Devastated and shocked – that’s how Sindy Hooper and her family reacted to the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in 2013. Especially considering pancreatic cancer survivor rates are so low. The diagnosis came at a time when Sindy would have described herself as being in the best shape of her life. But suddenly, she was facing the fight of her life, and she looked to the specialized cancer treatment and research at The Ottawa Hospital to help her fight back.

In the months leading up to Sindy’s diagnosis, she had been feeling great. She had completed her first Ironman in August 2012, and that fall she was training to complete another one. Then, in December, she started experiencing discomfort in her upper abdomen and pain in her upper back. However, towards the end of the month her skin started to get very itchy, she became a lot more tired, and she started to lose a little bit of weight. The day before her diagnosis, she woke up and her eyes were yellow. She was jaundiced.

Sindy’s husband, Dr. Jon Hooper, an ICU physician at The Ottawa Hospital initially thought it could be gallstones. The couple headed to hospital unprepared for what they were about to learn. Later that day, an ultrasound would reveal it was pancreatic cancer. “We couldn’t believe the news. I was relatively young. I had just turned 50. I was in the best shape of my life. I had no family history of cancer whatsoever,” says Sindy. Even more alarming were the survival rate statistics.

An aggressive, potent cancer

The pancreas is part of the endocrine system, a group of glands and cells that make and release hormones into the blood, controlling growth, reproduction, sleep, hunger, and metabolism. The cells in the pancreas normally make and release digestive juices to help break down food.

Pancreatic cancer starts in the cells of the pancreas. A malignant tumour of the pancreas is a group of cancer cells that can grow into and destroy nearby tissue. It can also spread to other parts of the body. There has been little progress in the fight against pancreatic cancer in the last 40 years.

The five-year survival rate is only eight percent. The average survival is six months and 75 percent of the people diagnosed with this form of cancer die within the first year.

“We see what people are going through and how we need to do better than we’re doing so far. It gives us a focus and purpose because we know here’s an urgent need for new and better therapies.” – Dr. John Bell

Pancreatic cancers are resistant to most kinds of therapy. The cells have a biology that scientists don’t completely understand, which makes them hard to detect early and hard to treat with conventional kinds of therapies that are currently available. Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are working to offer hope to pancreatic cancer patients and while she didn’t realize it at the time, this would become very important to Sindy and her journey.

Ready for specialized care

With the alarming news of the diagnosis, Sindy prayed to make it to one year. Her team at The Ottawa Hospital developed a three-pronged care plan. “I am very thankful for having such amazing care close to home – really world-class care,” says Sindy.

The treatment would begin with Whipple surgery. “It’s a seven-hour operation – it’s huge. It can only be done in very specialized centres. I was very fortunate to have that done here in Ottawa.”

In fact, The Ottawa Hospital is one of the few hospitals in Canada to offer this type of surgery. It is used to remove tumours in the head of the pancreas or in the opening of the pancreatic duct. A team that specializes in surgery of the pancreas, liver, gallbladder, and bile duct work together to support the patient through the operation.

Sindy in hospital recovering from Whipple surgery.
Sindy in hospital recovering from Whipple surgery.

In Sindy’s case, the complex surgery removed half of her pancreas, half of her stomach, her gall bladder, bile duct, duodenum, and the tumour. She was in hospital for ten days and then recovered at home for the next five weeks. “Just as I started feeling better in mid-February, I started chemotherapy. I went through 18 rounds of chemo that took me to September. There was also 28 days of radiation in between,” remembers Sindy.

“Whipple surgery is a seven hour operation – it’s huge. It can only be done in very specialized centres. I was very fortunate to have that done here in Ottawa.”
– Sindy Hooper

She was able to withstand the effects of chemo and radiation very well. Her doctors attributed that to the great shape Sindy was in. It helped her power through the treatments. “Through all my treatments, I was still training for Ironman Canada.”

Powering through to Ironman Canada

Sindy Hooper competing in 2013 Ironman Canada during cancer treatment
Sindy crossing the finish line at Ironman Canada in 2013.

