‘I walked through my darkest fears and came out the other side.’

It would be a routine mammogram, which would turn Annette Gibbons’ world upside down. The Associate Deputy Minister in Agriculture and Agrifood Canada would soon begin her breast cancer journey but she put her complete trust in her medical team at The Ottawa Hospital.

Annette’s breast cancer journey

 

There are pivotal moments in our lives, which stay with us forever; moments like the birth of a child or the death of a parent. For Annette Gibbons, it was the day she learned about her breast cancer diagnosis.

In July 2016, Annette, Associate Deputy Minister in Agriculture and Agrifood Canada, had a routine mammogram. When she was told that she had dense tissue, which made it difficult to read the mammogram, she wasn’t worried at all when she received a call to schedule another mammogram and ultrasound at The Ottawa Hospital. But that all changed when her radiologist, Dr. Susan Peddle, gently told her that she thought it was cancer.

Annette, visibly emotional, recalls that fateful day. “Just like that, my life changed and I began my journey.”

Her cancer journey would begin with chemotherapy under the watchful eye of medical oncologist and scientist Dr. Mark Clemons. “He specializes in the type of cancer I had and is very active in clinical trials and research on leading-edge treatments and practices.”

During these early days, Annette focussed solely on getting through the wear and tear of chemotherapy. She recalls that “it’s not anything you can truly prepare for, or understand, until you’re the patient.” “There was the depressing hair loss, the constant nausea, the searing bone pain and the mind-numbing fatigue. Despite all that, I still tried to keep my spirits up with exercise, a support group, and lots of old movies.”

She also put her complete trust in her medical team and was determined to stay positive. “I knew the stats for survivability were fairly good and I looked forward to resuming my ‘normal life’.”

Little did she know that the next steps – mastectomy and radiation – would be tougher than chemotherapy. The surgery itself and healing had gone well. She credits her amazing surgeon, Dr. Erin Cordeiro, for her compassion and incredible skill.

“She held my hand as I lay in the operating room preparing for the operation to begin.” – Annette Gibbons

“In the end,” Annette says with a little smile on her face, “she gave me, dare I say, the nicest, straightest surgery scar I have ever seen on anyone.”

Of course, Annette wouldn’t have the full picture of her cancer prognosis until pathology results came back on her tumour. It would be several weeks later when she would get the alarming call from Dr. Cordeiro. It was devastating news for Annette to absorb. “She told me that my tumour was much bigger than first thought. They had found cancer in many of the lymph nodes they removed. I was not expecting that, it was a huge blow.”

Annette Gibbons speaking at the President’s Breakfast for the Public Service in 2019.
Annette Gibbons addressing the President’s Breakfast for the Public Service in 2019.

As she tried to absorb this news, she sat down with Dr. Clemons as few days later. She was dealt another blow. “He gave it to me straight: because of the tumour size and number of lymph nodes affected, my risk of recurrence was high.”

That’s when Annette’s world came crumbling down. She recalls spiralling down into darkness. “It was very hard to crawl out of this place. But my medical team saw the signs and knew how to help me. My dedicated radiation oncologist, Dr. Jean-Michel Caudrelier, spotted my despair and referred me to the psychosocial oncology program. With the amazing help of Dr. Mamta Gautam, I walked through my deepest fears and came out the other side.”

Annette would complete her radiation treatment and then slowly reclaimed her life again. But as all cancer patients know, the fear of recurrence is her constant companion. “I don’t know if that will ever change. But I decided to make it my friend who reminds me to think not about dying, but the importance of living while I am alive,” said Annette.

She’s grateful to know the best medical professionals were right here in her hometown when she was diagnosed. As a self-proclaimed “frequent flyer at the hospital”, Annette is proud to say she’s reclaimed her life — including her return to work as a public servant. “I am myself again, and life is strangely somehow better than it was before.”

Your support will provide crucial funding to improve the care of patients, like Annette.

More Great Stories

Brain tumour diagnosis leads mom down unimaginable path 
In 2016, Natasha Lewis was diagnosed with a brain tumour and her quality of life began to deteriorate. She was be cared for at The Ottawa Hospital – the only hospital in the region that could help her because of the complexity of her diagnosis.  
Astonishing recovery after minimally invasive brain surgery
With a tumour on his pituitary gland, John Fairchild was preparing for the worst when minimally invasive brain surgery saved his life.
A double-life — living with kidney disease
Nearly 15 years after a kidney transplant, June Jones’ kidneys failed. She is back on dialysis — and a Canada-wide wait list for a new kidney.

Remember Mary

Mark Lawrenson, in a touching tribute to his late wife Mary, is kicking off a 6,000km cycling tour across Canada and the United States to raise funds for breast cancer research.

Event Date: June 24, 2019
Location: Across Ontario and the United States. Starting in Perth, Ontario at the corner of John Street and Rogers Road. Summer 2019 Tour encompassing Ontario. Fall/Winter 2019 Tour Florida, United States
Website: https://www.remembermary.com/
Contact: Mark Lawrenson, [email protected]

Remember Mary is a cycling tour that will cover over 6,000 km to raise funds for breast cancer research. The cycling tour is being completed by Mark Lawrenson, in remembrance of his late wife Mary Lawrenson. The cycling tour will be encompassing Ontario for Summer 2019, and then moving down to the US-Florida for Fall/Winter 2019.

