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

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

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

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

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

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

Kimberly Mountain at The Ottawa Hospital

Awake brain surgery

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

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

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

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

Transformational technology

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

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

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

Oncologist reveals brain tumour is cancerous

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

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

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

.Kimberly Mountain

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

Kim Mountain and her family as she rings the bell.

Through a mother’s eyes

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

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

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

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

 

Kimberly Mountain

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

Cancer survivor nine years later

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

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

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

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

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

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Undeniable gratitude from a young mom and her family

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

Exceptional care makes young mother want to give back

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paying it forward

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

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

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

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

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

Research is transforming care

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

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

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

Gina proudly displaying their fundraising calendar.

Excellence in care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A second chance after dire lung cancer diagnosis

At the age of 47 and with no risk factors, Andrea Redway was ‘shocked beyond belief’ when diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. The Ottawa Hospital was ready.

Immunotherapy provides a second chance after dire lung cancer diagnosis

As a lawyer, Andrea Redway has worked on international initiatives relating to justice reform. She’s travelled the world tackling big projects and has always been ready to face new challenges head-on—but nothing could have prepared Andrea for a stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis. This diagnosis rocked her world and left her wondering how long she would survive.

The first signs of trouble appeared in January 2015 when Andrea developed a cough that persisted. In March, she left on a work trip abroad. It was an exciting career opportunity with the added bonus of being able to bring her husband and two children, who were 8 and 11 at the time. Three weeks after returning home, the cough continued and she couldn’t shake her jet lag. “Usually I’m over jet lag in a week. I was still so exhausted, and thought maybe I had pneumonia,” recalls Andrea.

“Here I was, 47 years old and I had no risk factors. I would never
have thought that I could get lung cancer.” – Andrea Redway

Grim diagnosis

With no family doctor, she went to a walk-in clinic and was prescribed antibiotics. Within a few days, she started noticing other symptoms. “I had strange pains in my leg and then some cramping in my abdomen. The exhaustion continued.”

Andrea received a referral to a family doctor and an x-ray was ordered. The results showed a large mass on her lung. Within a week, she received the grim diagnosis—stage 4 lung cancer. The cancer had already spread to her bones, adrenal glands, brain and there were early signs of it in her colon. She was shocked beyond belief. “Here I was, 47 years old and I had no risk factors. I would never have thought that I could get lung cancer.”

Andrea Redway and family
Andrea, husband Michael Cayley, with their two children in Tofino, B.C. post diagnosis.

All Andrea and her husband could think about was getting on treatment right away. She had to, for the sake of her children.

She was referred to Dr. Garth Nicholas, an oncologist at The Ottawa Hospital and began chemotherapy treatment along with a small amount of radiation. Six weeks later, a scan revealed the chemotherapy was only partially working.

 

Dr. Garth Nicholas at The Ottawa Hospital
Dr. Garth Nicholas is an oncologist at The Ottawa Hospital

 

Clinging to life

Dr. Nicholas was aware of a new clinical trial, published in the New England Journal of Medicine. It was an immunotherapy treatment specifically used to treat stage 4 lung cancer, but it wasn’t yet available in Canada. He applied for the compassionate care program with the drug company and Andrea was given one dose of the drug, Nivolumab. Today, Nivolumab is now routinely used to treat many people with lung cancer. It is also used to treat other cancers, most notably melanoma.

But Andrea’s cancer continued to progress and she became very sick. Back in hospital, it was discovered that she had a perforated bowel. She recalls the situation being dire, “I needed emergency surgery or that was going to be the end of the line for me.”

Given the progression of Andrea’s cancer, it was uncertain if surgery was a viable option, but her care team at The Ottawa Hospital wanted to give Andrea the chance to have more time with her family. “Dr. Guillaume Martel, who is my saviour, did the surgery. Here I am today as a result,” says Andrea.

Once she recovered from surgery, Andrea was able to resume treatment to take on the cancer, which had ravaged her body. One month later, she received her second dose of immunotherapy. “I continued with immunotherapy for about two years. I completed my treatment in September 2017 and I’ve been great ever since.”

“Everything else is gone. It’s amazing—totally amazing. With little kids, we’ve had so many special moments since then.” – Andrea Redway

Eight months after starting treatment, Andrea’s scan showed the cancer was gone from outside of her lungs and the primary tumour on her lung had shrunk to about half. “When the tumour showed up on the scan originally, it was six centimeters. Now, it’s about 2.5 centimeters. It’s been described as mostly necrotic or dead.”

Transformational results

While Andrea did experience side effects like fatigue, dry eyes and joint pain, she says it was a small price to pay because immunotherapy was a game changer. “Everything else is gone. It’s amazing—totally amazing. With little kids, we’ve had so many special moments since then.”

Dr. Nicholas explains how much cancer treatment has improved in just four years since Andrea’s initial diagnosis. “Immunotherapy has become a standard part of the treatment of lung cancer over the past four years or so. There are rare patients like Andrea for whom it is an extraordinarily effective treatment, much better than any other therapy we’ve had in the past.”

However, Dr. Nicholas adds that not every lung cancer patient has a positive response like Andrea, and more research needs to be done. “There is a lot of ongoing research into why some tumours respond to immunotherapy while others do not, and whether we can do anything to alter non-responding tumours in order to make them respond.”

Today, Andrea continues to embrace those special moments, grateful to be watching her children grow.

 

You can help give all patients like Andrea hope by supporting life-saving research at The Ottawa Hospital today.