Feeling good, Sindy and Jon booked a trip to Whistler, B.C. to take on Ironman Canada in August 2013, even though Sindy was still undergoing chemo treatment. She wasn’t expecting to complete the biking or running portion, but Sindy felt she could tackle the 3.86 km swim. In fact, she not only finished the swim, but also the 180 km bike, and the marathon. “We started the marathon, and it was miraculous. I just felt so good that day. I had lots of energy.”

In the end, together, they finished the Ironman at 11:37 p.m. – 23 minutes before the cut off. But it was bigger than just crossing the finish line. Sindy’s incredible strength to power through an Ironman in the middle of chemotherapy treatment attracted significant media attention. She not only increased awareness for pancreatic cancer, but she also raised $50,000 for cancer research. “Completing the Ironman, raising awareness, and all that money was an absolute gift in the midst of everything I was going through,” says Sindy.

Fundraising for all cancer patients

That $50,000 was just the starting point for this crusader. Sindy has dedicated herself to fundraising for cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital since 2014 through Run for a Reason at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend. Her running team is the MEMC crew (Making Every Moment Count). She tries to instill her passion for life in other people and not take things for granted. Along the way, she’s raised over $225,400 for cancer research.

Sindy does it not only for herself but also for other patients. “Cancer research is going to one day save my life again, I’m sure of it.”

“Cancer research saves lives. That’s the bottom line. Whether it’s finding new treatments or early detection methods so cancers can be picked up earlier and treated more effectively – cancer research really does save lives.” – Sindy Hooper

Sindy running in support of cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital
Sindy participating at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend in support of The Ottawa Hospital.

For Dr. John Bell, a senior scientist, who’s been investigating this complicated disease for decades at The Ottawa Hospital, it’s patients like Sindy who inspire him and his team of researchers. “I’m really privileged to have a lab at the Cancer Centre. That means every day, I get to see the people we are trying to help, like Sindy, who we want to have a good quality of life and a long life.”

Dr. Bell adds it’s those patients who push him to find answers and that elusive cure.“We see what people are going through and how we need to do better than we’re doing so far. It gives us a focus and purpose because we know there’s an urgent need for new and better therapies.”

One way to find those answers is through clinical trials. And it’s not lost on Dr. Bell that the patients who participate are both courageous and altruistic. “Every patient seems to say the same thing when I speak with them: ‘I don’t know if this is going to work for me, but I hope you learn something from it so that I can help somebody else.’ That’s, really what we get inspired by, that sort of attitude. Sindy has that attitude for sure.”

Finding hope for pancreatic cancer patients

Sindy with Dr. John Bell at The Ottawa Hospital
Sindy meeting Dr. John Bell in his lab.

While treatment options for pancreatic cancer are still limited, there is hope. Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are leading the world in developing viruses that can attack cancer cells without harming normal cells. These viruses have been tested in clinical trials for other types of cancer, and Dr. Bell’s team is currently working in the laboratory to see if they can be customized for pancreatic cancer. Dr. Bell says that, “absolutely,” the findings from those previous trials could be used in future pancreatic cancer patients.

“It really is I think a burgeoning field, and I like to think we were critical in getting this started.”

As Sindy continues to put her faith in what this research will have to offer in the future, she has a simple message for Dr. Bell and his team. “Thank you for the work that you’re doing.”

“Keep working really hard because there’s a lot of people out there, like me, who are relying on research to find new, better treatments and hopefully one day a cure.”
– Sindy Hooper

2020 brings a new health concern

Even before the emergence of COVID-19, 2020 offered a new challenge to Sindy. On a flight to Hawaii, last winter she, started experiencing intense gastrointestinal pain. As soon as her flight landed, she went straight to the hospital and learned she had a partial obstruction in her GI tract. While she started to feel better, her surgeons back at The Ottawa Hospital encouraged her to return home as they were the best equipped to handle her complicated case should she develop another obstruction and she need surgery.

Back home, Sindy continued to have severe episodes of pain, developed a fever, and then a blood infection. By mid-April, COVID-19 had arrived in Ottawa and doctors were hesitant to operate, but the pain became so severe they had no choice.