For more information, click here.

You can help support Mark Lawrenson raise money for breast cancer research today.

Because of You

Thousands of patients in Ottawa, and beyond, are receiving the latest treatment options. Powered by state-of-the-art technology and backed up by the very best medical expertise, your generous support allowed us to build three impressive new health centres at The Ottawa Hospital. Your generosity has improved care and changed patients’ lives.

Because of you

Thousands of patients in Ottawa, and beyond, are receiving the latest treatment options. Powered by state-of-the-art technology and backed up by the very best medical expertise, your generous support allowed us to build three impressive new health centres at The Ottawa Hospital. Your generosity has improved care and changed patients’ lives.

The Ottawa Hospital, The Ottawa Hospital Foundation

 

Rose Ages Breast Health Centre

When the doors opened at the Rose Ages Breast Health Centre in September, it marked the wonderful close of an ambitious $14 million fundraising campaign. Thanks to our community’s outstanding generosity, the new centre houses an impressive suite of advanced technology, enabling less invasive and more accurate diagnoses and treatments.

The new centre’s inviting space will enhance wellness and connection to family and friends with open, naturally lit areas and private, gowned waiting rooms. This new, larger centre at the General Campus is now ready to provide the best treatment and care to the thousands of patients in our region who need it most—thanks to you.

The Ottawa Hospital, The Ottawa Hospital Foundation
Rose Ages Breast Health Centre

 

The Ottawa Hospital, The Ottawa Hospital Foundation
The Logue children, Kevin, Shaun, Christine, Cathy, and Elizabeth, at the opening of the Dermatology Centre.

Charlie and Claudette Logue Dermatology Centre

There is no example more concrete about how community support can advance health care than the building of the Charlie and Claudette Logue Dermatology Centre. Local businessman Charlie Logue saw the need for a dermatology centre that would provide faster assessments, shorter wait times, and increased access to dermatology services. After he passed away in August 2013, Charlie’s friends and colleagues in the Ottawa business community, along with his own children, fundraised $3.7 million for a new dermatology centre. This bright, new, state-of-the-art centre opened in April to provide the latest dermatology treatments now and for future generations.

Neuromuscular Centre

In 2016, Dr. Jodi Warman Chardon and senior scientist Dr. Robin Parks dreamt of building a centre where neuromuscular experts—clinicians and basic scientists—could collaborate to develop treatments for neuromuscular diseases. More than 10,000 people in eastern Ontario are affected by neuromuscular diseases, which weaken the muscles. These patients had no options to participate in clinical trials in Ottawa, so Drs. Warman Chardon and Parks decided to change that. Thanks to generous donor support, their dream became reality when The Ottawa Hospital NeuroMuscular Centre—the largest in Canada—opened its doors to patients in May.

 

No Donation too small, no fundraiser too young

The Ottawa Hospital, The Ottawa Hospital Foundation
Six 11-year-old fundraisers (left to right): Isla, Lucy, Alice, Parker, Jackie, and Tess

“I know it’s a hospital, but this is beautiful!” said 11-year-old Parker when the elevator doors opened into the Rose Ages Breast Health Centre.

Parker and five friends arrived on October 24 with a plastic sandwich bag containing their donation of $247.95 in coins for breast cancer research. They worked hard to raise the money: raking leaves, cutting grass, selling lemonade, and shoveling snow.

The generosity of these six children is a shining example that no donation is too small and no fundraiser too young.

The Ottawa Hospital, The Ottawa Hospital Foundation

Thanks to generous support from donors like you, The Ottawa Hospital is providing advanced treatment with state-of-the-art technology.

More Great Stories

Brain tumour diagnosis leads mom down unimaginable path 
In 2016, Natasha Lewis was diagnosed with a brain tumour and her quality of life began to deteriorate. She was be cared for at The Ottawa Hospital – the only hospital in the region that could help her because of the complexity of her diagnosis.  
Astonishing recovery after minimally invasive brain surgery
With a tumour on his pituitary gland, John Fairchild was preparing for the worst when minimally invasive brain surgery saved his life.
‘I walked through my darkest fears and came out the other side.’
It would be a routine mammogram, which would turn Annette Gibbons’ world upside down. The Associate Deputy Minister in Agriculture and Agrifood Canada would soon begin her breast cancer journey but she put her complete trust in her medical team at The Ottawa Hospital.

My why is you

Robert Noseworthy was diagnosed with a childhood leukemia at the age of 30. This was rare for someone his age and his prognosis was grim. 30 years later, he gives back to cancer research through THE RIDE with his grown children by his side.

 

The Ottawa Hospital Foundation, The Ottawa Hospital, Noseworthy, THE RIDE
Robert Noseworthy and his daugher, Julianne.

On October 21, 1988, Robert was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia — a childhood leukemia. He was living in Montreal at the time with his young family, including Julianne who was 18 months and his infant son, David.

His prognosis was grim. “I was given a 13% chance of survival with 6 months to live. My doctor in Montreal said it was very unusual for a 30-year-old to have a childhood leukemia.”

And so, the cancer journey began for this father of two. It would include numerous rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatments and then he was in remission but the journey didn’t end there. “In March 1989, I received a bone marrow transplant from my sister, who was a six-on-six match.”

