“Exemplary” HIV and prostate cancer treatment spans decades

Lorne Blahut

Lorne Blahut thought he was going to die when he first came to The Ottawa Hospital in 2000. He had just been diagnosed with HIV.

“A couple of years ago, my doctor, Stephen Kravcik, told me, ‘You better start planning for your retirement, because you’re not going to die,’” said Lorne. The 65-year-old retired five years ago from a career at Canada Mortgage and Housing.

Lorne’s original fears of dying were well founded. In the 1980s, the Guinness Book of Records listed HIV/AIDs as the most lethal disease on the planet. Then research changed the outcome.

“Certainly, the mid-90s was the heyday of HIV research when new drugs were developed. The Ottawa Hospital group did revolutionary research led by Drs. Bill Cameron and Jonathan Angel,” said Dr. Kravcik, who came to The Ottawa Hospital in 1994 specifically to do HIV research and clinical trials for new drugs under the guidance of Dr. Cameron. He said at that time about 125 of their HIV patients passed away every year. Today, HIV is no longer a death sentence.

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

However, 18 years ago when Lorne was first diagnosed, though more people were living longer with HIV/AIDS thanks to the antiretroviral medications, it wasn’t a disease people lived for decades with.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lorne said the numerous levels of care he received during his treatment in the early years helped him cope with having an illness that is so stigmatized. He also benefit greatly from the research conducted at the hospital, and the antiretroviral drugs developed over the years to keep the disease in remission. Lorne survived. He actually lived long enough to develop another life-threatening disease, one often associated with older men – prostate cancer.

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

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

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

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

Liane said she meets with individuals diagnosed with prostate cancer to help them prepare for their surgery and recovery, and go over any issues they are concerned about.

“Among other things, sexual health is certainly an important topic for every man dealing with prostate cancer,” said Liane. “Lorne talked about sexual health. Subsequently, there was an important message he wanted to give to Dr. Morash. I was able to do that.”

Her advocacy on his behalf led to a positive pre-operation discussion with Dr. Morash who better addressed Lorne’s concernsIn February 2018, Lorne underwent three-hour robotic surgery. He is recovering well, and back to enjoying retirement.

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

Lorne is not alone in suffering emotional stress of diagnoses and treatment for such devastating diseases as HIV and prostate cancer. Many gay men go through similar experiences. But Lorne is also trailblazing a new domain in health care.

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

The Ottawa Hospital is establishing a Research Chair in Gay Men’s Health to create a comprehensive health-care agenda that will help improve access to, and delivery of gay-relevant health care for men of all ages. Help ensure all gay men receive excellent care by supporting The Ottawa Hospital’s efforts to become the leading expert in gay men’s health care.

For more information contact: Margot Lefebvre, Senior Development Officer, Philanthropy, 613-798-5555, ext. 19819, [email protected]

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