Surgeons discovered a significant number of adhesions in the area of her obstructions and removed them. Sindy admits it was a stressful time being in hospital during a global pandemic. “It was so scary by myself – not having my husband there for me.”

Although, she gives credit to the incredible staff who were at her bedside for six days. “I have to say everybody was going above and beyond to make the patients feel comfortable during this time. I was impressed.”

Making plans for the future

Today, Sindy celebrates as a seven-year pancreatic cancer survivor and takes nothing for granted. After she got past that first year of survival, she prayed for two years of survival. “Every year that has passed is just completely incredible to me, Jon, and my sons.”

Every six months Sindy returns to The Ottawa Hospital for a CT scan. While it’s stressful waiting for the results, so far, each scan has resulted in good news, allowing Sindy and Jon to make plans for the next year.

Sindy biking at the International Triathlon Union
Competing at the ITU (International Triathlon Union) Olympic Distance World Championship in Cozumel, Mexico in 2016.

This year, that plan included welcoming a new member of the family – Lexey, a French Bulldog – filling their home with joy. Sindy’s plans also include more running, swimming, and biking. She’s feeling strong again after her surgery, back to training for a 50 km Ultramarines Run in November and a triathlon next summer. She continues to look to the future.

“I’m just so amazed to be defying these odds and to get to continue living, enjoying and loving life.” – Sindy Hooper

You could say that Sindy is making every moment count.

Listen to Sindy Hooper’s story in her own words during a guest appearance on Pulse: The Ottawa Hospital Foundation Podcast.

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

George was faithful when it came to his annual health checkups and was fortunate enough to have always been relatively healthy. For that reason, he didn’t think too much of it when his prostate-specific antigen (PSA) numbers started to creep up. But his family doctor referred him to The Ottawa Hospital where he met urologist Dr. Brian Blew who ordered a biopsy. The results were shocking – prostate cancer. It was the beginning of a health journey George never anticipated, finding himself at the centre of a cancer battle under the care of an exceptional team of doctors, nurses, and radiotherapists. Now, more than a year later, George is a proud monthly donor to the hospital, determined to give back through philanthropy and volunteering his time to help other patients.

Shocking news

George and Maria on vacation
George and Maria on vacation.

In April 2019, George and his wife Maria, had just returned from an annual trip to Mexico when he received the news that the biopsy results showed he had prostate cancer. George’s PSA levels had always been on the higher side and the recent increase could very well have been a result of aging, so he was shocked to learn that he had intermediate risk prostate cancer. Dr. Blew offered George two options: have the prostate removed surgically or undergo radiation. George wanted to act quickly and felt radiation was his best course of action. “I wanted to get on this right away, so I immediately started radiation. I had 20 treatments in total. I felt very fortunate because I know some men need to have more.” said George.

“We have a rare gem of a facility here in Ottawa and by giving, I know it will help future patients receive the same level of care I received.” – George Knight

Compassionate care

George was grateful for the quick treatment and for how well he was taken care of. “I had excellent care from all of my doctors. Dr. Blew, Dr. Alain Haddad, and Dr. J.M. Bourque, and all of the nurses and radiotherapists. They were all absolutely amazing. I couldn’t have asked for any better.” While he was understandably worried, his care team quickly put him at ease.

George Knight
George Knight

Following his radiation, George is feeling better than ever. He is back to doing his many hobbies and he and Maria are back at the yoga studio where he practices twice a week. “I feel 100% — better than I’ve felt in a long time. I have more energy now and my PSA numbers are back in an acceptable range. I got very lucky. I’m feeling wonderful.”

“George’s donation will allow us to continue to develop the best tools for assessment and treatment.” – Dr. Blew

Accordingly, he thinks the excellent care he received helped him get back to good health quickly, and he wants his story to encourage others to get checked. “We caught it really early so that made a really big difference. Now I nag my male friends that are over 50 years old to go and get checked. They hum and haw but it’s important because sometimes you feel fine, even when you aren’t,” said George.

