” said Dr. Auer. “It’s not specific to COVID-19, but actually applies to any viral respiratory illness.”

If successful, IMM-101 could also offer benefits to people with other chronic illnesses or compromised immune systems who are similarly at a heightened risk of serious outcomes from COVID-19. It could also help protect people with cancer from other respiratory infections like the seasonal flu.

Preparing for future pandemics

“In 20 years, we’ve had three coronavirus epidemics or pandemics –SARS, MERS and COVID-19—so it’s likely that we’ll see another,” said Dr. Auer.

“We think harnessing innate immunity could be one of our best weapons for fighting COVID-19 and could be easily adapted to tackle future pandemics.” – Dr. Rebecca Auer

The trial has been approved by Health Canada and will run at cancer centres across Canada this summer and into the fall. The researchers expect to see preliminary results in about nine months.

Donate today to support promising research and clinical trials like this one.

Cancer patients undergoing active treatment who are interested in participating in this trial should speak with their cancer specialist.

The Ottawa Hospital Foundation provided seed funding for this project through the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund, funded by generous donors in the community. Read about other projects that have received funding thanks to donor support and are making a difference in the fight against COVID-19.

Additional funding and in-kind support for this trial have been provided by the Canadian Cancer Society, BioCanRx, the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, The Ottawa Hospital Academic Medical Organization, ATGen NK Max Canada, and Immodulon Therapeutics, the manufacturer of IMM-101.

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.

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Undeniable gratitude from a young mom and her family

Eternally grateful for the care she received, Gina Mertikas-Lavictoire knew she wanted to give back to The Ottawa Hospital — she felt that she needed to.

Exceptional care makes young mother want to give back

When Gina Mertikas-Lavictoire received the good news that she had gone from breast cancer patient to cancer survivor, she knew she wasn’t done with The Ottawa Hospital.

Eternally grateful for the care she received, Gina knew she wanted to give back — she felt that she needed to.

“After my treatment was done, I asked my oncologist, Dr. Mark Clemons — who’s one of the best doctors in the world — ‘how can I give back?’ I need to do something to give back.” – Gina Mertikas-Lavictoire

Gina was 34 years old with three young children at home, the youngest just 12 months old, when she felt something was wrong — there was an unusual firmness in one of her breasts. A breast cancer diagnosis followed and rocked her family’s world. She immediately went into survival mode. “The first thing I asked my doctor was when can I have a mastectomy and when can I start my treatment. I never looked back,” Gina says.

Despite the alarming health news, she faced the disease with sheer determination. “I received excellent care at The Breast Health Centre at The Ottawa Hospital. I went through chemotherapy and radiation. I’ve had four surgeries including a hysterectomy and a double mastectomy.”

An unimaginable experience for a young mother, but the gratitude Gina has for The Ottawa Hospital is undeniable in her desire to give back.

Paying it forward

“When I received the news that I would be able to watch my children grow up, that’s when I put the wheels in motion to help others,” recalls Gina. She came up with the idea of selling a calendar to support cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital.

Today, she’s feeling great and is solely focused on her fundraising efforts, which have exceeded her wildest expectations.

“From the get go, the calendars kept selling out. They were just flying off the shelves. What I’m surprised by is the amount of support that I had, not only friends and family but from all of Ottawa and across the country. People are supportive. We’ve even shipped calendars into the United States,” says Gina.

Gina Mertikas and Katerina Mertikas
Gina and her mother, Katerina Mertikas, a renowned local artist

Gina hasn’t done any of this alone. Right alongside her during her diagnosis, treatment, and now the furious fundraising efforts is her family, including her mother Katerina Mertikas. Katerina is a local artist, who is renowned across the country for her beautiful paintings. It’s Katerina’s art, which is featured each month in the calendar.

Research is transforming care

For Katerina, it was extraordinarily difficult to watch her daughter go through the treatment and surgeries. “There are no words,” says Katerina.

However, the mother of two knows cancer research played a role in helping her youngest daughter recover. “My own daughter has benefitted from research through the treatment she received, which was Herceptin — a chemotherapy drug. It was originally used in a clinical trial before becoming a standard of care for patients,” acknowledges Katerina. It’s for that reason this mother-daughter duo is working together to help others facing the disease.

With calendars from 2019 and 2020 under her belt, and $25,000 raised for cancer research, Gina wants to see this continue for years to come with the help of her own children. Her eldest daughter, Katerina, has been introduced to philanthropy and what it means to give back. For Gina, she’d love to one day hand off the calendar project to the next generation. “I’m hoping someday my kids will take over this calendar and it will continue on,” says the proud mother.

Gina proudly displaying their fundraising calendar.

Excellence in care

For this family, there is undeniable gratitude toward the care team at The Ottawa Hospital, which helped Gina when her life depended on it. The impact has been profound on the family and for Katerina, especially from one doctor in particular — Dr. Mark Clemons, medical oncologist and associate scientist at The Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre.

Dr. Clemons first joined The Ottawa Hospital in 2009 and has made a remarkable name for himself since, both among patients and colleagues alike. At the time, he was unsatisfied with the way breast cancer was being monitored and treated in Canada, so this quickly became his primary area of specialty for clinical trials.

In fact, in 2014, along with Dr. Dean Fergusson, Director of the Clinical Epidemiology Program, Dr. Clemons developed the Rethinking Clinical Trials or REaCT program as a way to make the process of enrolling in clinical trials easier and more efficient for cancer patients. As of June 2020, this groundbreaking program had enrolled over 2,600 patients, making it the largest pragmatic cancer trials program in Canada. In recognition of their success, the REaCT team recently earned a 2020 Research Excellence Team Award from The Ottawa Hospital. Dr. Clemons was also the recipient of the Chrétien Researcher of the Year Award in 2013.

For Gina, she is grateful to have been cared for by such an accomplished researcher who also happens to be a compassionate physician. Dr. Clemons offered guidance, encouragement and hope when she needed it most, and this inspired her to give back.

“Dr. Mark Clemons is a very special doctor,” says Katerina. “He made us feel so comfortable. He helped a lot with his attitude. He gave it his all — so how could we not give back? I wish we could give more.” – Gina Mertikas-Lavictoire

Listen to Pulse Podcast, and hear Gina’s story, including a special guest appearance by Dr. Mark Clemons.

Every grassroots fundraising campaign has impact. Create your own fundraising initiative today to ensure all patients, like Gina, have a chance to spend more time with their children.

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