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Margaret's Gift

Ovarian cancer claimed Margaret Craig’s life. Now her generous gift is opening new doors to preventing the disease. Margaret knew research would ultimately provide the solution to ovarian cancer. Her donation through her will is opening new doors to preventing the disease that claimed her life.

In late 2019, an ovarian cancer study that took place at The Ottawa Hospital made headlines across Canada. It suggests that metformin, a medication commonly used to treat Type 2 diabetes, may hold promise for helping prevent ovarian cancer. This study was possible in part thanks to a retired Ottawa educator, Margaret Craig, who believed that research could beat the disease that would eventually take her life.

Margaret, who went by Peg to her family, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in Tucson, Arizona, just a few days before Christmas 2013.

She hadn’t been feeling well for a couple of months, but couldn’t quite pinpoint what was wrong, other than a failure to lose the couple of pounds she had gained, despite trying, and a slight swelling and firmness in her abdomen.

She decided to visit a walk-in-clinic after she had difficulty breathing. The clinic sent Margaret to an emergency department, where she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

The news left her reeling.

“Part of that was because I had to get back to Ottawa and it was Christmas,” she said in an interview in 2015. “But I got here. I caught a flight in a snowstorm on the busiest travel day of the year, December 22.”

Margaret immediately went to The Ottawa Hospital, where doctors confirmed the diagnosis. She began treatment in January.

“Peg would have been so happy with this result. It’s exactly the kind of cutting-edge research into ovarian cancer she would have wanted. It also gives me a sense of closure regarding Peg’s death.” — Holly Craig, Margaret’s sister

Margaret Craig

Margaret speaking at the Teas, Talks, and Tours symposium

Ovarian cancer hides in plain sight

“I have been told over and over again by the professionals that it is rare to detect ovarian cancer early,” said Margaret. “Mine was caught early enough that they could surgically remove everything that was over a centimeter.”

Margaret learned that there are often no obvious symptoms until the disease is advanced, and no reliable screening test to catch it early.

Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer in women, and among the deadliest, with a five-year survival rate of 45 percent. But researchers at The Ottawa Hospital, backed by the generosity of people like Margaret, are committed to changing these statistics for good.

Grateful for compassionate care

Margaret was so grateful for the compassionate treatment she received at The Ottawa Hospital that she was inspired to give back by investing in cancer research that could help people like her in the future.

She enlisted the help of her sister Holly Craig, a retired university professor and researcher living in Arizona. They spoke at length about Margaret’s desire to support innovative research in her will. Margaret asked Holly to find her a Canadian researcher who was doing groundbreaking work in ovarian cancer.

Holly identified Dr. Barbara Vanderhyden, a senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and the Corinne Boyer Chair in Ovarian Cancer Research at the University of Ottawa.

“It was clear that Dr. Vanderhyden was doing innovative research,” said Holly. “I liked her, and I liked her questions.”

Innovative research inspires gift in will

Holly flew to Ottawa to tour Dr. Vanderhyden’s lab with Margaret and learn more about her research. Margaret was particularly interested in Dr. Vanderhyden’s innovative and bold ideas. The visit convinced Margaret to make a gift in her will.

Dr. Vanderhyden sat with Margaret during her last chemotherapy treatment at The Ottawa Hospital, and was there when she rang the bell to mark the end of her treatment.

On June 2016, Dr. Vanderhyden invited Margaret to speak at an educational symposium called Teas, Talks and Tours she had organized for ovarian cancer patients and their families and friends.

“She was a private person, but she was willing to speak at Dr. Vanderhyden’s event,” said Holly. “That was a big step for her.”

Dr. Barbara Vanderhyden, The Ottawa Hospital
 Dr. Barbara Vanderhyden

At the symposium Margaret met Dr. Curtis McCloskey, a talented, capable young researcher on Dr. Vanderhyden’s research team who showed deep appreciation for her gift to research.

When Margaret reached her last few days, each day Dr. Vanderhyden would have one person on her team write a short story about the impact of Margaret’s donation on their work. Then Dr. Vanderhyden would send these daily stories to Margaret, so that she might be comforted by the legacy that she was leaving behind.

Margaret died from ovarian cancer in September of 2016, and Dr. Vanderhyden was asked to give the eulogy at her funeral.

Gift to cancer research bears fruit

Margaret’s generous gift has been put to good use. In 2019, Dr. McCloskey and Dr. Vanderhyden published a study that offers a new hypothesis about how ovarian cancer forms and suggests how it might be prevented.

The study is the first to show that the natural stiffening of the ovaries called fibrosis occurs with age. It also suggests that the diabetes drug metformin may be able to halt this process.

“We hope that someday metformin may prove to be an effective preventative treatment for younger women who are at high risk of ovarian cancer, but who can’t have their ovaries removed because they still want to have children,” said Dr. Vanderhyden. “We are so grateful to donors like Margaret who believe that research is the way forward.”

Holly and the rest of Margaret’s family are thrilled with the impact of Margaret’s gift.

“Peg would have been so happy with this result. It’s exactly the kind of cutting-edge research into ovarian cancer she would have wanted,” said Holly. “It also gives me a sense of closure regarding Peg’s death.”

Hospital staff with a banner thanking a patient

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

We need your help today to help stop cancer in its tracks.

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9,300 reasons to give

Together, we have the power to make a difference in the lives of our patients.

When faced with a global pandemic, our front-line healthcare workers faced COVID-19 head on and were there to keep our patients and our community safe.

But they need our help to push new discoveries and treatments forward. And to equip them with the latest tools and technology to save lives.

Help us reach our goal of 9,300 new donations in honour of every one of our extraordinary healthcare workers. And help them create a better tomorrow for all of us.