Published: April 2024

Picture hundreds of medical images mapped out into a concise report so a surgical team can plan a complicated surgery to remove a rare cancerous tumour. Then, picture a virtual reality (VR) system taking all that imaging and giving the surgeon a 3D view that allows them to move within the patient’s body — just like a video game — before surgery. It’s a whole new way of surgical planning, and this new technology was used for the first time in Canada right here at The Ottawa Hospital (TOH).  

When Emeric Leblanc was 13, he started to have pain in his left leg. It was initially believed to be growing pains, but as months went by, the pain worsened. “I used to play basketball, and then I couldn’t anymore because it hurt so much. It would keep me awake at night. Then it got to the point where I had trouble walking,” explains Emeric.  

Eventually, he would undergo a series of tests. On December 8, 2021, now 14 years old, Emeric sat with his mom and dad at CHEO and learned he had Ewing sarcoma. This type of cancer forms in the bones — most often in children between age 10 and 20. The teen’s growing tumour was in his pelvis and about 12 cm in diameter — the size of a grapefruit.  

Fishing is something Emeric is happy to be back doing.
During treatment in hospital

Grasping the complexity of a Ewing sarcoma tumour

While it was a shock to hear the word cancer, deep down Emeric says he already expected further tests would reveal it was cancerous. What was especially hard to digest was the news that he wasn’t going back to school.  

“Everything changed in that moment,” explains Emeric’s mom, Hélène Lachance. “There was a lot of information to digest about the treatment plan and how we could prepare him for that.” 

He returned to school to retrieve all his belongings because chemotherapy treatment started right away. He needed to have his braces removed, and was referred to a fertility clinic, because chemotherapy could make him infertile. It was a great deal for this teen to absorb. No longer as active as he wanted to be, he became much more invested in video games — a sign of what was to come, since VR would be used to help save his life. 

A collaborative team effort

“It was a collaboration of top-notch medical oncology, radiation oncology, and surgical teams between TOH and CHEO. A lot of great people came together to help Emeric.”

— Dr. Joel Werier

For more than a year, Emeric spent most of his time in the hospital. A team from The Ottawa Hospital and CHEO came together to give him the best possible chance at a healthy, active life. “It was a collaboration of top-notch medical oncology, radiation oncology, and surgical teams between TOH and CHEO. A lot of great people came together to help Emeric,” explains Dr. Joel Werier, Head of The Ottawa Hospital Sarcoma Program and orthopaedic oncologist. 

Also, an integral part of the team effort was Dr. Kawan Rakhra, a senior musculoskeletal radiologist at our hospital. Both doctors are also working with Realize Medical, the company behind the new VR technology used for Emeric’s surgery.  

They each played a pivotal role in tackling Emeric’s challenging case. The tumour was on the pelvis and coming quite close to the left hip joint. The goal was to remove part of the pelvis but save the hip joint, because without it, he wouldn’t have the same function of his leg. However, removing a pelvis is probably one of the more complex surgeries in medicine, according to Dr. Werier. 

Dr. Joel Werier is an orthopaedic oncologist and Head of The Ottawa Hospital Sarcoma Program

Stepping inside the patient through VR

That’s where the unique use of technology comes into play. The first step was chemotherapy to try to shrink the tumour, followed by radiation. With the tumour located on Emeric’s pelvis, a plan was needed to save his hip joint.  

“This is where the VR system was really critical. It allowed us to clearly understand the exact anatomy of the tumour and its relation to important structures, including the hip joint,” explains Dr. Werier. 

To best prepare a team to care for a patient, Dr. Rakhra must examine a litany of scans. In his area of expertise, whether it’s an X-ray, ultrasound, CT scan, MRI, or more, there can sometimes be 1,000+ images to scroll through, review, and create a detailed report to help with staging a cancer or planning a surgery. It takes an extensive amount of time and can be overwhelming.  

“If as the saying goes, ‘A picture is worth 1,000 words,' well then a 3D virtual reality model is worth a million, and it's going to transform how we use radiology in surgical planning.”
— Dr. Kawan Rakhra

“Tumours tend to be complex and challenging for radiologists, surgeons, and oncologists to really understand the intricate anatomy, the location, and relationship to other critical tissues in the organs,” explains Dr. Rakhra. 

The VR system is a game-changer on many levels. Using technology previously used by the video gaming industry, surgical teams can view a customized 3D image of the tumour, then VR headsets help them step inside the patient’s virtual space and make a much more concise surgical plan. It’s a paradigm shift in radiology where, traditionally, we look at these raw CT or MRI images and generate independent, descriptive reports that are sent to surgeons.But now, we found a way to further process them, integrate them, and convert them into a 3D model, which is a far more informative and powerful tool,” says Dr. Rakhra. If as the saying goes, ‘A picture is worth 1,000 words,’ well then a 3D virtual reality model is worth a million, and it’s going to transform how we use radiology in surgical planning. 

VR at The Ottawa Hospital

There is virtually nothing as disruptive in healthcare right now as VR — or virtual reality, if you’ll excuse the pun. This technology is being used across disciplines to improve patient safety, outcomes, and efficiency, while reducing costs and recovery times. It is transforming training and education today, with lifesaving implications tomorrow. 

VR in action

A whole new perspective for the surgical team

For Dr. Werier, it gives a whole new perspective for him and his surgical team. “It allows me to see things the way they’re meant to be seen — in three dimensions, the way our eyes would see them,” explains Dr. Werier. “It allows us to better understand the intricate anatomy and manipulate the images — for example, move nerves out of the way. We can share this with other members of the team and with the patient.” 

And there lies another key benefit to this technology — the patient gets a much better understanding of their diagnosis and care plan. “When you show a tumour on an MRI scan, it’s not quite as appreciated as it is in a VR system,” adds Dr. Werier.  

As for Emeric, he experienced VR by playing video games in the past, but this took him inside his own body to view what his surgical team had to do and to better understand the process.

Emeric in hospital after surgery.

“It was very cool. I could move it around — zoom in, zoom out. I could see the important veins and nerves that they try not to cut. It was also cool that I was the first to experience this.”

— Emeric Leblanc

On July 5, 2022, he became the first patient in Canada to undergo surgery using this new VR program. It was a very delicate surgery that included removing the left side of his pelvis and removing the entire tumour. Thanks to this technology, Dr. Werier was able to save the teen’s hip joint, allowing Emeric to regain his mobility and resume the activities he loved so much like fishing and camping.

Emeric camping.
Often, Emeric can be found fishing on his dad’s boat.

Immense gratitude to have a skilled team and technology close to home

As a parent, it was a stressful time, but Hélène says seeing the tumour through the VR provided reassurance. “It was such a big surgery but seeing all this and the expertise of the team, I knew they were going to take care of my son. Dr. Werier was awesome. I mean, he saved my son’s life. We’ll always be grateful to him.” 

After Emeric recovered from the 14-hour surgery, he required more chemotherapy, but today he’s doing well. Dr. Werier explains the goal was curative, and they will monitor Emeric closely in the coming years.  