Thanks to that match, Robert beat the odds. He gives full credit to cancer research as the reason for being here today and he never forgets that. In fact, that’s what attracted him to THE RIDE. “That is my why. I do my small part and ride to raise funds for cancer research.”

Giving back has been important to Robert. It’s also been important to him to instill that in his children as they grew up. “I received all this help but now it’s time to give back.”

Indeed, you can see Julianne takes great pride in that lesson from her father and she marvels at his strength. “He’s been an inspiration. Not just from a medical standpoint or as a role model but being able to complete 120 km at 60 years old. And, to be physically fit enough to do that, especially after everything he has gone through. I hope that I can do that at 60.”

THE RIDE-Noseworthy tradition continues. The first two participants to register for the 2019 edition of THE RIDE, were this father-daughter duo. They make it a full family weekend. They drop off their bikes on Saturday and then head to a restaurant for a pasta dinner and gear up for the early morning start on Sunday.

Sitting side by side, it’s not hard to realize the tight bond between Robert Noseworthy and his daughter, Julianne. They laugh, finish each other’s sentences, and joke with one another.

It’s a family bond, which runs deep.

Robert is a cancer survivor and not a day goes by that he doesn’t appreciate each moment he’s had to share with his two children, who are now adults.

Julianne says they love the experience and year five will be no different. “The encouragement you get from everyone around and the volunteers is just phenomenal. I always get teary when we start and teary when we end, as they announce him as a cancer survivor. We wouldn’t be able to do that or accomplish that without research.”

As a cancer survivor, Robert says THE RIDE is very meaningful to him, especially when he meets other cyclists who are flying the survivor flag on their bikes, like him. “Only a cancer survivor knows what a cancer survivor has gone through. If you haven’t been through it, to be told you have the big “c” is…it’s unique.”

He adds that the survivor flag is a bond which brings this special group together. “When I’m on THE RIDE and I see other survivors, I’m patting them on the back and saying good job, I’m glad you’re here. Congratulations. This survivor flag means a lot to me.”

For Julianne, THE RIDE is about family. It’s about giving back as a family to The Ottawa Hospital and advancing research.

“Family is the word that sums it up quite nicely for us. We are close and we like to do these kinds of things together and support each other. If it wasn’t for cancer research and everything my dad had been through, we wouldn’t be the family that we are today.”

Glancing over at her father, with a smile, Julianne says, “My why is you.”


Give today to help ensure we can tell more stories like Robert Noseworthy’s.

More Great Stories

‘I walked through my darkest fears and came out the other side.’
It would be a routine mammogram, which would turn Annette Gibbons’ world upside down. The Associate Deputy Minister in Agriculture and Agrifood Canada would soon begin her breast cancer journey but she put her complete trust in her medical team at The Ottawa Hospital.
Buying time: 7hrs, 52 stitches
Leata Qaunaq knew something was wrong when her husband Joellie arrived to meet her and their daughter at the airport near Arctic Bay, Nunavut. He was talking, but not making sense.
The gift of time with family
Mom of three, Vesna, is living with terminal metastatic breast cancer. She is hoping clinical trials will continue to extend her life so she has more time with those she loves.

Buying time: 7hrs, 52 stitches

Leata Qaunaq knew something was wrong when her husband Joellie arrived to meet her and their daughter at the airport near Arctic Bay, Nunavut. He was talking, but not making sense.

Joellie had spent the last two months teaching arctic survival skills to Canadian Armed Forces personnel in Resolute Bay in the high central Arctic. The 53-year-old was a strong, skilled outdoorsman, but the Joellie who met them at the airport was not acting his normal self.

It was March 7, 2018. Leata hadn’t seen Joellie in five weeks. She had been at CHEO, in Ottawa, with their 3-year-old daughter who needed dental surgery.

When they got home from the airport, Joellie said he wasn’t feeling well and went to bed. He woke with a fever. Leata called her aunt who wondered if he might be having a stroke.

“I called the nursing station and they said to bring him in. Our truck wasn’t working, so we took the Ski-Doo. He [Joellie] drove it to the nursing station,” said Leata. The nurses could see something was wrong and started calling doctors in Iqaluit who arranged for medevac from their northwest Baffin Island community.

Joellie lost consciousness at the nursing station. He didn’t come to until he arrived at the Qikiqtani General Hospital in Iqaluit where a he had a CT scan. The results were bad news.

7-hour surgery and 52 stitches

“First, the doctor told us that Joellie had a tumour, then they told us he had brain cancer,” said Leata.

She had only been home less than 48 hours when she found herself headed back to Ottawa. The Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre, through an agreement with the Government of Nunavut, provides cancer services to residents of eastern Nunavut. Usually, only one family member or close friend accompanies a patient. The Qaunaqs knew that cancer treatment could be lengthy—weeks, even months. They prepared to leave family, friends, and their community support network for an undetermined amount of time while Joellie had treatment.

The couple, who’ve been married for 29 years, have four children. So before heading south, Leata arranged for their two youngest (13 and three years) to stay with their oldest son, whose wife was expecting a baby in April. It would be Joellie and Leata’s first grandchild, and they knew they would miss the baby’s birth.

Joellie had a seven-hour surgery to remove his brain tumour. He woke up with the left side of his head shaved and 52 stitches curving up from his ear to his temple.