Dr. Blew is quick to echo the importance of regular screening. “Mr. Knight was very knowledgeable about PSA screening and understood a high PSA is not always due to prostate cancer but requires assessment to determine if treatment is needed instead of monitoring. George’s donation will allow us to continue to develop the best tools for assessment and treatment.”

Turning gratitude into action

The care George received has inspired him to sign up to be a volunteer at the hospital, something he has never done before. “I saw a quote online by Jim Rohn that said, ‘Only by giving are you able to receive more than you already have’ and it really struck a chord with me. This is why I need to give back.” In this same spirit, he has also decided to become a monthly donor. “I trusted the hospital with my health and now I trust it with my support. I want the hospital to have regular support that they can count on. We have a rare gem of a facility here in Ottawa and by giving, I know it will help future patients receive the same level of care I received.”

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

When Lorne Blahut was diagnosed with HIV in 2000, he thought he was going to die. But experts at The Ottawa Hospital, armed with incredible advances in research, had a different plan. Then in 2017, he again found himself face-to-face with another significant health scare — prostate cancer. But Lorne knew he was in good hands.

“Several years ago, my doctor, Stephen Kravcik, told me, ‘You better start planning for your retirement, because you’re not going to die,’” said Lorne. And he was right. The 67-year-old retired 7 years ago from a career at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

Lorne’s original fears of dying when first diagnosed with HIV were well founded. It is estimated that more than 32 million people have died from HIV since the early 1980s and the high fatality rates from early-on in the epidemic remained staggering for years. But then research turned the tide.

Excellence in research

“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. 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.” – Dr. Stephen Kravcik

Lorne Blahut grateful for care received at The Ottawa Hospital
Lorne Blahut grateful for care received at The Ottawa Hospital

When Lorne was first diagnosed 20 years ago, patients diagnosed with HIV/AIDS were living longer thanks to the antiretroviral medications, but it wasn’t common for patients to survive for decades.

“Being diagnosed was a horrific shock,” said Lorne. “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, it was 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.

Helping patients navigate their disease

Dr. Kravcik
Dr. Stephen Kravcik

“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, with 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.” – Lorne Blahut

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 benefited greatly from the research conducted at the hospital, and the antiretroviral drugs developed over the years to keep the disease in remission. Lorne survived. Then he suddenly found himself faced with another life-threatening disease – 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.

Minimally-invasive robotic procedure

Lorne read up on the two prostate cancer surgery options before deciding that the robotic surgery, 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 it 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.

The da Vinci Surgical System is a state-of-the-art robotic system
The da Vinci Surgical System, a state-of-the-art robotic system

“What particularly struck me when comparing the two surgeries was the recovery. The 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.”

Preparing for surgeryThe da Vinci Surgical System used in robotic surgeries

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 and some might 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 meets with individuals diagnosed with prostate cancer to help them prepare for their surgery and recovery and to talk through any of their concerns.  Her advocacy on Lorne’s behalf led to a positive pre-operation discussion with Dr. Morash who better addressed Lorne’s concerns.  In February 2018, Lorne underwent three-hour robotic surgery. He recovered well and is back to enjoying retirement.

World-class care, right here at home

“I moved here in 1992.  When I retired seven 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 healthcare 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 certainly not alone in navigating through the diagnoses and treatment of HIV and prostate cancer. Many men go through similar experiences with these diseases. But when it comes to HIV, Lorne is also trailblazing a new domain in healthcare.

“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 healthcare system.”

The Ottawa Hospital is establishing a Research Chair in Gay Men’s Health to create a comprehensive healthcare agenda that will help improve access to, and delivery of gay-relevant healthcare for men of all ages.

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.

Awake brain surgery

Kimberly Mountain at The Ottawa Hospital

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 Mountain

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.

Kimberly Mountain

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.”

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 ten 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.

Hear Kimberly Mountain on Pulse: The Ottawa Hospital Foundation Podcast.

REthinking Clinical Trials (REaCT) is a unique research program aimed at improving the lives of people with cancer through patient-centred, pragmatic clinical trials.

Based at The Ottawa Hospital, the REaCT program engages patients and their loved ones in research every step of the way, from generating ideas to setting priorities to designing studies and sharing results.