“It’s a complex operation — he’s a remarkable young man, and he did great. The VR helped us a lot. It’s much more intuitive, it gets people on the same page, and it’s much more efficient. It builds confidence in the surgical team.” 

The teen, who is now 16, is back at school, back with his friends, and getting stronger every day. The only difference now is he wears a shoe with a thicker sole on his left foot because his leg is slightly shorter. He also plays video games with a whole new appreciation for VR gaming. 

It’s this technology that is setting the stage for the next generation of surgeons and will give healthcare teams the most effective opportunities to provide the best care options to patients.

“This is the next evolution in how we look at things — a lot of this technology is homegrown in Ottawa, and I think it’s going to lead the virtual technology medical imaging industry. We’re excited about it,” says Dr. Werier.

Download or stream episode 96 to hear more about the impact of the VR technology on patient care with Dr. Kawan Rakhra.

Listen Now:

This success story began with the creation of Realize Medical in 2019, an Ottawa start-up company led by Dr. Justin Sutherland and Dr. Daniel La Russa. Both are physicists at The Ottawa Hospital, who saw an opportunity to further advance patient care using a technology most of us associate with video games. Other key contributors are Dr. Teresa Flaxman and Dr. Yusra Al Mosuli. In fact, Dr. Flaxman has been instrumental in elevating the 3D visualization program within our hospital and has been at the core of the VR modelling process with Drs. Werier and Rakhra since the early developments. Dr. Mosuli has been instrumental in the path forward including the Canadian first moment for this software program, Elucis, and Emeric’s surgery.

Research is critical for finding the best ways to use this technology and proving that it’a effective. Realize Medical has many research collaborations with various teams at The Ottawa Hospital to evaluate and implement their technology.

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa. All researchers at The Ottawa Hospital follow a Responsible Innovation frameworkfor developing and commercializing innovations in a responsible way.


Nurse Sabrina Presta’s very different perspective of life as a patient

Published: February 2024

For more than 15 years, Sabrina Presta has been a registered nurse at The Ottawa Hospital. Her home unit is B2, the General Surgery department at the Civic Campus — during the pandemic, B2 became the designated Covid unit for a year. Her team on B2 is close-knit and sticks together not only when it comes to providing compassionate care to patients but also in supporting each other.

In 2020, Sabrina needed that support more than ever. “I was experiencing some mental health challenges, like anxiety. Then, by the end of that year, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer — that came out of nowhere,” explains Sabrina.

It was the summer of 2020, when Sabrina started getting strep throat regularly — something that she never experienced before. Then she noticed a lump on her neck, and she remembers being afraid of what it might be. She immediately reached out to her doctor.

“The nurse so deeply ingrained in me wanted to read the biopsy report right away. But my intuition guided me wisely, and I decided to wait to meet my doctor face to face.”

— Sabrina Presta

Her doctor ordered an ultrasound, followed by a biopsy. “I had access to MyChart at the time and remember getting a notification that the results were available. The nurse so deeply ingrained in me wanted to read the biopsy report right away. But my intuition guided me wisely, and I decided to wait to meet my doctor face to face. I didn’t want my anxiety to creep up on me and potentially misinterpret the results,” explains Sabrina.

It was December 15, 2020, when she learned the results — the tumours were malignant — it was papillary thyroid cancer. This is the most common type of thyroid cancer and generally impacts people between 30 and 50 years old and appears more often in women. Thankfully, most papillary thyroid cancers respond well to treatment.

“It was during the pandemic, and I was alone when I got the news. I went to my car, and I just started shaking. I was trembling like a leaf. I called a friend, and I was crying on the phone, then I drove home. When I saw my husband, he looked at my eyes and he knew,” says Sabrina.

It was a shock because this active mom of two daughters had no other symptoms, other than the sore throat and lump on her neck. The good news was that it was a non-aggressive, slow-growing form of cancer. It would, however, require a total thyroidectomy — the complete removal of her thyroid gland because there were two cancerous nodules, one in each lobe. 

Her daughters were old enough — nine and seven at the time — that Sabrina and her husband sat them down to break the news. “My eldest daughter was surprised to hear the word cancer because I didn’t seem sick. She was sad at first, then was reassured when she heard us talk about the treatment, including surgery. The hardest part for her was watching her little sister’s reaction. She quickly took on the big sister role and comforted her sister,” explains Sabrina. “Meanwhile, my youngest cried ‘Are we still going to have Christmas?’ Her world was just rattled in that moment when she heard cancer. Her great-grandmother died of cancer, and so she thought cancer meant mommy’s going to die.”

Sabrina is an active mom of two daughters.

She assured her daughters she would be well taken care of, and the surgery would make her better.

In Eastern Ontario, the General Campus of The Ottawa Hospital is home to the region’s Cancer Centre — it is the hub and supports satellite centres from Barry’s Bay to Hawkesbury to Cornwall. The Irving Greenberg Family Cancer Centre, located at the Queensway Carleton Hospital, is also a part of our cancer program. Thanks to state-of-the-art technology and world-leading clinical trials, we can provide a wide-range of care for patients across Eastern Ontario and Nunavut.

As a resident of Limoges, Sabrina was grateful to be able to have her surgery at the Winchester and District Memorial Hospital — a community partner with our hospital — in February 2021. The surgery went well, and the next day, she was sent home to continue her recovery. But days after the surgery, Sabrina developed symptoms that made her nervous, and she went straight to the Emergency Department (ED) at the Civic Campus.

“I was home and had just woken up. I walked to the bathroom and almost fainted — everything went black. I started to have tingling sensations and numbness in my legs, arms, and face,” remembers Sabrina. “After my surgery, I was given discharge instructions from my nurse. Those were two signs to look out for in the post-operative phase, as my body was adjusting to life without a thyroid gland. I woke up my husband, and he drove me to the ED right away.”

“It was an act of kindness that went a long way for me. It taught me that you can really leave a lasting impression on someone’s life experience.”

— Sabrina Presta

Now Sabrina found herself as a patient, in her own hospital, and something “magical” happened. She was waiting to be seen when a respiratory therapist she works with saw her. “He took a few moments out of his busy shift to come over to me. His kindness gave me the opportunity I needed to be comforted and to cry. My tears flowed as I was feeling overwhelmed, tired, and scared of my current reality,” explains Sabrina. “He stayed right there with me. I was very weak, and he helped guide me to the bathroom. Before he left, he gave me tea and crackers. It was an act of kindness that went a long way for me. It taught me that you can really leave a lasting impression on someone’s life experience. He was present. This respiratory therapist gave me that gift.”

As a nurse who diligently practices her profession with compassion, being on the receiving end was eye-opening. “When I was a patient, this word became the hope I needed.”

Sabrina soon received good news — what she was experiencing was normal after her type of surgery, and she was able to go home. Within six weeks, she was back at work with a different outlook as a nurse. She was inspired to create her own wellness initiative for her B2 team called B2 Steps Ahead with Sabrina — a collaboration to help colleagues with their mental health. “I created a special room on our unit, the Rest Room, where colleagues can go and recharge in a quiet space during their shift. It even has twinkling lights to relax.”

A poster for Sabrina’s wellness initiative for her B2 team.