The Ottawa Hospital, The Ottawa Hospital Foundation, Joellie Qaunaq
Joellie Qaunaq from Arctic Bay, Nunavut.

 

“That’s not a kind of cancer that we cure”

“Joellie had a tumour called a glioblastoma—it is the most common kind of brain tumour that adults get,” said Dr. Garth Nicholas, Joellie’s medical oncologist. “It’s not a kind of cancer that we cure with our treatment. The goal is to try and keep that cancer from progressing, or worsening, for as long as we can.”

Glioblastoma multiforme is a deadly, extremely aggressive form of cancer that starts in the brain. Its tumour cells reach like tentacles into parts of the brain where neurosurgeons can’t see them and, therefore, can’t remove them.

 

    • 1,000 Canadians are diagnosed with glioblastoma every year.

    • It affects 2 out of every 100,000 people.

    • Accounts for 12% of all tumours in the head.

    • Affects more men than women.

    • Usually adults between 45 and 75 years of age.

    • Less than 10% survival rate, 5 years post-diagnosis.

    • Tragically Hip lead singer Gord Downie and Ottawa politician Paul Dewar both died from this type of brain cancer.

    • New equipment and techniques could help outcomes.

Overcoming barriers of language and culture

In addition to hearing loss―a result of a life of hunting and being close to the sound of hunting rifles―Joellie spoke Inuktitut and had limited English. Understanding his diagnosis and treatment options was challenging. Fortunately, Leata was fluent in English and could be a strong advocate for his treatment. But this is not the case for many Inuit patients.

“I think challenges and the difficulties―above and beyond his brain tumour―were not related to Joellie’s tumour but to being far from home, and the language barrier,” said Dr. Nicholas.

Realizing these challenges. Dr. Nicholas referred the Qaunaqs to Carolyn Roberts, the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Nurse Navigator for the hospital’s Indigenous Cancer Program. She helps many Inuit patients understand and navigate the health-care system throughout their cancer treatment.

“Our whole system of ethical practice has autonomy as its foundation stone. People can decide what they want to do and people are meant to be involved in what they want to do with their health. But the combination of language and education and cultural expectation makes it hard for people from the North to be involved,” said Dr. Nicholas. “That’s where the program with Carolyn is useful, because she helps get them around to the idea that this is not being done to you, but with you and for you.”

“When I meet patients, I tell them I’m a different kind of nurse,” said Carolyn. “I’m not here to just answer questions about cancer. I’m here for any question at all―doesn’t have to be about health. That’s the message I give to every patient.”

There are few similarities between Ottawa and the small Arctic communities where many Inuit patients live. Undergoing cancer treatment in a place that is so fundamentally different than their home takes a toll on patients and their mental health.

Connecting with someone’s culture and breaking down barriers with the universal language of compassion and laughter helps patients feel more comfortable and confident about going through their cancer journey.

“What we really worked towards is not to focus too much on the cancer. It brought us together, but that doesn’t define who they are.” –Carolyn Roberts, First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Nurse Navigator.

Dr. Nicholas said he sees the difference Carolyn and the Indigenous Cancer Program make for patients. “I can think of individual patients who would not have been treated and who would’ve just gone home. They were overwhelmed by everything and they would’ve just left but they dealt with Carolyn. They ended up staying and having some treatment, and the treatments were useful,” said Dr. Nicholas. “The program’s got measurable medical outcomes.”

Joellie Qaunaq taught Arctic survival skills to Canadian Armed Forces members in Resolute Bay, Nunavut.

 

Back home, surrounded by family and friends

Joellie had his last radiation treatment in Ottawa on May 29, 2018. He was then discharged and eagerly headed home, back to Arctic Bay—to family and friends.

Dr. Nicholas’s follow up with Joellie and his treatment to help keep the cancer at bay continued. Every month, he would have blood work done and the results were faxed to Dr. Nicholas who then called Leata about whether Joellie could go ahead and take the chemotherapy pills he was prescribed to use at home. After Joellie finished the six-month chemo treatment, he had follow up CT scans that Dr. Nicholas received on his computer as if Joellie was a local patient.

Fortunately, Joellie was still relatively well when he went home last May and was able to enjoy time with his new granddaughter and family.

Glioblastoma is one cancer that always returns. And Joellie’s did. After almost a year since his discharge, Joellie’s health deteriorated and sadly, he passed away on May 5, 2019. He was cared for by people who loved him and his family beside him.

Thanks to donations from our generous community, researchers at The Ottawa Hospital have made tremendous breakthroughs in improving cancer treatments. It’s patients like Joellie who inspire our care givers and researchers to strive for a cure.

The Ottawa Hospital, The Ottawa Hospital Foundation, Joellie Qaunaq
Leata Qaunaq hugs her husband Joellie.

 


Help us to continue to build on our advancements and make cancer a thing of the past.

More Great Stories

‘I walked through my darkest fears and came out the other side.’
It would be a routine mammogram, which would turn Annette Gibbons’ world upside down. The Associate Deputy Minister in Agriculture and Agrifood Canada would soon begin her breast cancer journey but she put her complete trust in her medical team at The Ottawa Hospital.
My why is you
Robert Noseworthy was diagnosed with a childhood leukemia at the age of 30. This was rare for someone his age and his prognosis was grim. 30 years later, he gives back to cancer research through THE RIDE with his grown children by his side.
The gift of time with family
Mom of three, Vesna, is living with terminal metastatic breast cancer. She is hoping clinical trials will continue to extend her life so she has more time with those she loves.

