Published: September 2023

Alison Hughes was first diagnosed with breast cancer at age 37. At the time, she was operating her own business and the mother of two young children. The diagnosis was the shock of her life. This is Alison’s story told in her own words.

I haven’t told my story in a while because I had been so much better lately, especially compared to when my world was turned upside down by breast cancer — times three. In fact, I’m lucky to be here. But 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 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 hopeIn June 2022, I started to feel better.  

By that summer, my spine started straightening, I could move betterAnd 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.

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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.”

If there’s one word that comes to mind when you first meet Major James Morrison (Ret’d), it’s “dedication.” He is deeply dedicated to his country, his wife, and our healthcare system. It’s a loyalty that spanned decades — the major will be 100 years old in 2024. He was born the same year The Ottawa Hospital Civic campus first opened in 1924.

Major James Morrison with his wife, Betty.

Every year, for the last 29 years, Major Morrison has generously donated to The Ottawa Hospital.

“I owe it to the hospital for the care they gave me.”

— Major James Morrison

When asked what motivates him to give so loyally, he answers with a charming smile. “Well, mostly because I was a customer there. And I owe it to the hospital for the care they gave me.”

First, it was heart issues. Then, ten years ago, prostate cancer.

“I was treated very well there,” he says, recounting how, at the end of his cancer treatment, he got to ring the bell not once, but eight times.

“Because that’s the Navy tradition. That’s either noon or midnight,” he explains, referring to the tradition of ringing of the ship’s bell eight times to mark the “end of watch,” or in some instances, as a nautical euphemism for finished.

Despite Major Morrison’s nod to this special tradition, it was not the Navy where he spent his long career, but the Royal Canadian Air Force, where he enlisted at just 18 years old.

“I was only 118 pounds and they said, ‘We can’t take you until you’re 120. Go home and fatten up.’ So, I went home and fattened up,” he recounts.

During the Second World War, he was posted to the Southeast Asia Air Command, and following the war, he transported prisoners to the War Crimes Trials.

Major Morrison married the love of his life, Betty, in 1951, and together they started a family. His career took them to various posts across Canada, and in 1970, he was an Officer Commanding at the Canadian Armed Forces Operation Centre in Ottawa, where he delivered instructions when the War Measures Act was invoked on October 16 of that year.

Later in life, he began patrolling public areas of the airport as the Ottawa Airport Watch, and Betty accompanied him on many of those night shifts. He made his final patrol in January 2014 — on his ninetieth birthday.

These are but a few milestones on a journey that has spanned nearly 10 decades on this earth, from the highs of first enlisting as a young man to the lows of his wife’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s. “She doesn’t know who I am anymore.”

The two have been married 72 years, and not a day goes by that he doesn’t visit her.

It’s clear Major Morrison is loyal to the core. And while many of his stories are about the past, it’s the future he wants people in Ottawa to focus on; and he encourages others to support The Ottawa Hospital’s Campaign to Create Tomorrow.

“You should invest in this because you may need it in the future at some point.”

— Major James Morrison

The $500-million campaign is the largest in Ottawa’s history and sets in motion a vision to completely reshape healthcare by building the most technologically advanced hospital in Canada and taking groundbreaking research and innovation to unprecedented heights. And it’s something Major Morrison believes is worth supporting.

“You should invest in this because you may need it in the future at some point,” he offers as wise advice to generations that follow. “This new campus is for them.”

The new hospital is expected to open in 2028, and we would love to see Major Morrison there on opening day. “I was sort of looking forward to seeing it,” he says.

Major James Morrison, thank you for your service to our country and our community.

Published: May 2023

Sometimes you meet someone and wonder what drew you together. That’s what happened when Holly Wagg met Lynne Strickland in Patagonia, Chile. Both women lived in Ottawa, but it was a serendipitous meeting almost 10,000 kms from home where they ended up as bunk mates while on an expedition. Soon, they would discover a special bond between them — they both had loved ones who faced leukemia, and while their journeys were different, their stories connected in an unexpected way.

The story begins in the fall of 2015 when Holly’s wife, Julia Wagg, started to feel inexplicably tired. At the time, the Director of Talent Management at Hydro Ottawa was also teaching a course at Carleton’s Sprott School of Business, and juggling life with three children — she had a lot on her plate. But then one day she noticed blood in her mouth and decided she’d better make a dental appointment. By early December, symptoms escalated. “Julia woke up at 2 or 3 a.m. one night and said, ‘I need to go to the hospital.’ She could hardly breathe because she had crushing chest pain,” remembers Holly.

That first visit to the hospital didn’t determine any clear signs of what might be wrong, but Julia’s fatigue persisted into the new year. The family had big plans to travel to Africa, and Julia was determined to go. Holly was leaving early to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, then Julia and their youngest daughter, Addison, would follow two weeks later.

Leukemia diagnosis heard around the world

Holly Wagg has committed to leaving a gift in her will to further advance research.

As Holly summitted the mountain, back home Julia received devastating news. “While I had been up there, she had taken herself to the hospital one morning, and they told her she wasn’t leaving — she had leukemia,” says Holly. “Julia waited four days to tell me so I could finish my climb. When I found out, I raced back as soon as I could.”