Her experience with cancer has taught her to slow down and take care of herself holistically. When she is not working on the frontlines, you will probably find her outside either running, walking, practicing yoga, or writing. A dear colleague even gave her the nickname, “Mother Nature.” “I just love being outside! The fresh air gives me something ineffable,” smiles Sabrina.

Today, she can look back on her cancer journey with gratitude. “It is a privilege to work as a registered nurse in facility that gives me a sense of fulfilment.”

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


Music leads Caleb Fagen through his journey with Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Published: February 2024

Music is huge a part of Caleb Fagen’s life — you could say he lives and breathes it. When the university student started to feel rundown in the summer of 2021, he thought he had been pushing himself too hard. Soon though, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It was shocking news for this young man and his loved ones. 

“I was completely unprepared when I heard the diagnosis. I was shocked.”

— Caleb Fagen

Earlier that year, Caleb was attending uOttawa for his undergrad in music, he was teaching private music lessons and was a part of the school’s choir — something that brought him great joy.  

“I was very focused on school. It was the hardest year of my undergrad, especially with the pandemic. I practiced three to four hours a day on the piano — I was working hard,” explains Caleb.  

In addition to feeling rundown, he had also become anxious and depressed, and he wasn’t eating well.  

“I was completely unprepared when I heard the diagnosis. I was shocked. I was so focused on school and music that all I wanted to know was how I was going to be able to practice, and how was school going to work?” remembers Caleb. “I didn’t want to lose the momentum that I gained.”

Caleb with his partner Jane. 
Caleb with his partner, Jane, after they both shaved their heads in anticipation of his chemotherapy treatment. 

Shocking diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma 

Hodgkin’s lymphoma begins in a patient’s lymphatic system — that’s part of the body’s germ-fighting immune system. The white blood cells grow abnormally and can form growths (tumours) throughout the body.  

Once Caleb digested the news, there was acceptance. He credits a great deal of that to his incredible support system, including his parents, his brother, and his partner, Jane.  

“My dad came to all my chemo treatments and took time off work to be there with me, and mom was a huge support. My partner lived with me through a lot of this too, it really helped, and it brought a lot more love to this scary situation.”

The first course of action was chemotherapy, and those treatments went from October to the end of March 2022. Caleb maintained some online courses during this period, and overall, he got through the treatment fairly well. That spring he travelled to Italy, resumed working, and even thought about plans to finish his degree. 

Caleb with his family on vacation in Italy. 

A stem-cell transplant the next level of defence 

By late summer of 2022, just one year after his initial diagnosis, a PET scan showed the disease was refractory. That means while it appeared Caleb initially responded to treatment, the cancer had returned.  

The next step was a stem-cell transplant — a process that began in September. “It was quite an ordeal. I went through a few rounds of chemo, and then the stem cell collection. That was followed by the harsh conditioning chemo treatment to wipe my system clean. I felt like a walking zombie. I was very feeble,” explains Caleb. 

Caleb playing the accordion at his home. 

“The team was really good. There was a time when I had to be an inpatient and I was treated well. They told me it would be difficult post-transplant, but it would get better.” 

— Caleb Fagen

It was Halloween when he received his stem-cell transplant. He credits his care team at The Ottawa Hospital for helping him through a very difficult period. “The team was really good. There was a time when I had to be an inpatient and I was treated well. They told me it would be difficult post-transplant, but it would get better.” 

Caleb describes the following month as the worst of his life. “There were times in November when I lost my sense of taste. My tongue felt like it was a rock, it felt stiff and hard, and my appetite wasn’t good. That was just one example,” remembers Caleb. “It was a traumatizing time. I had a psychologist and support to help me work through things and to focus on breathing and to stay calm.”

Cancer and the mental health journey 

The Cancer Centre’s psycho-social oncology program was established to provide patients like Caleb the support needed to help cope with the many challenges associated with cancer and its treatment.  

One person who was an integral part of helping Caleb during this challenging time was social worker Izabela Uscinowicz Valdivia. “Isabela was terrific. I was with her since before my transplant. She was there during the really bad times. We developed a great relationship,” says Caleb. 

He also credits his hematologists Dr. Manika Gupta, who started this journey with him, and Dr. David Macdonald, who currently cares for him.   

Gradually, things started to improve for Caleb, but he admits it was a slow process. By December, he was regaining strength both mentally and physically, and he sat down to play again. “That was a great moment when I was able to start playing the piano. I missed it.” 

Looking to the future  

Because of the high risk of relapse, Caleb started a new chemo treatment in December, which occurred every three weeks and only ended on October 27, 2023. It was then that Caleb was able to ring the bell at the Cancer Centre to mark the end of his treatment.  

Today, he’s back at school in-person part-time, with two more courses left to get his degree. He’s also writing music for himself and teaching again.  

“Physically I feel a lot better. I want to start exercising more to build up my strength, but I’m in a better place. I’m still dealing with mental health issues. I have a counsellor, but I have fewer things to say, so that’s good,” Caleb says with a smile. 

Now 23, Caleb’s recent scan showed he’s in remission, however, he continues to be monitored closely with an ultrasound and then another PET scan coming in the next six months. In the meantime, he’s making plans. He hopes to travel to Portugal in 2024, and long term, he wants to continue sharing his love of music with others by opening his own music school — a dream he hopes to see become a reality one day.

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


Years after losing his dad to cancer, Robert Nsengiyumva faces his own diagnosis

Published: February 2024

When Robert Nsengiyumva was 24, he lost his dad to liver cancer. It was a devastating time for this young man and his family. Little did he know, 25 years later, he’d face a cancer diagnosis himself — stage IV stomach cancer.

After his dad died, Robert assumed the role of father figure to his four younger siblings — two sisters and two brothers. While his mother worked to help support the family, he also stepped forward to help provide care and financial support for his family.

In the years that followed, cancer was no stranger to Robert’s family — several other members also faced a cancer diagnosis. Then in 2021, he received his own devastating diagnosis after experiencing weight loss and abdominal pain, along with nausea and vomiting. “I was 53. I was an active person, and so it was a very difficult time for me,” explains Robert.

Coming to terms with the news was also difficult for those closest to him, like his wife and circle of friends. “I will not lie; it was a like a bomb dropped — it was that shocking. When I decided to tell a few friends what was going on, they didn’t believe me at first. They thought it was a joke — then they realized it was true,” explains Robert.

Understanding a stomach cancer diagnosis

Stomach cancer — also known as gastric cancer — is a growth of cells that starts in the stomach. While it often starts in the lining, it can start in anywhere in the stomach. Thankfully, occurrences have been declining, but it is still one of the most common cancers worldwide.

Robert at the Civic Campus of The Ottawa Hospital. Photo by Ashley Fraser

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, most stomach cancers are found when the disease is advanced and remission is less likely. When it spreads past the stomach wall or into other parts of the body, it’s harder to cure.

In Canada, the five-year survival rate for stomach cancer is 29%.