5th Annual Karaoke for Cancer

Please join us on Friday, September 20, 2019 at the 5th Annual Karaoke for Cancer event in support of cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital.

Event Date: September 20, 2019
Event Time: 8:00PM
Location: ALE – Amberwood Lounge & Eatery, 54 Springbrook Drive, Stittsville
Website: https://www.facebook.com/events/2398364060450284/
Contact: Sue Lambe, [email protected]

On Friday, September 20, 2019, Bill Martin and Sue Lambe of Hometown Team – Century 21 John DeVries Ltd will be hosting their 5th Annual Karaoke for Cancer event. This year’s event will feature a 1950s theme and will kick off at 8:00PM at Stittsville’s ALE – Amberwood Lounge & Eatery. Admission is free but donations will be raised at the door. All funds raised will be donated to The Ottawa Hospital Foundation in support of cancer research so swing by and sing your heart out for a great cause.

Click here to learn more about the event.

The gift of time with family

Mom of three, Vesna, is living with terminal metastatic breast cancer. She is hoping clinical trials will continue to extend her life so she has more time with those she loves.

Story by Vesna Zic-Côté 

Vesna Zic Cote“In 2012, I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. Despite the standard treatment of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and hormonal treatment, the cancer returned four years later, having spread to my lungs, bones and lymph nodes.

I received my diagnosis of incurable stage 4 metastatic breast cancer on my son’s birthday. He was nine.

My world as I knew it ended. I was sitting upstairs on my bed. I could hear the kids playing downstairs. I called my husband at work and he came home and we cried.

It is a tradition in our home that on our kids’ birthdays, we go out to a restaurant of their choosing for dinner. So on the day my world ended, I sat in a restaurant and ordered some food and tried to eat cardboard, but couldn’t get the food to go down. I looked at the birthday boy and held the tears in, and my heart shattered in a million pieces.

Metastatic breast cancer is treatable, but not curable. When I was first diagnosed, my life expectancy was being measured in months. Now with cautious hope, it might be a few years. I go to the Hospital every 28 days to get injections. They are part of a series of targeted treatments I receive to keep the cancer cells at bay. One day, the cancer will figure out how to grow despite this treatment, and I will move onto something else. And I’ll continue this endless cycle of treatments and scans and progression and change until I am out of options. But I am a 43-year-old mother. And wife. And daughter. And sister. I need more time. Time to see my young children through elementary school. Time to watch my family grow and share in all the joys that life brings. Time to celebrate anniversaries with my husband and birthdays with my niece and nephews. Time with my beloved family and friends.

There is so much that needs to happen to make this a reality for me. I will need new treatments when my current regimen stops working – because it will stop working. I need research in cancer therapies and a health-care system that is streamlined and accessible.

Sadly, early detection does not prevent all cancers from returning and spreading. We need research to understand why, and treatment to extend our lives.

When I was first diagnosed, my focus was limited, directed inwards, focused on those dearest to me. During that time of learning about this new world, I absorbed every detail I could about metastatic breast cancer; living with metastatic breast cancer, treating metastatic breast cancer, dying metastatic breast cancer. A few names came to the forefront; those making noise, shifting opinions, moving the dial on research and progress. Months into treatment, when I could finally breathe again, I knew that I wanted to be part of this movement, part of the noise, part of the shift. I needed to validate this situation that I didn’t ask for in order to accept that it was part of my story whether I liked it or not.

For now, I have energy to cast outward. Not every day, but some days. Writing, fundraising, speaking, meeting. And I would say that the way I live my life has influenced my children who actively participate in my fundraising efforts with enthusiasm. They don’t need to feel embarrassed that their mom has cancer. Instead, they can feel like they are doing something to help me by climbing trees and selling apples, doing presentations on their fundraising efforts, wearing pink laces, and making signs, helping the doctors and researchers to find better medicines. Regardless of where we eventually land, I want them to be able to look back on all the good things that they did, and know that their efforts warmed many, many hearts… mine most of all.

On behalf of all of us living with incurable cancer – finding joy between injections and scans and blood work and appointments, living with hope and making a difference – thank you for your support.”

– Vesna

We need your help today to give patients like Vesna more time, more memories, more hope. Support our cancer clinical trial research today and help us develop new ways to treat this devastating disease.

More Great Stories of #TOHMOMS

Brain tumour diagnosis leads mom down unimaginable path 
In 2016, Natasha Lewis was diagnosed with a brain tumour and her quality of life began to deteriorate. She was be cared for at The Ottawa Hospital – the only hospital in the region that could help her because of the complexity of her diagnosis.  
Astonishing recovery after minimally invasive brain surgery
With a tumour on his pituitary gland, John Fairchild was preparing for the worst when minimally invasive brain surgery saved his life.
‘I walked through my darkest fears and came out the other side.’
It would be a routine mammogram, which would turn Annette Gibbons’ world upside down. The Associate Deputy Minister in Agriculture and Agrifood Canada would soon begin her breast cancer journey but she put her complete trust in her medical team at The Ottawa Hospital.