The life Holly returned to was much different than the one she had left. Julia was immediately put on a chemotherapy cocktail — 24/7. She remained hospitalized for three to four weeks and when Holly was finally able to visit her in the hospital, she says the reunion was heartbreaking and devastating. “Julia was going through this fight of her life and was having so many complications from chemo. I was researching and I knew what we were facing.”

The couple learned Julia had the acute myeloid leukemia mutation known as FLT3. It was aggressive. “This is like driving your car and slamming your foot down on a gas pedal — that’s how fast the cancer was reproducing. Most people have a 10% chance of surviving five years,” explains Holly. “So, my mission became to make whatever time we had left the best possible time.”

By the second round of chemo and after 12 weeks as an in-patient, Julia was in remission and was eligible for a stem cell transplant. Her sister was a match, and three weeks later, in May 2016, Julia received the transplant of her sister’s stem cells — and the hope for more time with her family.

However, Julia faced one complication after another and spent the better part of eight months in the hospital. “Her whole team of doctors and nurses up on 5 West and the Bone Marrow Transplant team at The Ottawa Hospital were amazing,” remembers Holly. “She left hospital in December with limited mobility, but started strength training and eventually we had her skiing. We learned how to cross-country ski.”

Making the most of their precious time left together

The family had what Holly describes as the perfect three months of a cancer-free life. During Julia’s cancer care, she never made promises to her children, but there was one exception. She told Addison she would be there to celebrate her sixth birthday — things were going well. A big birthday party was planned with a fairy theme and all their friends came together to celebrate. “It was beautiful and joyous,” remembers Holly.

But after the party, Julia collapsed on the floor in agony from extreme bone pain. By the next day, the same thing happened, and she went to the hospital. The blood work looked normal, so they did a bone marrow biopsy. When Holly and Julia returned to the hospital for the results, Julia couldn’t walk.

Julia’s cancer was back. The couple knew if a patient relapsed within 12 months following a stem-cell transplant, there’s no chance of a second transplant. It had only been 11 months.

Julia passed away in the ICU of The Ottawa Hospital a week-and-a-half later. “She had all the people who loved her around the bed that night. I brought Addi into the room, and I grabbed Harry Potter because that was the story we were reading at the time. As I was reading, Julia’s heartbeat started to decelerate. I wanted to stop, but I knew she needed to hear me. She needed to know we’re all okay,” recalls Holly. “Jules was surrounded by love, and she chose to let go during this beloved bedtime ritual.”

Holly Wagg and her daughter Addison holding a photo of Julia.

Meeting a ‘spitfire’ young researcher

Before Julia passed away at the age of 36, she and Holly had some difficult but honest conversations. During her lengthy time in hospital, Julia witnessed many things as a patient. As a patient at a teaching hospital, she met many rotations of residents, in both the physician and nursing programs. Julia often said yes to the residents who were taking blood for the first time, and she said yes to two doctors who performed their first bone marrow biopsies. She wanted to help.

“One of the physicians who cared for her was Dr. Natasha Kekre. She was a spitfire — she was young, and she was brilliant. She was looking to start a clinical trial at The Ottawa Hospital to offer breakthroughs in leukemia treatment using CAR T-cell therapies. Julia wanted to elevate that research.”

– Holly Wagg

Because of the aggressiveness of her cancer, she also interacted with many physicians who were also researchers. “Julia was very curious and asking them about their projects. One of the physicians who cared for her was Dr. Natasha Kekre. She was a spitfire — she was young, and she was brilliant. She was looking to start clinical trial at The Ottawa Hospital to offer breakthroughs in leukemia treatment using CAR T‑cell therapies. Julia wanted to elevate that research,” explains Holly.

Julia and Holly had read about CAR‑T and knew what the possibilities would mean for patients like Julia in the future. It was the first big game changer to leukemia treatment in more than 20 years. They had seen what was happening in the United States and believed patients in Canada should have access to it. “Being a part of research to improve that path for people going forward was very important to both of us, which is why, for us, that legacy was about making sure other families didn’t have to experience what we did. We wanted to be a part of that change,” says Holly.

Dr. Natasha Kekre,hematologist for The Ottawa Hospital's Blood and Marrow Transplant Program.

Read our Q&A with Dr. Natasha Kekre

What is CAR-T therapy?

CAR T-cell therapy involves removing the patient’s T-cells and genetically engineering them with a disarmed virus to produce synthetic molecules called “chimeric antigen receptors” (CAR). These new CAR T-cells are then injected back into the patient so they can target and attack the cancer.

Julia’s legacy and her commitment to research

With that in mind, Julia decided to leave a gift in her will to support research at The Ottawa Hospital. Her legacy would live on. Holly has also committed to leaving a gift in her will to build on Julia’s wishes and to further fund research that was so important to both of them.

By 2019, The Ottawa Hospital became one of three centres in the province administering the Ontario CAR T‑cell Therapy program for adults — just the type of progress Julia would have wanted. The program meant the T‑cells could be collected from the patient here, then sent to the U.S. to be genetically engineered into CAR T‑cells. Those cells are returned to the hospital and injected back into the patient so they can target and attack the cancer. The challenge is that it’s only available for patients with a specific type of lymphoma and leukemia. Commercial CAR‑T therapy is also very expensive and time-consuming. The commercial cell manufacturing, testing, and shipping process can take up to eight weeks– time that many of the sickest patients don’t have.