Due to the stage of Robert’s cancer, treatment began right away. His medical team at The Ottawa Hospital included, Dr. Dominick Bossé, medical oncologist, and Dr. Carolyn Nessim, surgical oncologist, who were ready with a plan. The first course of action was four chemotherapy treatments. These started on October 18, 2021, and the last treatment was at the end of November. Next up would be surgery.

By early January 2022, Robert underwent surgery on his stomach, led by Dr. Nessim. “It was an isolating time. I had to live within four walls because of the pandemic. I had to be careful not to get COVID,” he says.

After a successful operation, Robert was given some time to recover before he resumed chemo treatments. By the end of April, his treatments were done and deemed a success.

“The first round of chemotherapy treatment was very difficult; I suffered a lot, but the final four were much easier. After my treatments were done, I started to improve and feel better,” explains Robert.

Here to say thank you

By July 2022, Robert returned to work part-time. “Then by August, I was back on the job as a Building System Technician in the Public Service, full time. That’s something I never thought would happen when I first received my diagnosis,” says Robert.

“I wanted to support those who faced cancer like me, and so becoming a donor to The Ottawa Hospital was an easy choice.”

— Robert Nsengiyumva

Today, he shows no signs of recurrence, and Robert is making the most of every day.

Robert at the Civic Campus of The Ottawa Hospital. Photo by Ashley Fraser

He’s also deeply grateful for the team of medical experts that were ready to care for him when he needed them most. In fact, he’s always wanted to give back in some way. “I wanted to support those who faced cancer like me, and so becoming a donor to The Ottawa Hospital was an easy choice ,” says Robert.

It’s a monthly donation that allows him to say thank on a regular basis to those who helped give him more time. “This is my way to thank everyone who cared for me. The staff, including the doctors and nurses at The Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre, who treated me during my illness. I don’t know how to thank them enough, so I decided to send my donation every month, and it feels good.”

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


Diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma stops Heba Haidar in her tracks 

Published: February 2024

At age 33, and with three children under the age of five, Heba Haidar was making big plans in the spring of 2022. She and her husband were planning an eight-week trip back to Lebanon to see their family — it would be the first visit since before the pandemic. Two of her three children would meet their grandparents for the first time. But everything came to a grinding halt when Heba learned she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  

The first red flag came when Heba noticed random swelling in her neck. Her doctor ordered an ultrasound, and the results were inconclusive. The swelling went away on its own. “My doctor suggested I see an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist at The Ottawa Hospital,” explains Heba. “Not long after I got that referral, I noticed a lump in my neck below my collarbone, but I had no other symptoms.” 

Five days before the family’s long-awaited trip, Heba met with the ENT specialist who ordered a biopsy. The results would be available in five to seven days — by that time, Heba and her family would be in Lebanon.  

“I left it to fate. I decided we’d still go on the trip, but the day before we were supposed to leave, I got the call,” remembers Heba. “My ENT doctor gave me the news over the phone knowing I was leaving. The results showed a malignancy, but not enough to give me a diagnosis.”  

Diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma flips world upside down 

Suddenly, Heba’s life was flipped upside down. “There was panic. I was in complete shock.”

“There’s no road map to navigate this news. The first thing we did was unpack for our trip.”

— Heba Haidar

Then, with the trip cancelled, Heba was thrust into a series of appointments, including tests and scans to pinpoint the diagnosis. At the time, she was on maternity leave as manager of a medical clinic — she was nursing her nine-month-old and caring for her other two children who were four and five years old. They all relied on her 24/7. 

Just two weeks after she was supposed to leave on her trip, Heba was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and referred to the hematology team at The Ottawa Hospital where next steps were discussed and the roadmap for treatment put in place.  

Heba during her treatment at The Ottawa Hospital. 

“That period from diagnosis to treatment plan is probably the worst period a patient can go through because everything is unknown, and your mind goes wild — wondering what’s going to happen,” says Heba. 

Both Hodgkin’s lymphoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma form in the white blood cells. Those cells are called lymphocytes, and they are an important part of the body’s germ-fighting immune system. The difference between the two can only be seen under a microscope and depends on whether a particular type of cell called Reed-Sternberg is detected. If it is, then the lymphoma is classified as Hodgkin’s. If it’s not, then it’s diagnosed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Hodgkin’s lymphoma is generally diagnosed at an earlier stage.  

Six months of chemotherapy with three young children at home 

Since Heba’s cancer was stage 2, her hematologist, Dr. Melissa Toupin, started her on four to six months of chemotherapy starting in mid-June. A scan in early August 2022 showed she was in remission. However, Dr. Toupin recommended she continue with a full six months of chemo to give her the best possible chance to avoid a recurrence. 

Heba described every round of chemo as a challenge. “Something that was just foreign to me two months ago was now a regular part of my life. It took me some time to come to terms with the extension of treatment, but knowing my scans were clear, it helped.” 

She also turned to our psycho-social oncology program for support. She did several sessions to help with the mental side of the cancer treatment. Over the next few months, she stayed active by walking, weightlifting at home, and of course, being a mom didn’t stop. 

Then on November 16, 2022, Heba rang the bell, signifying her final treatment. She described the moment as surreal and amazing. “It was kind of like a double-edged sword. There was relief, but then there was the whole realization of what I just went through,” remembers Heba. “I was in survival mode and then just like that, treatment was done. There was also that safety net when I was going to the hospital regularly. Now the safety net was removed. I worried about recurrence and what would happen to me.” 

Desire to give back and support groundbreaking research 

During her treatment, Heba was reflecting on the hospital’s care team that surrounded her, and she wanted to give back. She started a fundraiser with a goal of $10,000 to support cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital. “I wanted to raise awareness for the work The Ottawa Hospital is doing.”

“We have groundbreaking research right here in Canada, right here in Ottawa, and I wanted people to know about that.”

— Heba Haidar

Today, Heba is doing well and in a good place. That special trip back home finally happened in May 2023. In the midst of her treatment, it was hard to imagine the trip, but she remembers what a nurse said one day. “She said by next year, it will all feel like a bad dream.” 

It also gave her a whole new perspective on life and the hospital. “At 33, I didn’t think about The Ottawa Hospital other than giving birth to my son. Even with my background in healthcare, my thoughts of the hospital were about having babies – happy thoughts. But now I think of the team and the compassionate people. They saved my life. They save lives and prolong lives.”  

Heba preparing a lemon poppyseed loaf in her kitchen. 

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


Randy McElligott’s unusual reaction to his cancer diagnosis

Published: February 2024

When Randy McElligott heard the words “you have cancer”, he didn’t have the average reaction to this type of news. “I was happy. Most people don’t take that attitude, but I saw it as an opportunity to change my life,” explains Randy.

That’s exactly what he did. Randy decided to train for a marathon. He wanted to try something challenging, and he’s been moving ever since.

“I had what’s known as smoldering multiple myeloma. It sits there and doesn’t do anything. It’s like a volcano just waiting to erupt.”

— Randy McElligott

It was July 13, 2005, and Randy was 49 when he received the news — it was a surprise find. His family doctor had ticked off an extra box on the requisition form for his blood test. That mark resulted in the discovery of cancer — or what would become cancer. “I had what’s known as smoldering multiple myeloma. It sits there and doesn’t do anything. It’s like a volcano just waiting to erupt,” explains Randy.