Unlike most cancer clinical trials, which are focused on evaluating experimental treatments in a very narrow patient population, REaCT trials compare standard approved treatments in a real-world setting with a broad range of patients. In this way, REaCT trials can efficiently answer some of the most important questions for cancer patients and the health care system.

REaCT is the largest pragmatic cancer clinical trials program in Canada, with more than 2,700 patients participating in 17 clinical trials at 15 centres in Canada.

Gina Mertikas-Lavictoire grateful for her care at The Ottawa Hospital

“We are helping the future generation with every trial we do. I’m so thankful I was part of this trial.”

— Gina Mertikas-Lavictoire, REaCT trial participant

“Being diagnosed is pretty lifechanging. You feel for other women who are going through this, and so I wanted to give back for the care I was receiving to help other women. I was open to any treatment that was new and innovative. The REaCT trial procedures were straightforward and easy to understand.”

— Connie Chartrand, breast cancer patient, participated in three REaCT clinical trials

Surgeon-scientist Dr. Rebecca Auer is leading a world-first clinical trial that she hopes will protect cancer patients from COVID-19 and other respiratory infections by boosting their immune systems during treatment. The trial was funded in part thanks to donor support to the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund.

“A cancer diagnosis is scary at the best of times, but the pandemic has made it even worse,” said Dr. Auer, surgical oncologist and Director of Cancer Research at The Ottawa Hospital and associate professor at the University of Ottawa. “Cancer patients have weakened immune systems, which makes them more likely to get severely ill from COVID-19.”

At best, a severe infection could delay a patient’s cancer treatment. At worst, it could kill them.

Patients receiving cancer treatments are the most at risk because the treatments further weaken their immune system. This at-risk population is quite large – over 90,000 people received radiotherapy or chemotherapy treatments in Ontario alone in 2019.

“While there are many specific vaccines for COVID-19 in the works, they won’t be available for at least a year. Cancer patients need protection now.” – Dr. Rebecca Auer

Boosting the immune system during treatment

Dr. Auer and her team at The Ottawa Hospital came up with the idea of testing whether boosting cancer patients’ immune systems during their treatment could help prevent COVID-19 and other respiratory infections. In collaboration with scientists at the Ontario Institute of Cancer Research, they explored an immune-stimulator called IMM-101. Then she worked with Canadian Cancer Trials Group at Queen’s University to design and run the clinical trial at nine cancer centres across Canada.

The researchers will recruit 1,500 patients currently receiving cancer treatment to this clinical trial. Patients will be randomly assigned to receive either regular care, or regular care plus IMM-101. This preparation of harmless heat-killed bacteria had been developed as an anti-cancer therapy because it stimulates the immune system. It has already been safely given to 300 advanced cancer patients in earlier trials.

Training the innate immune system

Dr. Rebecca Auer speaks with a colleague
Dr. Rebecca Auer speaks with a colleague (Photo taken before COVID-19)

This trial takes advantage of a lesser-known aspect of the immune system — innate immunity. This first-response arm of the immune system plays a key role in detecting viruses.

Innate immune cells recognize features that are common to many viruses, allowing them to attack viruses the body has never seen before. This is different from the adaptive immune system, which only recognizes viruses the body has already encountered through prior infection or through a vaccine.

The research team hopes that because the IMM-101 treatment can train the patient’s innate immune system, it will help to fight off the COVID-19 virus, in addition to other viruses that cause respiratory infections.

“There is good data to suggest that the reason some people have no symptoms from COVID-19 while others get very sick is their innate immune system’s ability to respond early and quickly to the virus. This made us consider whether we could use an innate immune booster to prevent COVID-19 infections.” – Dr. Rebecca Auer

Based on data from other immune stimulators, it’s likely that this immune-boost would be temporary. But researchers hope it will last long enough to get a patient through their cancer treatments. Once the treatments have ended, the patient’s immune system would return to its regular strength and be strong enough to fight off viruses on its own.