What is a legacy gift or an estate gift?

Both terms refer to a donation to a charity made through your will or estate plans. These donations can take several forms, such as cash, securities, or even property.

That wasn’t good enough for people like Dr. Kekre – she wanted to develop a made-in-Canada solution. Today, she’s helping to lead a Canadian-first CAR T‑cell therapy clinical trial at our hospital. This opens the door to faster, less expensive, and more equitable CAR‑T treatment across Canada. It also provides a platform for the development of even better cellular immunotherapies that may work for more kinds of cancer. World-class research facilities at The Ottawa Hospital, such as the Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre, have played a key role in the development of this platform.

“It was amazing to get updates on the project because we found out that it was going to clinical trial and there were very positive early results,” says Holly. “And then I saw the first face of a trial participant — a man named Owen. Then I read Camille’s story. And that was an amazing one for me.”

A Canadian-first clinical trial gives lymphoma patient a third chance
CAR-T clinical trial provides ‘one last shot’ for leukemia patient

Making the connection

The impact of Julia’s forward thinking became even more personal when Holly had that chance meeting with a stranger in another hemisphere in February 2020. She and Lynne were both seeking adventure in Patagonia. For Holly, it was a big step — the first time she had travelled since Julia’s death. The two women bonded when they realized they had a special connection — Lynne’s daughter, Nicole Strickland, had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2018 and treated at The Ottawa Hospital. 

“We had that common kind of understanding of seeing a loved one go through leukemia, the challenges, and a stem cell transplant,” explains Lynne. “But then when Nikki relapsed, I remembered Holly had mentioned Julia’s legacy had gone to funding research into CAR‑T.” 

Holly and Lynne in Patagonia.

Nicole was just 19 years old and in military college when she was diagnosed. At the time, she was stationed at CFB Petawawa for job experience with the helicopter squadron. She underwent chemotherapy treatment, but because her cancer was aggressive, her care team at The Ottawa Hospital recommended a stem cell transplant. Nicole’s sister was a 100% match. The stem cell transplant took place in September 2018, and then Nicole went into remission.

By the summer of 2021, Nicole was posted with a new unit in Halifax and getting routine blood work. That’s when she learned her cancer was back. But this time, she was introduced to immunotherapy, which she received in Halifax, followed by CAR‑T therapy — which meant returning to The Ottawa Hospital.

“There was a world of difference between CAR T‑cell therapy and the stem cell transplant,” explains Nicole. “I lost 40 pounds during the stem cell transplant. I couldn’t eat. I almost had to get a feeding tube at one point, which scared me. It took me about eight months to fully recover and then another year to get back into the gym. It was also mentally difficult. But with CAR‑T, I had energy, and my spirits were good. There were just a few days of feeling off and then I was back on my feet.”

How CAR T-cell therapy gave Nicole new hope

Nicole qualified for the Ontario CAR T‑cell Therapy program, which saw her T‑cells shipped to the U.S. to be genetically modified into CAR T‑cells. Once they were shipped back to The Ottawa Hospital, they were then infused into Nicole’s body.

“Unless you’ve been through what my family and I have been through, it’s hard to understand the depth that donating to a cause like that means. CAR-T gave me my life back — I’m just so grateful.”

– Nicole Strickland

Today, 18 months after her CAR‑T treatment, Nicole is now an operations officer and continuing her military career in Halifax and feeling stronger each day. She’s deeply grateful to people like Julia who had the forethought to invest in cancer research. “Unless you’ve been through what my family and I have been through, it’s hard to understand the depth that donating to a cause like that means. CAR‑T gave me my life back — I’m just so grateful.”

It’s those who support research that pave the way for patients like Nicole to have better outcomes. For Lynne, it’s also the work that’s came before breakthroughs like CAR-T that is just as important. “For Nikki’s care during the stem cell treatment, they had a plan, and that plan was because of the research and the investment made by others before CAR‑T was an option. It’s about bringing forth solutions that save not just one person’s life, but their whole family,” says Lynne.

Nicole Strickland was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2018.

“It’s about bringing forth solutions that save not just one person's life, but their whole family.”

– Lynne Strickland

For Holly to make that personal connection with Lynne and to see someone as young as Nicole have success is not something she ever expected. “As a donor, somebody who invests in research, I never expected to see any transformation in my lifetime. I’m willing to wait and be patient. But I never expected to see actual change to medical practice in my lifetime. And never mind did I expect to see it just a few short years after my wife’s death.”

And so, Julia’s legacy continues today, not only through her three children Robin, Brandin, and Addison, but also through the research she helped fund — research that is changing the course of cancer care. The more faces Holly connects back to the research and the more stories of survival she learns about, the more she witnesses Julia live on. “When you think about a legacy and about what you leave for others and how you shape a world — how much more powerful can that be knowing that in some way you’ve given other people an extra shot at life?”

Download episode #84 of Pulse Podcast to hear Holly Wagg talk about Julia's life and legacy.