Multiple myeloma is a cancer that starts in a type of white blood cell that’s known as a plasma cell. These cells help the body fight infection, and they can be found in the bone marrow, as well as other tissues and organs.

For nine years, he waited for the “eruption” but maintained his positive attitude. And over those years, he kept busy doing the things he loves, like hosting his jazz radio show, In Transition, on CHUO-FM — a program he’s been doing since 1988. But his greatest distraction has been running. Since his diagnosis, he has completed 12 marathons and about 80 half-marathons. “That kept me sane and kept me focused. By doing marathons, I was building up my mental ability to handle what was ahead for me regarding cancer.”

Becoming symptomatic for multiple myeloma

In 2014, Randy and his wife, Nicole, were in Barbados on vacation, and he became symptomatic. “I was in excruciating pain. I returned home and was hospitalized right away. The cancer had spread to my spine, chest, and sternum.”

Randy makes bi-weekly visits to the General Campus for his treatment.

Once Randy was stabilized, he was discharged, and chemotherapy treatment began at the cancer outpatient at the General Campus of The Ottawa Hospital. He also forged on with his running.

The next big hurdle Randy faced was a bone marrow transplant in October 2015. But true to his character, seven weeks later he did a 10k run and then another marathon. “It’s all because of the cancer. I must prove, even if I have cancer, I don’t have to stop. I wanted to show other cancer patients they can keep going. Look at Sindy Hooper — she is incredible and one of the inspirations in my life to keep going and do these races,” explains Randy.

“I have a great cancer team. If any medical trials are coming up, they know I want to help.”

— Randy McElligott

This cancer journey has been a rollercoaster ride for Randy — he has been in and out of remission several times since his diagnosis almost 20 years ago. But his positive attitude is the one thing that never wavers.

He also credits the specialized team — which includes four hematologists — for always being ready when a new challenge presents itself. “I have a great cancer team. If any medical trials are coming up, they know I want to help.”

Access to clinical trials at The Ottawa Hospital

Access to clinical trials is key for patients like Randy, and thankfully, The Ottawa Hospital has one of the largest and strongest clinical trials programs in Canada. This gives patients access to even more novel therapies. And in addition to helping establish best practices for patient care around the world, clinical trials also provide new hope.

Through his own journey, Randy is doing what he can to help our scientists learn more. “I told my hematologist, Dr. Arleigh McCurdy, she can do anything. I’m your guinea pig. I’m on my second drug trial now. It’s a highly experimental drug and so far, it’s going well. The first trial, three or four years ago, was for another drug, and that worked for a while, but then I relapsed,” says Randy.

“It means the world to have access to this type of care. And if I can help other patients, what could be better?”

Randy is an avid runner.

Maintaining a positive attitude

In the last few years, Randy faced new health challenges. In 2021, within only a few weeks, he lost 30 pounds. It was a bit of a mystery as to what was happening. “It was looking like this was the end of the road for me. I thought my time was running out, but I just said, ‘Cool.’ Hospice care was being planned, but then I started gaining weight again, and I completely rebounded,” explains Randy.

“I never get discouraged. I’m always joking around. It’s been an incredible journey.”

— Randy McElligott

Unfortunately, Randy then had new obstacles to overcome. The following year, he was on a trip to Montreal with his wife when he fell and broke a leg, wrist, and two ribs. Then in February of 2023, he broke the same leg, again. After surgery on that leg, he contracted a potentially life-threatening bacterial infection. He was treated in hospital for a month, and he had to learn to walk again.

These incidents may have taken the biggest toll on him, as they’ve prevented him from running. “I never get discouraged. I’m always joking around. It’s been an incredible journey.”

Today, thanks to the clinical trial he’s currently on, Randy is once again in remission. He hopes to start back on his spin bike to regain his strength so one day he might get back to running — his true love.

Randy makes bi-weekly visits to the General Campus for his treatment.

For now, he makes bi-weekly visits to the General Campus for his treatment. “It was initially every week, but now it’s every two weeks, and it only takes seconds to administer by needle. I think my team is surprised I’ve lasted this long after relapsing several times. But as of today, there’s no trace of the myeloma,” Randy smiles.

While fatigue is preventing him from being active, he continues to entertain radio listeners with his jazz favourites and looks forward to lacing up his running shoes once again.

“It’s really an incredible life.”

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

Update: October 2023

Over the past few months, we’ve had the distinct privilege of working closely with Alison Hughes to share her story. Only 37 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she wanted to raise awareness, especially among other young woman like her.

We are heartbroken to learn that Alison passed away on Wednesday, October 11, 2023. We offer our deepest condolences to all those who knew and loved her, and we remain profoundly inspired by her.

Originally published: September 2023

This is Alison’s story told in her own words.

I wanted to share my story now, because I want more young women to have a story they can relate to. Sadly, breast cancer doesn’t just affect women over 50. By sharing my story, I hope I can help younger women better understand what this journey is all about, because I didn’t really have that when I was first diagnosed ten years ago. 

At that time in my life, I owned a consignment store specializing in women’s fashion. I love fashion, so it was a great fit for me. I also had two young children — life was busy.  

But then I got the shock of a lifetime. It started when I found a lump on my right breast, and I remember telling my husband at the time that it hurt. He told me not to freak out, but I just had this feeling something was wrong, so I called my doctor.  

Little did I know, that was the beginning of my breast cancer journey. I was sent for a mammogram, just to be safe. It was a Friday, and I remember walking into the office and looking around and seeing older women — I was young and hip — no one else looked like me. It wasn’t long after the mammogram that I knew something was wrong. The busy office went quiet, it was like I’d stepped into a movie. Other experts came in and examined my results. It turned out I had stage 3 breast cancer.  

My way of coping with a breast cancer diagnosis

I remember someone talking to me, but I honestly don’t remember what they said. Then a lovely nurse sat next to me, and that’s when I felt a tear drop out of my eye, and then I slowly started to cry.

“I can’t do this…I have no room in my life for this right now – this can’t be happening!’

— Alison Hughes

I drove back to my store and remember thinking ‘I can’t do this. I have a two-year-old and a three-and-a-half-year-old. I have no room in my life for this right now – this can’t be happening!’ 

But it was happening, and within two weeks, I had a PICC line inserted, and chemotherapy soon followed. The news of my diagnosis was particularly difficult for my parents because my dad’s mom died from breast cancer in her mid-thirties. So, I said ‘We have one day to cry and then after that, for the outside world, there’s nothing happening.’ We hid my diagnosis from almost everyone — that was my coping mechanism. Everyone has their own way of coping – this was mine. 

Soon, I met Dr. Mark Clemons. I refer to him as my first oncologist and now my forever oncologist. We clicked. He was well informed, supportive, and had time for all the questions we had for him. He gave me confidence to know that the choices he was making were not from just a singular perspective, he was looking at my total healthcare options.  

Alison Hughes with her two children, Rosie, and Raffi.
Alison is living with stage 4 breast cancer.