Protection from more than COVID-19

The advantage of this immune-boosting approach is that it could help cancer patients fight off all sorts of viruses while they are undergoing cancer treatments and are at their most vulnerable.

“The treatment we’re using trains the immune system to do a better job fighting the next viral infection,” said Dr. Auer. “It’s not specific to COVID-19, but actually applies to any viral respiratory illness.”

If successful, IMM-101 could also offer benefits to people with other chronic illnesses or compromised immune systems who are similarly at a heightened risk of serious outcomes from COVID-19. It could also help protect people with cancer from other respiratory infections like the seasonal flu.

Preparing for future pandemics

“In 20 years, we’ve had three coronavirus epidemics or pandemics –SARS, MERS and COVID-19—so it’s likely that we’ll see another,” said Dr. Auer.

“We think harnessing innate immunity could be one of our best weapons for fighting COVID-19 and could be easily adapted to tackle future pandemics.” – Dr. Rebecca Auer

Donate today to support promising research and clinical trials like this one.

Cancer patients undergoing active treatment who are interested in participating in this trial should speak with their cancer specialist.

The Ottawa Hospital Foundation provided seed funding for this project through the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund, funded by generous donors in the community. Read about other projects that have received funding thanks to donor support and are making a difference in the fight against COVID-19.

Additional funding and in-kind support for this trial have been provided by the Canadian Cancer Society, BioCanRx, the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, The Ottawa Hospital Academic Medical Organization, ATGen NK Max Canada, and Immodulon Therapeutics, the manufacturer of IMM-101.

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

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

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

“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 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.

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.

Canadian artist Darlene Kulig has teamed up with BYOM to create fine art fashion graphic face masks.

For each mask sold, $10 will be donated to the Craig Kulig Memorial Fund supporting Cancer Research at The Ottawa Hospital.

Dragon Fly New Dawn Mask

Children’s masks are also available:

Bear Tracks
Flower Power kids mask
Starry Mountain kids face mask

Learn more about the Craig Kulig Memorial Fund supporting cancer research

Darlene’s signature style is described as semi-abstracted spirited landscape and her love of the beauty available in the Canadian landscape is clear. What is especially impressive is that she has developed a unique very personal approach that “feels” Canadian and is utterly joyful.

Darlene’s award winning work has been featured in North American publications and Global Affairs Canada has installed a selection of Kulig Canadian Landscapes in Canadian Embassies buildings around the world. The Mayo clinic has Darlene’s work hanging in the Rochester Clinic and Pomegranate Communications has licensed Darlene’s work in their international product line.

A member of the Etobicoke Art Group and Neilson Park Creative Centre where she studies and paints, you can find her work in galleries across Canada and the United States as well as private collections around the world.

Darlene also has cards for sale – with $15 going to the Craig Kulig Memorial Fund

Hope despite aggressive skin cancer diagnosis

Diagnosed with a stage 4 melanoma at the age of 62, Dan Collins feared for his life when he learned about the aggressive form of cancer. However, immunotherapy treatment gave him a reason to hold out hope. Dan had hope because of scientists who never gave up; who were determined to turn the tables on cancer and to create a better chance of survival, for patients like him. Hope that a cure is coming.

Discovery of a mass

Four years ago, Dan had been travelling for work, when he started noticing some pain when he’d lean his head back to rest on the plane. He recalls turning to his family doctor to get answers. An ultrasound revealed there was something inside the back of his head that looked like a cyst.

After an initial biopsy, Dan was referred to a surgeon at The Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre. Another biopsy revealed the cyst was actually a mass. It was melanoma. “I was scared. Cancer had stripped my family of so much. I lost both of my two older brothers and my father to cancer. I feared for my life,” recalls Dan.

Unfortunately, the mass starting growing – and it was growing fast. By the end of July, just two months later, the mass went from being not visible on the back of his head, to the size of a golf ball.

His surgical oncologist, Dr. Stephanie Obaseki-Johnson, initially wanted to shrink the tumour before surgery to remove it. However, the mass was growing too quickly.

Oncologist Dr. Michael Ong of The Ottawa Hospital in a patient room.
Dan Collins with Oncologist Dr. Michael Ong.