Listen Now:

Published: April 2023

Find out why he credits a “prehab” study for his quick recovery 

In May 2021, Christopher Wanczycki’s oncologist gave him some unexpected bad news — there was a two-inch tumour in his rectum. Five weeks after his January 2022 cancer surgery, the 63-year-old was back on the cross-country ski trails. He credits his quick recovery to participating in a national “prehab” clinical trial led by researchers at The Ottawa Hospital.  

“Without this program, I can’t imagine what my recovery would have been like,” he says. “I would highly recommend it for anyone in my shoes getting ready for surgery and for post-surgery recovery.” 

Christopher underwent aggressive radiation and chemotherapy to shrink the stage 3B tumour in his rectum, and his oncologist recommended surgery to confirm all the cancer was gone. 

“I was kind of beaten up at that point, and my oncologist had mentioned that it would take a couple of months for the effects of the chemotherapy to leave my system,” he remembers. “At a final chemotherapy infusion round, I was advised to bulk up, to just eat whatever I could to gain back the weight before my surgery.” 

Christopher had lost 37 pounds during chemo and had little appetite. In addition, the swelling and numbness in his legs and feet from chemo made walking uncomfortable. 

He took the time between the end of his chemotherapy in October 2021 and before his January 2022 surgery to try to gain some weight back, start some mild exercise, and return to his regular activities. 

Christopher Wanczycki skiing.

That’s when prehab kicked in. At the suggestion of his cancer coach, a person assigned through the hospital to help patients navigate their cancer journey, Christopher agreed to join one of the world’s largest prehab clinical trials in November 2021, led by Dr. Daniel McIsaac and his team. 

What is prehab?

“Prehab is a bit like training for a race, but instead you’re training for surgery,” said Dr. McIsaac, a scientist and anesthesiologist at The Ottawa Hospital, and Chair in Innovative Perioperative Care at the University of Ottawa. “It’s structured, sustained exercise and nutrition over time that makes the muscles, heart, and lungs stronger. A lot of the exercises focus on strengthening the legs and abdominal muscles, which you need to get out of bed after surgery.”

“Prehab is a bit like training for a race, but instead you’re training for surgery.”

– Dr. Daniel McIsaac

Previous studies have shown that young, healthy people who did prehab before surgery recovered faster and had fewer complications.  

“We know that the healthier someone is going into surgery, the sooner they will recover and get back to their daily activities,” said Dr. McIsaac.  

However, most Canadians who need major surgery are 65 or older, and many more are weakened by health challenges. While this population has a lot to gain from prehab, it’s usually harder for them to complete the exercises.     

Dr. McIsaac’s research program aims to make prehab more feasible for older people with health challenges, so they can reap the rewards of a faster recovery. 

What does prehab look like? 

When Christopher joined the prehab study in November 2021, research assistant Keely Barnes showed him exercises and stretches to do at home at least three times a week and gave him written and video instructions to follow. Most of the exercises could be done while sitting in a chair.  

Christopher Wanczycki skiing.

Keely also asked him to walk, bike, or swim for at least 20 minutes, three times a week and gave him a pedometer to track his distance. 

Christopher loved skiing, biking, and other outdoor activities before his cancer diagnosis, so he didn’t mind all the exercise. In fact, he enjoyed the distraction.    

“I discovered as a cancer patient, you need something to focus on daily, just to get your mind off things,” he says. “With this study, I decided to give myself a goal, something to focus on each day, and strive to increase the exercise repetitions each week.”  

Keely called Christopher every week to see how many repetitions and steps he’d done. Not only was this good motivation to do the exercises, but she also checked to see if any of the exercises were causing him trouble. Together, they figured how to adapt them.  

By mid-December 2021, Christopher started cross-country skiing again. All that exercise had also improved his appetite, which helped him gain back the weight he’d lost during chemo.  

Research with patient experience at the core 

“Patients have told us loud and clear that prehab research needs to be a priority,” said Dr. McIsaac. “They are eager to get back to their daily lives after they’ve had surgery, and prehab can help them do that.”  

However, like with any exercise, you need to put in the work to get the benefits. And for older people living with pain and other health issues, putting in that work can be more difficult.  

A pilot prehab study run by Dr. McIsaac’s team found that older patients with health issues who had at least 80% adherence to the prehab program could walk farther and had lower self-reported disability scores after surgery compared to those who did not participate. However, the average adherence was only 60%, not enough to see benefits.  

“For a prehab program to be successful, we need to support and motivate participants and personalize the exercises to their needs.”

– Dr. Daniel McIsaac

Based on these findings, the team added more personalized and tailored programming to their current national prehab trial at 11 sites across Canada. This trial recruits about 10 new patients a week, and so far, overall adherence has been much closer to 80%. The team aims to recruit 750 people by the end of 2023, with results published in the subsequent years. 

“For a prehab program to be successful, we need to support and motivate participants and personalize the exercises to their needs,” said Dr. McIsaac. “Our research assistants call participants week after week, so they get to know them well and can help them through any challenges they’re facing.” 

This year, the team plans to launch a smaller trial in Ontario to test a different way of delivering prehab through virtual group sessions. Unlike the national trial where patients are recruited by their surgical team, patients will be able to refer themselves to the trial.   