Four years after metastatic breast cancer diagnosis, every day is a gift

Jillian O’Connor was 18 weeks pregnant when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and given less than two years to live. In February, she celebrated the fourth birthday of her healthy baby boy and continues to live life to the fullest.

Jillian O’Connor stands in her living room laughing. A small boy hugs her leg, then takes off and disappears down the stairs to play with his older brother and sister. That was Declan. He turned four on February 1, 2019. The fact that his mother saw him blow out the candles on his birthday cake is extraordinary.

When Jillian was 18 weeks pregnant with Declan, she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. She wasn’t expected to celebrate his second birthday. Two and a half years later, Jillian celebrated his fourth birthday with him—and still living life to its fullest.

Jillian O’Connor

The first thing that strikes you about Jillian is her smile. Next, it’s her insatiable enthusiasm for life. Then comes her contagious positivity. Hard not to think the latter alone is why she has made it so far against daunting odds. It may be anecdotal but Jillian definitely thinks, or rather knows, it’s the key.

“I am totally full of cancer, pretty much from my head to my toes,” said Jillian. “Every day I get is a blessing, ‘Oh, I woke up. Perfect!’ You just want to go at it as hard as you can, for as long as you can. Just being optimistic, I think helps. I really believe it helps.”

Jillian’s petite frame belies her light-up-the-room personality. She is gregarious with an enthusiasm that bubbles infectiously out of her. She talks about her cancer matter-of-factly. It is part of her life, but doesn’t rule her. She has other things to focus on—her precious family. The 35-year-old laughs and chats so easily about her life and her journey with cancer that it takes a second to realize how extraordinary her journey has been.

In 2014, Jillian was still nursing Landon, her second child, when she went to see her physician about a blocked milk duct. It turned out to be breast cancer. Doctors wanted to do CT scans to determine the extent of her cancer, but Jillian couldn’t. She was 18 weeks pregnant. Without treatment, she was told she wouldn’t survive to give birth. It was unfathomable. She had a three-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son at home. It was a devastating diagnosis but Jillian met it head on with her own special brand of optimism and determination.

Terminating the pregnancy was not an option for Jillian and her husband David. Her oncologist, Dr. Mark Clemons, told her she didn’t have to. He could provide a chemotherapy cocktail that would keep her cancer at bay without harming her unborn child. Jillian had a mastectomy and a dozen chemo treatments tailored to her special case. On February 1, 2015, she gave birth to a healthy baby Declan.

“I received chemotherapy right up until I delivered him. He was healthy—a wonderful birth weight. He was absolutely perfect,” said Jillian.

After Declan was born, Jillian had scans to see where the cancer was. It had spread, and had metastasized to her bones, liver, and lymphatic system. That was when she was given less than two years.

“Basically, they said, ‘We can’t give you a long timeframe. It’s stage IV, so every day you wake up is going to be a gift,’” said Jillian, who stopped working as a nurse at the Queensway Carleton Hospital and became a patient there, receiving treatment at The Ottawa Hospital’s satellite cancer centre, the Irving Greenberg Family Cancer Centre. “Two years passed, then three, and then I passed four years this past summer. I’m hoping I’ll have another 40 plus years. I got a pretty doom and gloom diagnosis, but I continue to pull life off.”

Jillian has pulled life off in a big way. After all, when she brought Declan home from the hospital, she had three children under the age of three to look after. She poured herself into motherhood, enjoying every moment with them. Between weekly trips to the cancer centre for treatment, she was busy changing diapers, making meals, caring for, playing with, and loving her little ones.

Declan and Jillian O'Connor
Four-year-old Declan sits on his mom’s knee.

Declan is back and clambers onto his mother’s knee—for about 30 seconds—before scrambling off onto the couch beside her. He is a typical four-year-old. His big sister Myla, who is seven, and brother Landon, who is five, appear, and the three play on the floor near their mom. Jillian chatters happily with them.

Jillian has celebrated all her children’s early-year milestones: learning to walk, talk, run, play, read, and become independent little people. Both Myla and Landon are now in school. Declan will be joining them in September. In mid-January, Jillian and David registered him for junior kindergarten. Nowadays, while the two older ones are in school, she and Declan have fun hanging out. They fill their days with activities that include volunteering at the school, as well as the more mundane household chores.

“I got a pretty doom and gloom diagnosis, but I continue to pull life off.”

Jillian is exuberant about life. She lives each day as it comes.

“She has, with all the help that modern radiotherapy and medical oncology can offer in Ottawa, in addition to her tremendous personality and drive, done amazingly well in a tragic situation for any young mom,” said Dr. Clemons. “At the same time, she has been involved in practice-changing research that is going to improve the care of patients—she continues to give.”

Over the past four years, Jillian has participated in clinical cancer trials with new therapies that have kept her cancer in check. When it spread to her brain a couple of years ago, she had whole-brain and CyberKnife radiation. Then she was put on new medication that can cross the blood brain barrier, which her regular chemotherapy couldn’t do. The medication halted new tumour growths in her brain. Her cancer is not getting better, but it’s not getting worse, either.

“I’m happy to stay status quo, because there is nothing I want to do that I can’t do right now,” said Jillian.“Status quo—I’m good with that. I feel great. I don’t have aches or pains or anything. I don’t have time to think about how I feel.”