The specialized team ready to handle my care

But he wasn’t alone. There was an entire team at The Ottawa Hospital ready to help me have more time to watch my children grow.  

From September to December 2013, I underwent chemotherapy, but by the fifth and sixth treatment, I was hit hard. My beautiful hair fell out, my skin turned gray, and I was in bed all the time. Then in February of 2014, just as I gained back most of my strength, I had a mastectomy. During that operation, a bunch of lymph nodes from under my right arm were removed and sent for testing. We’d later learn that more than half of them were cancerous. That’s when radiation treatment started. 

The care was amazing, and so were the resources made available to me afterwards, because that is a difficult operation to undergo. I had access to psychosocial oncology, as well as a dietitian.  

By that summer, I started feeling better, and that’s when I started telling people what I had gone through. Sometimes they’d turn white as a sheet when they heard the news — I really believe it’s because there’s not a lot of women my age that relate to this kind of a diagnosis.  

Then after five years, I was doing well and released from the cancer program. I had successfully recovered from breast cancer — or so I thought.  

Devastation when cancer metastasized

In 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, I experienced a ton of pain in my back and my hips. I started physio and got relief for a few days but then it came back. One day at work, I tripped on a mat, fell, and couldn’t get back up at first. I kept getting this insane spasm. Later that night my parents found me on the floor, unable get up. They helped me into bed, and I stayed there for four days. 

Then one day my daughter noticed my leg looked like I’d been burned by a big rod. I looked at my kids and I said, ‘I think I should go to the hospital.’ Little did I know my world would be turned upside down, again. 

“I went from seeing a physiotherapist because of my back pain to stage 4 cancer with possibly only months to live. It was almost too late.”

– Alison Hughes
Soon, I discovered my breast cancer had metastasized. I had compression tumors on my spine and a lesion in my lung. I had a tumour on my liver, and there was cancer in my stomach and in my bones. I also had multiple moving blood clots, which caused that mark on my leg. It was kind of like the house was lit on fire and it was going up in flames. Suddenly, I went from seeing a physiotherapist because of my back pain to stage 4 cancer with possibly only months to live. It was almost too late.   

My body was riddled with cancer

The next thing I knew, I dove back into treatment. I had a radiation team, an oncology team, and a palliative team. I had a home nurse as well as psychological support. The resources are unbelievable.  

I moved back in with my parents, along with my kids who were then 10 and 12, because I was at a point where I couldn’t climb a set of stairs, and I couldn’t really function on my own. In addition to the blood clots, I had multiple broken bones from the cancer and crooked shoulders from all the broken bones in my back. I was either in a wheelchair or walked with a cane, and my stomach was really bloated because of the disease. There was just so much going on — my body was in emergency mode.  

While my extensive team at the hospital mobilized, my parents took care of me and the kids, and our incredible network of neighbours rallied alongside us. That meant I could be in treatment, and the kids could still have some normalcy — they could go outside and play.  

Alison with her parents and children.

Finally, there was some good news

From June 2021 through until February 2022, I had radiation led by Dr. Laval Grimard to help with the cancer in my bones, followed by chemotherapy. After a clinical trial was not successful, Dr. Clemons tried me on a new chemo option that finally brought some hope. In June 2022, I started to feel better.

By that summer, my spine started straightening, I could move better. And my health continuously improved. All my bones healed, the tumors shrunk, and I could walk unassisted most of the time. I was back working part time as a background actor in movies — maybe you’ve seen me in a Hallmark movie — I also do some modelling.

By the spring of 2023, I had a clear scan, and I went overseas to spend some time in Oxford and London — it was spectacular. But when I returned home in early June, I could feel my body grinding to a halt. I could barely walk. The next thing I knew, I was in a wheelchair — I couldn’t walk. It happened fast.

Alison on set.

Little did we know what would come next

Once again, I was thrust into emergency mode to determine what was happening. I had x-rays and scans, and I don’t think any one of us expected to see what we saw on those scans. I was pretty sure this was it for me.

There were new lesions on my lower spin and this time they also found a tumour on my brain. Immediately, my care team acted. My new plan included five radiation treatments on my back and one on my brain. Then I started a new type of chemo treatment in August. This chemo is at the forefront of treatment options, and I can’t thank Dr. Clemons enough. I call it the Cadillac of treatment — I feel really lucky. And the way I see it is, if I can be an early user of this drug and they can learn from me, that’s a good thing.

“My philosophy is, if you can test me or use my blood or do something with me that's going to make things better for someone else, sign me up.”

– Alison Hughes
In fact, when it comes to clinical trials, I’m in total favour of getting involved. I told them, ‘You can poke me, learn from me, use me as a case study. Let students practice on me.’ I’m already sick, so my philosophy is, if you can test me or use my blood or do something with me that’s going to make things better for someone else, sign me up. I just feel so fortunate to have this level of care and access to clinical trials — even if the one I tried didn’t work, it gave me time. And the medical team learned because of me.
Alison with her two children, Rosie, and Raffi.
Every day I’m so thankful to have this precious time. Dr. Clemons has even given me the nickname “Puss in Boots” because it’s like I have nine lives. He has such a unique and special way with patients. He asks, ‘What life are we on?’  

In fact, I often find myself thinking, ‘Who gets this many chances?’ And that’s why I’m sharing my story. I’m fortunate for the care, the support, and the learning because life doesn’t always gets perfectly tied with a bow — not everyone gets a bow.

I don’t know what the future holds.

I just want the chance to be here for my kids and my family. I do my best to make every day a good day with them and hope that science continues to improve. Today, Rosie is 13 and Raffi is 11. I’m learning to become a mom of teens. I like to think about their high school graduation and university life. I just hope I’ll be able to keep watching them grow, even when they don’t need me as much.  
Download episode #86 of Pulse Podcast to hear Alison’s story and why she wants to help other young women who face a breast cancer diagnosis.

Listen Now:

A brief history — and hopeful future — of breast cancer

Breast cancer is perhaps one of the most visible cancers today, thanks in large part to the highly successful pink ribbon campaign of the 1990s, but it wasn’t always this way. 

While breast cancer was first described more than 3,500 years ago in Ancient Egyptian records, since then, a combination of taboo and embarrassment mean it often went undiagnosed and untreated.  

In all those years, though, there were few treatments available before the 18th century. In 1757, French physician Henri Le Dran introduced the surgical removal of tumours and infected lymph nodes as a treatment option. This approach morphed into radical mastectomy, where not only the breast was removed, but also an extensive amount of surrounding tissue. Though improvements in anesthesia, hygiene, and blood transfusions improved surgical outcomes, this approach remained the best option for breast cancer well into the 20th century. 

Yet, in the past 20 years, everything’s changed. And as we look ahead, there’s hope on the horizon for breast cancer prevention and treatment. 

But first, let’s take a closer look at breast cancer. 

Did you know?
About 13% of people with breasts will develop breast cancer in their lifetime.
Did you know?
Between 5–10% percent of breast cancer cases are connected to harmful hereditary genetic variants, passed down through family members.
Did you know?
Some breast cancers — about 75% total — are sensitive to the hormones estrogen and progesterone and need these hormones to grow.
Did you know?
The Ottawa Hospital was the first site in all of Ontario to implement a new approach to breast MRIs that reduced the time from 45 minutes to 12 minutes.