“If we want to bring prehab into everyday clinical practice, we need a process that will work in the real world,” says Dr. McIsaac. “We think that virtual group sessions will probably be more feasible for healthcare providers than individual phone calls. But we won’t know if that model works for participants unless we test it.” 

Patient partners share key insights 

One of the team’s secret weapons is having patient partners on their side. Team members like Gurlie Kidd, a retired social worker who had surgery at The Ottawa Hospital in 2017, help make sure the research stays relevant to patients.  

Gurlie’s input has helped the team better understand how and when to ask surgical patients about taking part in studies, to reduce the burden put on patients. She and other patient partners have also helped the team set priorities and adjust the study’s design, including sending regular updates to patients involved. 

“As a member of this research team, I have felt heard,” says Gurlie. “There is a respect for patients and patient input that is kind of amazing. It legitimizes some of the things that we have gone through and acknowledges our expertise.” 

“I can’t imagine what my recovery would have been like without it” 

After two months of prehab, Christopher felt confident and ready when his surgery date arrived in January 2022. The colorectal surgery went well, and his surgeon removed some additional Stage 1 cancer that was growing near the tumour.  

Christopher was amazed by how soon he could leave the hospital after surgery. 

“A cancer diagnosis is never easy. The treatment phases are challenging, and I believe participating in this prehab clinical trial was an important part of my treatment plan.”  

– Christopher Wanczycki

“My surgery was on a Monday. By Wednesday, I could sit in a chair to eat lunch. On Thursday, I had dressed myself, and was up at the nursing station trying to check myself out. By Friday, I was climbing the stairs at home. That would not have been possible without the prehab program.” 

Christopher and his wife at Gros Morne Summit September 2022.

He continued to do prehab exercises for a month after his surgery. A week later — only five weeks after surgery — he was regularly back on his cross-country skis. In April 2022, he was finally declared cancer free.  

In September 2022, Christopher hiked to the top of Gros Morne Mountain in Newfoundland with an ileostomy bag, just eight months after his surgery.  

He’s grateful to be able to be back to all those activities he loves and credits the prehab study for his quick recovery. 

“I’m 100% certain that it does make a difference physically, but also psychologically, to give someone goals, something to work towards. Also, cancer is so hard on your family, on your wife and kids. With this exercise program, my wife could see my progress, and that I was getting better.”  

In December 2022, Christopher underwent a successful ileostomy reversal operation. He has since resumed downhill and cross-country skiing.  

 “A cancer diagnosis is never easy,” he says, “The treatment phases are challenging, and I believe participating in this prehab clinical trial was an important part of my treatment plan.”   

Christopher with his family.
Christopher with his daughter and friend.

All research at The Ottawa Hospital depends on infrastructure and support services funded by generous donors to The Ottawa Hospital Foundation. Dr. McIsaac’s research is also funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the PSI Foundation, the International Anesthesia Research Society, and the Canadian Frailty Network and enabled by the Ottawa Methods Centre and the Office for Patient Engagement in Research Activities

Published: January 2023

In late 2019, Camille Leahy was excited about the future. She was ready to embark on a new work adventure after quitting her job of 17 years. However, that all changed in January 2020 when she started feeling unwell and was in a great deal of pain. Camille went to the emergency department closest to her home in Newmarket, knowing something just wasn’t right. The next day, she received a devastating diagnosis — acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It was the start of a rollercoaster journey that eventually led her to a Canadian-first CAR T-cell therapy clinical trial taking place at The Ottawa Hospital.

With barely any time to digest the news of her cancer diagnosis, the 35-year-old learned she needed to begin treatment right away. She was referred to Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto and admitted as soon as a bed was available. “From there, I started a month of treatment that consisted of intense chemotherapy to get me into remission. The goal was to then continue maintenance therapy for a couple of years, which would include chemotherapy, steroids, and other medications,” explains Camille.

With this sudden diagnosis and the immediate requirement for treatment, it meant the single mom couldn’t start her new job — now she was also without employment. “At that point, we just had to worry about saving my life,” says Camille.

Shocking news after rounds of treatment

After 30 days in hospital and all set to go home, Camille received another blow. The treatment didn’t work, and there were still cancer cells lingering. Her medical team needed to try another option — and right away. This time, Camille was put on an immunotherapy drug known as blinatumomab. After a second consecutive month in hospital, away from her daughter, there was a glimmer of hope — she was in remission.

However, she also learned the cancer would keep returning, so her team recommended a stem cell transplant as her best option. “That was shocking news for me,” says Camille.

“About eight months post stem cell transplant, I woke up with some neck pain. I didn't think anything of it, but unfortunately, blood work showed that the cancer returned, and it was aggressive.”

– Camille Leahy

By July 2020, she had undergone the stem cell transplant and spent another month in hospital, but this time, the world was in the midst of the pandemic — that meant her family, including her daughter, couldn’t visit. Camille was eventually discharged, but another hurdle was around the corner. “About eight months post stem cell transplant, I woke up with some neck pain,” explains Camille. “I didn’t think anything of it, but unfortunately, blood work showed that the cancer returned, and it was aggressive.”

“Have you heard about CAR T-cell therapy?”