Jillian sits on the floor laughing and playing with her three children. She looks at the little doll her daughter Myla shows her, and hands a ball to Landon. “I really think it’s the kids. They have so much to do with it, because they are so great. They are so fun. They keep me really busy and that’s half the fun. By the time I go to bed at night, I don’t think about cancer. I don’t think about tests coming up. I don’t think about that stuff because I’m too tired. So I think that is helpful.”

Dr. Clemons agrees.

“She is a gem, and her attitude of living life with true meaning is a humbling lesson for all of us,” said Dr. Clemons. “Too many people in society spend too much time moaning about the trivial, as well as things they can’t do anything about. Life is for living, and Jillian encourages people to do that—live!”

Whether it’s thanks to the innovative new treatment she receives or her uber-positive attitude, Jillian has surpassed the original two-year diagnosis by two-and-a-half years.

Dr. Clemons told her, “Whatever you’re doing, keep on doing it—obviously it’s working for you.”

And it is.


We need your help today to give patients like Jillian more time, more memories, more hope. Support our cancer clinical trial research today and help us develop new ways to treat this devastating disease.

More Great Stories of #TOHMOMS

Brain tumour diagnosis leads mom down unimaginable path 
In 2016, Natasha Lewis was diagnosed with a brain tumour and her quality of life began to deteriorate. She was be cared for at The Ottawa Hospital – the only hospital in the region that could help her because of the complexity of her diagnosis.  
Astonishing recovery after minimally invasive brain surgery
With a tumour on his pituitary gland, John Fairchild was preparing for the worst when minimally invasive brain surgery saved his life.
‘I walked through my darkest fears and came out the other side.’
It would be a routine mammogram, which would turn Annette Gibbons’ world upside down. The Associate Deputy Minister in Agriculture and Agrifood Canada would soon begin her breast cancer journey but she put her complete trust in her medical team at The Ottawa Hospital.

Clinical trial  means new options for colorectal cancer patients

When Sandy Patenaude’s MRI showed that her colorectal cancer had spread to her liver and lungs, she was asked to participate in a clinical trial of a cancer stem cell inhibitor drug. In Sandy’s case, the drug successfully prevented her cancer from growing.  As a result, doctors  are able to determine which patients might benefit  from the drug.

Three years ago, Sandy Patenaude was given the devastating news that she had stage 4 colorectal cancer. It had spread to her liver and lungs, and was inoperable. Sandy’s oncologist asked if she would like to go on a clinical trial, testing a new cancer stem cell inhibitor drug along with her chemotherapy.

“Cancer stem cell inhibitors, why not?” said Sandy who agreed to be part of the trial.

Dr. Derek Jonker, Medical Oncologist at The Ottawa Hospital, is leading the international trial for people with colorectal cancer, with the experimental drug napabucasin. He explained that cancer stem cells are the rare, immature cells in a tumour, which are often resistant to chemotherapy. They can give rise to the more mature cancer cells that make up the bulk of a tumour. Cancer stem cells are not the same as the normal stem cells that live in many healthy adult tissues and help with healing and repair.

“With chemotherapy, we can deliver treatment that can shrink the vast part of the cancer,” said Dr. Jonker, who is also an associate professor at the University of Ottawa. “Often the bulk of the tumour disappears, but what’s left is a small tumour with lots of these chemo-resistant cancer stem cells, which are able to spread and seed other places in the body. Often, we keep giving the same chemotherapy and find the tumour has regrown, but it’s not the same tumour it was when we started.”

Dr. Derek Jonker
Dr. Derek Jonker led a clinical trial for colorectal cancer with a cancer stem cell inhibiting drug that has helped Sandy Patenaude.

Dr. Jonker is switching up the treatment to target the  cancer stem  cells that aren’t affected by standard chemo. In a previous randomized  clinical  trial he led , patients either  received a placebo or  napabucasin  to test its effectiveness at  inhibiting, or preventing,  the growth of the  cancer stem cells. The trial was carried out at  40  sites in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. The  562  patients enrolled had advanced colorectal cancer  and chemotherapy no longer worked for them.

Looking at the results of the trial, Dr. Jonker said  they didn’t see much benefit in the group overall. “But when we looked at patients who had a  tumour  that  had characteristics of a high cancer stem cell (phospho-STAT3) over expression there was very significant improvement in their survival.”

Dr. Jonker presented his findings in October 2016 at the European Society for Medical Oncology, showing that where the cancer stem cell inhibitor didn’t work in all patients, there was an improvement in the survival of the 22 percent of patients who had  tumours  with high phospho-STAT3.  He said it’s “proof of principle that stem cells are an important target for cancer patients.” Napabucasin is now being combined in the  current trial  with chemotherapy to attack the cancer on two fronts  at the same time.

“We know  with results of the clinical trial that  the majority of  patients did not respond to it, but we have two patients here in Ottawa who  have responded and definitely developed benefit from the clinical agent,” said  medical oncologist Dr. Christine Cripps.

Sandy Patenaude outdoors

“I thought I’d be part of the trial, because I thought well, it’s new.”

Sandy is one of those patients who benefited.  Her tumours shrank,  and the surgeons were able to remove spots in her liver and the primary  tumour in her rectum.  Dr. Cripps said she believes that part of the success in keeping Sandy’s cancer at bay is the napabucasin she is taking as part of  the  clinical trial.