Time to act

On August 11, 2015, Dan had surgery that lasted most of the day. When it was over, he had 25 staples and 38 stitches in the back of his head. As he recovered, Dan was reminded of a saying that helped him through recovery, “Never be ashamed of your scars. It just means you were stronger than whatever tried to hurt you.”

He would need that strength with the news that awaited him. Only two weeks later, the mass was back. His doctors also discovered a mass in his right lung and shadows in the lining of his belly. He had stage 4 cancer – it had metastasized. This was an aggressive cancer that left Dan thinking about the family he had already lost and what would happen to him.

The next generation of treatment

Soon, he was introduced to The Ottawa Hospital’s Dr. Michael Ong and was told about immunotherapy – the next generation of treatment, with the hope of one day eliminating traditional and sometimes harsh treatment like chemotherapy. Dr. Ong prescribed four high doses of immunotherapy. At the same time, radiation treatment began for Dan – 22 in all. His immunotherapy treatments were three weeks apart at the Cancer Centre and between each, he would have an x-ray to monitor the tumours.

“Each x-ray showed the tumours were getting smaller. That’s when the fear started shifting to hope.” – Dan Collins, patient

By December 2015, Dan finished immunotherapy treatment and the next step was to wait. “This transformational treatment was designed to train my own immune system to attack the cancer. We would have to be patient to see if my system would do just that,” says Dan.

While the shadows in Dan’s stomach lining had shrunk, the mass in his lung had not. That’s when Dr. Ong prescribed another immunotherapy drug that would require 24 treatments.

Dan learned from his oncologist that melanoma has gone from being an extremely lethal cancer, with few treatment options, to having many different effective therapies available.

“When I started as an oncologist a decade ago, melanoma was essentially untreatable. Only 25 percent would survive a year. Yet now, we can expect over three quarters of patients to be alive at one year. Many patients are cured of their metastatic cancer and come off treatment. We are now able to prevent 50 percent of high-risk melanoma from returning because of advances in immunotherapy,” says Dr. Ong.

Dan completed his last immunotherapy treatments in September 2017.

Oncologist Dr. Michael Ong posing with armed crossed at The Ottawa Hospital.
Oncologist Dr. Michael Ong of The Ottawa Hospital.

Today, there is no sign of cancer

When Dan thinks back to the day of his diagnosis, he remembers wondering if he was going to die. “I believe I’m here today because of research and because of those who have donated to research before me.”

He thinks back to when his older brother Rick died of cancer in 2007. “At the time he was treated, his doctor asked if he would participate in a research study. The doctor told him directly, this would not help him, but it would help somebody in the future.” Dan pauses to reflect and then continues, “I like to think, that maybe, he had a hand in helping me out today. Maybe he helped me survive. One thing I do know is that research was a game changer for me.”

The Ottawa Hospital has been a leader in bringing immunotherapy to patients. Research and life-changing treatments available at The Ottawa Hospital altered Dan’s outcome and he hopes that advancements will continue to have an impact on many more patients, not only here at home but right around the world.

Tom Clapp didn’t have any symptoms. He thought he was ‘perfectly healthy’. So, it came as a surprise when a routine prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test revealed that he had an aggressive form of prostate cancer. But a clinical trial at The Ottawa Hospital saved his life. Today, he’s inspiring the community to give back and is raising awareness along the way.

An unexpected diagnosis

When a routine PSA test, a blood test typically used to screen for prostate cancer, came back higher than normal, Tom Clapp and his wife, Janet Clapp, had their concerns. But neither was prepared for the news they would receive back in February of 2009. It was prostate cancer, it was aggressive, and due to its location, it was inoperable. Tom and Janet were gutted. How could this be happening?

“I thought I was perfectly healthy,” explained Tom. “I didn’t have any symptoms.”

Tom was referred to The Ottawa Hospital and recommended for a clinical trial. His treatment plan was in place; he underwent 42 rounds of radiation, followed by two years of hormone treatment to stop the production of testosterone which was feeding his cancer. His latest tests and scans show he is cancer free.