It was now March 2021, and Camille was out of options. Her medical team recommended another chemotherapy protocol, but she just couldn’t do it. “When they started naming off the types of chemo involved, I broke down because it just sounded all too familiar to my first month, and that induction didn’t work,” recalls Camille. “Also, this time it was during a pandemic. At least when I was diagnosed in January, I had all my family and all my friends visiting every day. But this time around, I wasn’t going to be able to see my daughter, I wasn’t going to be able to have my friends and family as often as I wanted — maybe once a week. I just couldn’t do it without them, I wasn’t strong enough.”

That’s when she remembered CAR T-cell therapy had been mentioned at one point early on, so she asked her doctor about it. “I asked her, ‘Have you heard about CAR T-cell therapy?’ She confirmed there was a trial going on in Ottawa, and she decided to see if I would meet the criteria for it.”

Soon, Camille got the dose of good news she desperately needed – she was accepted into the trial, and she soon met Dr. Natasha Kekre, the principal investigator.

Dr. Natasha Kekre,hematologist for The Ottawa Hospital's Blood and Marrow Transplant Program.

Read our Q&A with Dr. Natasha Kekre

First made-in-Canada CAR T-cell therapy for cancer shows promise

More than a dozen people with cancer who had exhausted all treatment options are alive and cancer free today thanks to a pioneering, Canadian-first clinical trial. It uses a highly personalized kind of immunotherapy to help the patient’s T-cells recognize and kill their cancer. The results to date could open the door to a new era of made-in-Canada immunotherapies for cancer.

Patients in the trial, like Camille, have their immune cells (T-cells) removed and genetically engineered in a lab with a disarmed virus to produce synthetic molecules called “chimeric antigen receptors” (CAR). These new supercharged CAR T-cells, with their enhanced cancer-killing ability, are then infused back into the same patient.

What is the difference between a T‑cell and a CAR T‑cell?

T‑cells are a type of white blood cell, which play a critical role in the immune system. Originating in the bone marrow and maturing in the thymus — a small gland in the chest that’s part of the lymphatic system — T‑cells focus on attacking specific foreign particles, including bacteria, viruses, and other microbes.

CAR T‑cells are T‑cells that have been modified in a lab to fight cancer cells. First, T‑cells are removed from the patient, then they’re engineered to produce proteins on their surface called “chimeric antigen receptors,” or CARs. These proteins help the cells recognize and bind to proteins on the surface of cancer cells. Once engineered, the CAR T‑cells are reinfused into the patient to do their work.

While Health Canada has approved several commercial CAR T-cell therapies, access is currently restricted to people with just a few kinds of leukemia and lymphoma, and only if they fall into certain age ranges. Commercial CAR T-cell therapy is also very expensive and involves shipping cells to the United States and back.

This new trial is the first to manufacture CAR T-cell therapy in Canada. It uses a different kind of cell manufacturing that opens the door to less expensive and more equitable treatment.

“We’re very excited about the preliminary results of this trial, and we will be moving forward with new and exciting trials across Canada.”

– Dr. Natasha Kekre

“Canadian patients deserve access to the best cancer treatments in the world, and we need Canadian research to make this happen,” says Dr. Kekre, who, in addition to her leadership with this clinical trial is also a scientist and hematologist at The Ottawa Hospital. “We’re very excited about the preliminary results of this trial, and we will be moving forward with new and exciting trials across Canada.”

CAR-T trial provides one last shot

Camille’s cancer journey up until this point experienced many hurdles and that happened once again with the CAR-T clinical trial. During the first attempt, she was sent back home because she had a lung infection. By the second try, Camille was having some neurological symptoms that included her face going numb. “The medical team decided to investigate, and they did a lumbar puncture that showed the cancer had gone into my central nervous system and they hadn’t been able to detect that because there’s a blood-brain barrier. Again, I was sent home,” recalls Camille.

“Obviously when I was told that this was my last shot I was terrified. I knew there were risks, but my options were limited. I took a chance, but I also know how passionate Dr. Kekre is about this trial. I did a lot of research about CAR-T and how effective it was.”

– Camille Leahy
Camille with her daughter, Michela.

She would have to endure lumbar punctures twice weekly with chemotherapy to clear the cancer from the central nervous system — something Camille describes as “awful”, but she didn’t give up.

Finally, Camille got the green light for a third trip to Ottawa, but the day before she spiked a fever. She remembers telling her family, “I know that there’s a chance I might not be able to do it, but I’m going anyway.” Somehow, the fever cleared and finally the team was able to go ahead with the cell collection.

Two weeks later, on September 15, 2021, she had the CAR T-cells reinfused into her body — reprogrammed to now be able to recognize the cancer cells and kill them.

Camille and her daughter waited to see if, finally, they would get good news. “Obviously when I was told that this was my last shot, I was terrified,” explains Camille. “I knew there were risks, but my options were limited. I took a chance, but I also know how passionate Dr. Kekre is about this trial. I did a lot of research about CAR-T and how effective it was.”

Immunotherapy research changes lives

It has been a long and challenging journey for Camille, but she is truly grateful to the entire team at our hospital who were ready to care for her when she had run out of treatment options. It wasn’t until one year after Camille’s CAR T- cell treatment that she really started to believe she could get better. After so many hurdles during this cancer journey, she knew it would take time and wanted to give it a year.