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is a form of cancer that occurs in the epithelial cells that line the ducts or lobules — the glandular tissue responsible for producing and carrying milk — in the breast. If left undetected and untreated, breast cancer can spread — or metastasize — into surrounding tissue, then lymph nodes, and eventually to other organs in the body.

What causes breast cancer?

Like any cancer, breast cancer occurs when the DNA in those cells mutates or changes. About 13% of people with breasts will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. In 80% of all cases, there are no known risk factors. 

Between 5–10% percent of breast cancer cases are connected to harmful hereditary genetic variants, passed down through family members. These variants can increase the chances of someone getting cancer. 

Read about how our team at The Ottawa Hospital helped care for Alyssa after she found out she had breast cancer while pregnant. 

Other risk factors include: increased age, dense breasts, alcohol use, reproductive history, and family history. 

Some breast cancers — about 75% total — are sensitive to the hormones estrogen and progesterone and need these hormones to grow. These breast cancers are called hormone receptor-positive. 

How do you treat breast cancer?

Surgical removal of breast cancer and surrounding tissue remains a common treatment. However, it is often combined with other treatments, and advancements in surgical approaches mean surgery is less invasive with better outcomes.  

Other treatments include: 

What is the future of breast cancer at The Ottawa Hospital?

Thanks to our uniquely collaborative environment and thoroughly modern Rose Ages Breast Health Centre, The Ottawa Hospital is a leader in the field of breast health.

Our researchers are looking at everything from prevention to diagnosis to treatment. Here are just a few of the exciting new developments that are helping patients today — or will be helping them tomorrow.


Dr. Jean Seely is leading a multi-centre trial at The Ottawa Hospital called the Tomosynthesis Mammographic Imaging Screening Trial —or TMIST — to look at the effectiveness of using a 3D imaging technique during mammograms instead of the traditional 2D imaging. So far, it appears this technique can better identify tumours while minimizing abnormal recalls — those where it doesn’t wind up being cancer.

REthinking Clinical Trials

The Ottawa Hospital is home to REaCT, or REthinking Clinical Trials, a unique research program aimed at improving the lives of people with cancer through patient-centred, pragmatic clinical trials. In one of those trials, Dr. Mark Clemons is looking at how to best use a drug called filgrastim that boosts white blood cell production to help fight infections during breast cancer treatment.

Radioactive seeds

In terms of treatments, The Ottawa Hospital is constantly innovating, and an excellent example of this is the radioactive seeds now being used to help surgeons locate tumours during surgery. Before this innovation, an uncomfortable wire would be inserted into the patient’s breast in advance of the surgery. Now, using a seed the size of a grain of rice that emits tiny amount of radiation, patients are more comfortable and the surgery is safer and more accurate. The Ottawa Hospital was only the third site in Canada to implement radioactive seeds for breast cancer.

Faster breast MRIs

The Ottawa Hospital was also the first site in all of Ontario to implement a new approach to breast MRIs that reduced the time from 45 minutes to 12 minutes. It’s shown improvements in patient satisfaction, outcomes, and improved capacity.

Published: July 2023

Like any bride-to-be, Mechelle Kulker is dealing with the stress that comes with planning a wedding. But she is also facing a lot more than booking a venue, hiring a photographer, and finding “The Dress.” Mechelle has an aggressive form of breast cancer.

“I kind of had an idea in my head that it was probably cancer.” 

— Mechelle Kulker
Mechelle Kulker in hospital Feb of 2023

In February of 2020, Mechelle discovered a lump in her breast. She was 29 years old at the time, teaching Grades 3 and 4, and busy with work and with life. But, at the urging of her boyfriend, Kent Lampkie, she made an appointment to see her doctor. That quickly led to an ultrasound, a mammogram, and then a biopsy — all this as COVID-19 was unfolding with fury.  

“I kind of had an idea in my head that it was probably cancer,” says Mechelle, “and when my doctor called me and confirmed it, I kind of went a little bit blank. And I remember just crying.”  

The news was about to get worse. Mechelle was diagnosed with Stage 3 Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC), a rare and aggressive form of cancer that disproportionally affects young women in the prime of their lives, like Mechelle.   

“TNBC is the least common subtype of breast cancer with the worst prognosis,” explains Dr. Moira Rushton, Mechelle’s oncologist. “It is negative for the estrogen receptor, progesterone receptor, and HER2 amplification, hence the description ‘triple negative breast cancer’, meaning there are no specific drug targets we can take advantage of.”  

The treatment for TNBC is also aggressive. Mechelle had preoperative chemotherapy, followed by a lumpectomy, then went on a chemotherapy pill after surgery for residual disease — but the side effects were very challenging.   

“I felt like it was everywhere.”  

A few months later, a CT scan picked up spots on her lungs and the lymph nodes around her heart. An MRI showed spots on her brain, and the cancer was also in her bones — including a 7cm metastasis on her femur. This required surgery to place a metal rod in her leg to prevent it from breaking. Mechelle’s cancer was now Stage 4.  

“I was counting down the days, waiting for it to end, and then it never ends.” 

— Mechelle Kulker

“I was counting down the days, waiting for it to end,” she says, breaking down in tears, “and then it never ends. I felt like it was everywhere.” 

Having responded poorly to most standard treatments, Mechelle says she was one of the first patients at The Ottawa Hospital to be put on a drug called sacituzumab govitecan (aka Trodelvy). Dr. Rushton explains that this drug was the first approved antibody drug conjugate for triple negative breast cancer — and it’s been improving survival for these patients.   

“In Mechelle’s case, it’s been an absolute game changer,” says Dr. Rushton. “Had she not started Trodelvy last February, I do not think she would be alive today.”  

“Her disease has almost completely disappeared on imaging, which is nothing short of a miracle.”

— Dr. Moira Rushton 
Dr. Moira Rushton Head Shot
Dr. Moira Rushton, Mechelle’s oncologist

“It started shrinking the tumours in my lungs and bones immediately,” adds Mechelle. “It took a while, but there’s actually no active disease in my bones as of right now. So Trodelvy is keeping everything stable, except my brain.”  

Mechelle has developed a number of small brain metastases requiring repeat treatments with the CyberKnife. This radiosurgery robot is one of only a handful in Canada and was funded entirely by donor support. It provides patients like Mechelle with radiation therapy that is more powerful and accurate than regular radiation.   

Despite the ongoing treatment, Dr. Rushton agrees that overall, Mechelle’s progress has been incredible. “The disease in her lungs is no longer visible on CT scans when previously it could only be described as “cannonball lesions.” In fact, the cancer has almost completely disappeared on imaging, which is nothing short of a miracle.”  

Mechelle Kulker - finding wedding dress in Carleton Place
Mechelle said yes to the dress in Carleton Place.

Giving back

During all this, Mechelle started thinking of ways to raise awareness of Triple Negative Breast Cancer.   

“It is very aggressive and requires more treatment options. This can only be made possible through research at leading Canadian hospitals like The Ottawa Hospital.” 