“A stem cell inhibitor works differently than traditional chemotherapy, in that it prevents new disease from  appearing,” said  Saara  Ali, research coordinator for clinical trials in gastrointestinal cancers. “The hope is that the pill [napabucasin] will prevent new disease from showing. And in Sandy’s case there hasn’t been new disease  since her treatment. Everything was there before, so it may be doing its job.”

Next steps: Dr. Jonker hopes to start  another clinical trial with the cancer stem cell inhibitor that will be used specifically for patients who have lots of phospho-STAT3 in their  tumour. These patients could be identified for the clinical trial with molecular testing, using The Ottawa Hospital’s Molecular Oncology Diagnostics lab.  This would target the patients presumed to be the most likely to benefit most from the drug.

“We would repeat our study, randomize those patients with  napabucasin  and a placebo, and if we can prove that  napabucasin is effective for them, then it would be an option for patients who have run out of all other treatment options,” said Dr. Jonker.

Dr. Cripps said that Sandy is a candidate for this next trial,  and her tumours  will be analyzed by the molecular lab to see  whether she has high phospho-STAT3 cancer stem cell expression. Regardless, Sandy will continue using the trial drug as long as it is working for her. And it is working. The mother of three adult children said  she’s busy doing a million things, playing euchre, the ukulele, skiing, hiking, biking, and enjoying life.


The Ottawa Hospital is raising funds for clinical trials,  because  research has proven to be the best way to improve treatments and even find cures for cancer and other devastating diseases.

More Great Stories

‘I walked through my darkest fears and came out the other side.’
It would be a routine mammogram, which would turn Annette Gibbons’ world upside down. The Associate Deputy Minister in Agriculture and Agrifood Canada would soon begin her breast cancer journey but she put her complete trust in her medical team at The Ottawa Hospital.
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Robert Noseworthy was diagnosed with a childhood leukemia at the age of 30. This was rare for someone his age and his prognosis was grim. 30 years later, he gives back to cancer research through THE RIDE with his grown children by his side.

Natural killer cells could be immunotherapy game-changer

Scientists have known that key molecules on cancer cells suppress the immune T-cells and prevent them from attacking the cancer. Dr. Ardolino discovers other immune cells, called killer cells, that could offer more immunotherapy treatment options.

Although the connection between the immune system and cancer has been recognized for over a century, understanding how the immune system works against cancer has been the biggest challenge for scientists like Dr. Michele Ardolino.

Initially, efforts were made to stimulate the immune system to make it attack the cancer. But the game-changer was the discovery that there are key molecules, called immune checkpoints, on cancer cells that suppress the immune cells and prevent them from attacking the cancer. There are many types of immune cells. T-cells have been recognized as key immune cells and the ones that immunotherapy drugs have been designed to target.

Dr. Michele Ardolino in his lab
Dr. Michele Ardolino’s discovery focused on ‘natural killer’ immune cells.

“What we didn’t know before is that some of these receptors are present in other immune cells,” said Dr. Michele Ardolino, scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. “What we discovered is that these receptors are present on another type of immune cell called natural killer cells.”

He said that even though most of the immunotherapy drugs target the T-cells to make them work better, not all cancer tumours are responsive to T-cells.

“But,” said Dr. Ardolino, “These tumours might be very effectively killed by natural killer cells. So, if we know what kind of tumour the patient has, we can design therapies to elicit the most effective immune response. Which in some cases could be a T-cell response and in other cases could be a natural killer response.”

“We now have a better idea of how the immune system suppresses cancer. This means that we can now target the mechanism that suppresses the immune system in a more specific way.”

“This is cool for a number of reasons,” said Dr. Ardolino. “We now have a better idea of how the immune system suppresses cancer. This means that we can now target the mechanism that suppresses the immune system in a more specific way. And we can elicit a stronger natural killer cell response against cancer.”

It is becoming widely recognized that not only is cancer unique to each patient, but the immune system is also unique to each person. Researchers and clinicians are realizing the importance of tailoring the immunotherapy not only to each person’s cancer but to their own unique immune system. It is a complex problem to give a drug that would have maximum therapeutic effect with the least side effects, to be as targeted as possible.

Dr. Ardolino recently published a breakthrough discovery that has potential to make immunotherapy treatments to work for more people, and more types of cancers.

In October 2018, immunologists James Allison and Tasuku Honjo were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their discoveries of immune checkpoint inhibitors, considered a landmark in the fight against cancer.


The Ottawa Hospital is raising funds for clinical trials, as research has proven to be the best way to improve treatments and even find cures for cancer and other devastating diseases.

More Great Stories

‘I walked through my darkest fears and came out the other side.’
It would be a routine mammogram, which would turn Annette Gibbons’ world upside down. The Associate Deputy Minister in Agriculture and Agrifood Canada would soon begin her breast cancer journey but she put her complete trust in her medical team at The Ottawa Hospital.
A double-life — living with kidney disease
Nearly 15 years after a kidney transplant, June Jones’ kidneys failed. She is back on dialysis — and a Canada-wide wait list for a new kidney.
My why is you
Robert Noseworthy was diagnosed with a childhood leukemia at the age of 30. This was rare for someone his age and his prognosis was grim. 30 years later, he gives back to cancer research through THE RIDE with his grown children by his side.