By September 15, 2022, she felt like a new person, and was cancer-free. “I’m back to driving, I’m back to feeling as normal as I can. Obviously, there’s always the fear, but I couldn’t walk last year. I was using a cane and a walker. I struggled a lot. But this trial changed my life.”

“Even if the cancer comes back, this has given me precious time, and I know the research will help many others. It has given me a fighting chance.”

– Camille Leahy

As Camille and her daughter, Michela, are back to doing the mother-daughter things they love, Camille is also advocating for the research that saved her life with the end goal of giving more patients hope. She wants to make sure CAR T-cell therapy is available to others who face an uncertain future like she did. “For it to become more widely available in Canada would be incredible. The research team at The Ottawa Hospital made it possible for me to have this treatment done here in Canada. I didn’t have to raise money to try and leave the country to go get CAR T-cell treatment in the United States. My goal now is to tell my story so that they can continue to do this in Canada and can become more available to everyone here.”

Today, at age 38, Camille is easing back into life and thinking about the future. When her immune system is strong enough, she hopes to return to work. Right now, she enjoys the precious time and memories she’s been given the opportunity to make with her daughter, like driving her to school, taking her to baseball games, and watching her play soccer — moments she doesn’t take for granted. “Even if the cancer comes back, this has given me precious time, and I know the research will help many others. It has given me a fighting chance.”

Download episode #75 of Pulse Podcast to hear Camille talk about why she’s become an advocate for cancer research.

Listen Now:

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


A cancer journey by the numbers

Published: February 2023

Numbers play an important role in our lives. They mark special occasions, important meetings, and sometimes they’re symbolic.

In 1970, Tanya O’Brien lost her aunt Elizabeth to breast cancer — Tanya was just shy of her first birthday. While she was too young to know her aunt, she has a picture of the two of them together. When she looks at that photo, two numbers come to mind — one and seven. “I think of my aunt as number one and myself as number seven. On March 5, 2013, I became the seventh person in my family diagnosed with breast cancer,” explains Tanya.

“Actually hearing you have cancer is like watching yourself in a bad B-movie — nothing feels real. Everything is in slow motion except for your brain which races around, and everything suddenly becomes a question.”

– Tanya O’Brien

Because of this family history, cancer is a disease Tanya has feared much of her adult life. By the time she was in her early 40s, the elementary school teacher had already seen family member after family member face the disease. “My fear would stop me in my tracks. Pink ribbons used to make me cringe. My lumpy breasts were a constant source of drama,” says Tanya.

Then, what she had feared most became reality. In 2013, Tanya was diagnosed with breast cancer. The news came after a radiologist noticed something new during an examination and a biopsy was ordered. “Actually hearing you have cancer is like watching yourself in a bad B-movie — nothing feels real. Everything is in slow motion except for your brain which races around, and everything suddenly becomes a question. Will I die? What will happen to my family?”

Facing cancer head on

Next, Tanya turned to The Ottawa Hospital’s Breast Health Centre (BHC) where over the course of 16 months her care team became household names — a team she says provided her with smiles, explanations, advice, hugs, and assurances along her cancer journey. “They redefined ‘hero’ for me. One step at a time, with an army of people behind me, I found myself being able to fight cancer and confront the fear that had controlled me long before my diagnosis,” says Tanya.

Tanya at The Ottawa Hospital General Campus. Photo by Ashley Fraser.

In 2018, the new Rose Ages BHC opened its doors to patients, thanks to an ambitious $14-million fundraising campaign. The centre houses an impressive suite of technologies that are among the latest and most comprehensive in Canada. The BHC allows patients to be closer to the specialists involved in their care, from before diagnosis to after treatment, and beyond. This means more patients can be treated with therapies that are tailored to their unique circumstances.

“They redefined ‘hero’ for me. One step at a time, with a legion of people behind me, I found myself being able to fight cancer and confront the fear that had controlled me long before my diagnosis.”

– Tanya O’Brien

Access to the most advanced and compassionate cancer care helped ease Tanya’s fears along the way. Her journey included a double mastectomy, reconstruction surgery, chemotherapy, and medication. “Without Dr. Shailendra Verma and Dr. John Lorimer I would not have made it through the first few days of this process. They explained things so clearly and encouraged me that I could do this. They were calm and clear. My oncologist, Dr. Paul Wheatley-Price, along with Drs. Kirsty Boyd and Simon Frank were with me throughout my journey.”

Not unlike other cancer patients, Tanya’s biggest fear was chemotherapy. She remembers that first day of treatment and how the sunshine was beaming through the window — which seemed to reflect the attitude of the staff who were caring for patients just like her. And then came a very special moment, on August 14, 2014 — Tanya rang the bell to mark her last chemo treatment. “I was at the other end of the tunnel. My reconstruction still amazes me. Except for two small lines, I look exactly as I did before. The only difference now is that I can look at myself with confidence knowing that I am well.”

And now back to those numbers, the most recent special number to Tanya is 10. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of being cancer free — a milestone she is deeply grateful for and one that she not only celebrates, but that marks a time of remembering those she’s lost, like her aunt Elizabeth.