“I wanted to give back to The Ottawa Hospital because they've been so wonderful to me.” 

— Mechelle Kulker

She also wanted to focus on the exceptional care she’s been receiving so she started her own fundraiser in support of cancer research, successfully raising thousands of dollars so far.  

“I wanted to give back to the Ottawa Hospital because they’ve been so wonderful to me. The nurses are just incredible people. They ask me about my wedding plans.”  

It’s been a stressful three years for Mechelle and Kent, who is now her fiancé, but they remain positive and have been travelling as much as they can: swimming in Costa Rica and hiking in Maine.  

Mechelle and Kent hiking in Maine.
Mechelle Kulker - swimming in Costa Rica
Mechelle swimming in Costa Rica.

“For the most part, we kind of pretend like it’s not happening and live our lives the way we want,” says Mechelle. “When I was first diagnosed, I was told my prognosis was a year, and at this point, I’ve gone two years. I’m hoping these new drugs will help extend my life.” 

Also, she’s hoping research will change the trajectory for anyone else diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer, and through her fundraising efforts she’s doing her part to make that a reality.  

Despite all she’s been through, Mechelle did find “The Dress.” She and Kent will get married this August at her childhood home in Prince Edward County.   

Congratulations to Mechelle and Kent, and thank you Mechelle, for your fundraising efforts for cancer research.

Mechelle Kulker - family in Prince Edward County where she will marry
Mechelle and her family in Prince Edward County, where she and Kent will marry.

Published: June 2023

When non-Hodgkins Lymphoma returned shortly after completing six rounds of chemotherapy, 73-year-old Patrick Morris was shocked to his core.

“No one plans to get cancer. No one prepares for cancer. Receiving this diagnosis was profoundly shocking. It jolted me. It was a life-changing event,” remembers Patrick. “You realize very suddenly that the life you had before will never be the same. A cancer diagnosis humbles you.”

Patrick enjoyed significant success as an elite ski jumper in the late 60s and early 70s.

Patrick’s hematologist, Dr. Andrew Aw, called it “refractory cancer”, because while it had responded to chemotherapy, it started to grow again — quickly. So, Dr. Aw scheduled a new round of chemotherapy to begin immediately.

This was a challenging time for Patrick, who, up until this point in his life, was fortunate to be in good health and never one to sit idly. In fact, he enjoyed significant success as an elite ski jumper in the late 60s and early 70s, and that same drive propelled him to the top of his industry as an award-winning, Ottawa-area real estate agent with a successful brokerage, the Morris Home Team at Royal LePage Performance Realty.

Caring for his ‘soulmate’

An important part of Patrick’s success story was his wife, Susan. Vibrant, caring, and fun-loving, Susan was his business partner for years and his soulmate. She was also an outstanding mom to their three daughters and a doting “nana”. But in 2017, Susan developed Alzheimer’s and Lewy Body Dementia. Patrick cared for her 24/7, but she continued to decline and eventually required long-term care in 2021.

Patrick and his wife, Susan.

“The memories we shared are now my treasured souvenirs.”

– Patrick Morris

“I was lucky to have Susan as my wife, my business partner for many years, and my soulmate,” says Patrick. “Our marriage worked because it was a never-ending love story.”

While she no longer recognizes Patrick or their daughters, he remains deeply grateful for more than four decades together. “The memories we shared are now my treasured souvenirs.”

Exploring CAR T-cell therapy

As Patrick faced his own health challenges, it would seem the cancer was not backing down. During his second series of treatments, he received yet another shock – the cancer had spread to his lower neck. Dr. Aw was concerned, but he had a plan — one that would ultimately save Patrick’s life.

“Dr. Aw told me ‘We cannot let this get to your brain.’ And that’s when we stopped the second chemo treatment, and he recommended daily radiation.” Then, Dr. Aw explored whether Patrick was eligible for CAR T-cell therapy.

This revolutionary therapy uses the patient’s own immune cells, known as T-cells, to treat their cancer. T-cells play a critical role in the immune system by killing abnormal cells, but sometimes, cancerous cells can hide from the T-cells that are meant to kill them. However, with CAR-T therapy, those T-cells are collected and reprogrammed in the lab to be able to recognize the cancerous cells. These reprogrammed cells are then infused back into the patient, where they multiply by the millions to attack and kill the cancer.

“Every doctor, nurse, physiotherapist — everyone associated with my CAR T-cell therapy — was determined to see me have a future.”

– Patrick Morris

Patrick’s T-cells were sent to the United States for reprogramming, but researchers at The Ottawa Hospital, working with colleagues in BC, have developed the first made-in-Canada CAR-T therapy. This approach is enabling more equitable access to CAR-T therapy across the country, while also fueling groundbreaking research into better CAR-T therapies that may work for more kinds of cancer. This kind of research is possible because of the hospital’s world-class research facilities and resources, including the Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre and Ottawa Methods Centre.

Cancer treatment delivers knockout punch

For Patrick, CAR T-cell therapy proved to be a knockout punch for the lymphoma. Since receiving the treatment in November 2022, Patrick’s scans show no signs of cancer.

“The CAR T-cell therapy saved my life. I am in remission and have a future.”

– Patrick Morris

“When you’re faced with your own mortality, it impacts your life forever. You want the finest medical science and practitioners on your side,” says Patrick. “As an inpatient, I witnessed firsthand the dedication, commitment, and devotion of every healthcare worker. Every doctor, nurse, physiotherapist — everyone associated with my CAR T-cell treatment — was determined to see me have a future.”

The support he received from his care team was mirrored by his family and community, who, as Patrick is quick to point out, are also affected when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer. “My daughters in Ottawa were my angels on the ground. They put hundreds of kilometres on their cars, driving me back and forth to the Cancer Centre and ensuring I was cared for at home,” recalls Patrick. “My youngest daughter who lives out of town was in constant communication with me, and if she lived here, she would have shared the responsibility of support. My siblings and relatives were huge cheerleaders. My neighbours, friends, and business colleagues were rooting for me every day. There were so many helpful and supportive people. It helped me remain positive especially during the most difficult hours.”

Deep gratitude leads to first-time donation

Never far from Patrick’s mind while battling lymphoma was Susan and what she would say to him if she were able. “I know that I must look to the future. That is something my wife would say to me, and she would insist that I listen to her,” says Patrick. “It makes me smile because when I listened to Susan, she was usually correct.”

With the future in mind, and to show his gratitude, Patrick decided to make a sizable first-time donation to The Ottawa Hospital of $150,000. He hopes it will inspire others to give and will help future patients benefit from the groundbreaking treatments being developed at the hospital — like the CAR-T-cell therapy he received. He is also giving his time volunteering as a table host for the hospital’s annual President’s Breakfast and rallying others to join him for the important event.

“I will be a proud donor to The Ottawa Hospital to help support the development of more research.”

– Patrick Morris

“The Ottawa Hospital is a forerunner in immunotherapy,” he says. “I will be a proud donor to help support the development of more research — because more research produces more discoveries. CAR T-cell therapy saved my life. I am in remission and have a future.”