Hearing the words “you have cancer” is never easy. But from the day of Tom’s diagnosis, he was inspired to make a difference and have a positive impact on the lives of those in our community living with cancer. It was a conscious decision to take positive action during a time when he otherwise felt very little control over how cancer was affecting him.

“On the day he was diagnosed Tom said, ‘This is a gift. Now that I have this, I can talk about it with others’,” said Janet. Janet didn’t know it at the time, but Tom would go on to make a significant difference in the lives of countless individuals through raising both awareness and funds for prostate cancer research and care. His impact has been significant and it started with three of his closest friends.

Tom Clapp, prostate cancer survivor with friends
Tom (center) and his wife Janet (far left) with members of the
Eastern Ontario Prostate Cancer Awareness Committee.

After receiving his diagnosis, Tom encouraged three friends to get their first PSA test. When the results came in, all three of them were diagnosed with prostate cancer. Today they are all alive and well. Tom’s simple act of encouraging his friends to get tested could very well have saved their lives.

Raising awareness

This experience solidified Tom’s passion for raising awareness for prostate cancer and not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about it. Having been diagnosed when he was otherwise healthy, Tom knows firsthand the importance of regular checkups and testing.

“Too many men go untested, unaware that a simple blood test can lead to a diagnosis that might save their life,” explained Tom.

Tom pays tribute to his local family doctor, Dr. John Burke, for monitoring the results of his PSA test which raised concerns, resulting in a follow up at The Ottawa Hospital.

Tom’s own diagnosis, and his drive to raise awareness is what led him to play an instrumental role in developing what is known as the Eastern Ontario Prostate Cancer Awareness Committee (EOPCAC), as well as the Black Walnut Group, a support group for men who have been diagnosed, and their partners.

Strength in numbers

Once Tom received his diagnosis, he made a point to share his experience. He put his story in the local paper, organized a prostate cancer information session, spoke out at a community breakfast, and even went so far as to offer his phone number to those who were going through the same experience. If anyone needed someone to talk to, Tom wanted to be there for them. Over time, his phone started to ring more often. A great number of community members were opening up and sharing their experience with him. Tom recognized there was a real need and wanted to do more.

It was then that Tom suggested they start a support group. Everyone jumped on board. They planned their first meeting and in 2012 EOPCAC was born.

Getting out into the community

It wasn’t long before EOPCAC started raising awareness for prostate cancer in their community. “We have over 50 wellness days per year where we go out and raise awareness for prostate cancer,” said Tom. Over time, more people became aware of their group. Once the word got out, many were interested in not only joining, but also supporting it financially.

Dare to Flash a Stash

Simply getting out in to the community and raising awareness wasn’t enough for EOPCAC. They were determined to make a difference by giving back, too.

“Everyone in our group has had incredible treatment at The Ottawa Hospital,” said Tom. “We all have glowing reviews. So, we wanted to give back in some way. We decided to start a fundraiser.”

Wanting to support local prostate cancer care and research, EOPCAC organized a fundraiser they call Dare to Flash a Stash, in collaboration with the Winchester District Memorial Hospital Foundation. Members of EOPCAC decided to grow their moustaches to raise money and awareness for prostate cancer research and care.

It’s clear that they have their whole community supporting them along the way. “It feels like everywhere I go, when someone recognizes me, they hand me a generous gift in support of our fundraiser,” said Tom.

Even a local Cornwall brewery, Rurban Brewery, has pitched in by printing a moustache and ‘Dare to Flash a Stash’ on a can of beer to help raise awareness and funds. To date, this initiative has raised close to $185,000. Each year funds are distributed across various prostate cancer awareness, care and research initiatives, including The Ottawa Hospital.

There for each other

Seven years later, the committee is going strong. Members meet each month to support one another, as well as to brainstorm, strategize and plan how best to raise even more awareness and funds. As Tom thinks back to his life before his diagnosis, he exclaims, “Until I was diagnosed, I didn’t pay much attention. I didn’t think this would happen to me. It wasn’t on my radar. I don’t want others to make the same mistake that I did.”