Tanya is grateful for each day she’s been given and those who helped her each step of the way. “I’ve been given a chance to live the rest of my life without fear. I have an understanding that healing can happen with an idea, research, medicine, surgery, faith, and more importantly, with the right people. I owe The Ottawa Hospital my life, and there are no words to thank adequately everyone there for what they have done.”  

Tanya O’Brien, in her classroom.

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


Full circle experience for Denise Picard-Stencer

Published: February 2023

After dedicating 27 years of her career to The Ottawa Hospital, Denise Picard-Stencer was shocked when she found herself back at the hospital in 2019 — this time as a patient.

Denise started as an ICU nurse in 1990 at the General. After 13 years, she became an assistant manager in the ICU — a time she remembers vividly because of the SARS virus outbreak. That’s where she discovered her interest in management. She worked in various departments, including the Emergency Department, before making her way into the human resources field. In 2015, Denise took on a new opportunity at Hawkesbury and District Hospital, where she became the Vice-President of Patient Care and Chief Nurse.

Always healthy and active, with a love for cycling and golfing, Denise’s life took a turn in December 2018 when she got very sick. “I went through every test you can imagine trying to pinpoint what might be wrong. We were in the dark for so long, and my condition was deteriorating because the tests kept coming back inconclusive,” explains Denise. “I remember when I was diagnosed in July 2019 with multiple myeloma; it was almost a relief to finally know what was wrong, because now we could treat it.”

Denise Picard-Stencer biking on the beach.

With that diagnosis, Denise found herself back at The Ottawa Hospital, but with a very different perspective — now, she was the patient. “I had 20 weeks of chemotherapy treatment, and then I had a stem cell transplant in February 2020.”

“Although the collection of my own stem cells was a gruelling two-day process where I was hooked up to machines and I had to remain still, in the end, the outcome was awesome,” recalls Denise. The day of her transplant is now known among her family and friends as Denise’s re-birthday. “I put on a shirt with sparkles on my transplant day because I was celebrating.”

Once the stem cell transplant was complete, Denise went home but had to return daily to the hospital for bloodwork and on-going follow-up. This was just as COVID-19 was hitting our community, which was concerning considering her immune system was still fragile.

Ten days after her release, Denise spiked a fever, and she was admitted to hospital for 10 days. But once the fever resolved, her road to recovery got a little smoother, and her stem cell transplant was deemed a success. Slowly, she started to gain weight back. “I was down to 88 pounds when I first left the hospital after the transplant — I had lost 30 pounds when I was sick. It took time to build up my strength again, but I’ve been good ever since. Today, I’m back to cycling and golfing,” explains Denise.

Being on the receiving end of care made Denise reflect on her years as a healthcare professional. “Throughout my career, whether I was interacting with patients as a nurse or in any of my management roles, I always put the patient at the centre, and as a hospital that was our focus — treating a patient like a loved one. So, when I became a patient, I didn’t know what to expect.”

Denise had wondered if all the work the hospital had committed to patient-focused care carried on after she left. “But when I became a patient, I was so impressed. From the technicians in radiology, the doctors, the nurses, and the housekeepers, that approach was there,” says Denise. “They made me feel like a person and not a patient — and these people didn’t know I had worked at TOH for all those years. That made me know I was in good hands.”

Denise Picard-Stencer was treated for multiple myeloma at The Ottawa Hospital.

Witnessing the impact of research

One of her care team members was Dr. Arleigh McCurdy. She remembers an appointment with her hematologist not long after she was on the road to recovery. “I was so happy to have my life back, and I remember telling Dr. McCurdy, ‘It’s a miracle how far I’ve come!’ And she said to me ‘No — it’s research!’ and she’s right!”

“Years before, I participated in a cycling fundraiser to support cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital, and that’s when I made the connection to the impact of research. Little did I know back then, research would benefit me someday.”

— Denise Picard-Stencer

Denise admits the impact of research didn’t hit her right away because she was so focused on getting her strength back. However, it was while reflecting on her care and looking back at some old photos that it hit her. “Years before, I participated in a cycling fundraiser to support cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital, and that’s when I made the connection to research. Little did I know back then, research would benefit me someday.”

In fact, Denise’s cancer story was a learning opportunity for the oncology team. She recalls Dr. McCurdy explaining how her case was so complex it was discussed each week on medical rounds. “The team was studying the latest research to see how they could best diagnose me because I didn’t have a straightforward case, and so there was another link to research.”

Denise Picard-Stencer with one of her grandchildren.

“Clinical trials are the reason why I’m here today” 

— Denise Picard-Stencer

Those constant efforts to seek out the best practices and participate in research projects to improve the quality of care for patients is not lost on Denise. “I know if, or when, I have a relapse, and the only option is a clinical trial, I will participate. Clinical trials are the reason why I’m here today — because other patients participated in these studies and the researchers and specialists devoted hours and hours to advancing research. It’s an aspect that the public doesn’t always see, but I knew about it, and I certainly saw that firsthand in my case.”

Today, Denise is enjoying retirement in Sherbrooke, where she now calls home — staying active, and taking every opportunity to spend time with her two grandchildren.

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