Gord Downie's chief oncologist, longtime Tragically Hip fan, a mainstay on tour
'I never imagined him leaping around in a pink leather suit with a feathered cap'
Gord Downie's chief oncologist has been to all but one of the Tragically Hip's farewell concerts and plans to attend each of the band's remaining shows, including the final stop on the tour in Kingston, Ont.
In part, Dr. James Perry is there as a member of a medical team to make sure the group's 52-year-old frontman is well enough to perform, given his diagnosis of an incurable brain tumour that was announced in May.
"That was the original plan and it's become less and less necessary, but I make myself available at the venue pre-show," said Perry, a neuro-oncologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.
"I'm helping to provide support. And thank goodness nothing has transpired. Good plans sometimes need to be made and hopefully never used, and so far that's been the case."
There were concerns that Downie — known for his energetic, often frenetic, stage presence — might not have the mental or physical endurance for the four-week, cross-Canada tour after going through surgery and six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy for his cancer, a relatively rare but aggressive and invasive tumour called a glioblastoma.
"When I wondered if he would have the stamina and not get too tired and run into problems, I never imagined him leaping around in a pink leather suit with a feathered cap," Perry said.
"It says so much about the guy."
Long before the singer-songwriter became his patient, the physician was a fan of the iconic Canadian band.
"I was and I'm exactly the right vintage to be born and raised on Hip music," Perry, 52, said Wednesday before heading down to the Air Canada Centre for Downie's pre-show checkup and the first of the group's three Toronto concerts.
The day before, Perry had joined about 120 Sunnybrook staffers who gathered on the hospital grounds to sing the band's song Courage for a YouTube video to thank those who have donated money toward the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research.
Sporting a Tragically Hip cap and accompanied by his wife and two youngest children, Perry belted out the lyrics by heart. And after seeing Downie and his bandmates perform on their Man Machine Poem tour, he's even more in awe of the Hip.
'Beyond my expectations'
"They have just gotten better with each show, more confident. The one thing they did not do was to take the easy road on this. They're not going out there and singing their album Yer Favourites or their 20 greatest hits.
"They have a carefully constructed set list that changes every night.... And I think given the potential worries about Gord's memory or about word-finding, he's just been so brave. He just says, 'You know, let's do this.'
They have just gotten better with each show, more confident. The one thing they did not do was to take the easy road on this.- Dr. James Perry
"And it's been beyond my expectations."
Perry won't say much about his patient's current health status, except that Downie is not currently receiving any treatment.
"His last MRI (in late May) was fantastic from my point of view, and we'll get together after the Kingston show, after he's had a chance to rest a little bit, and we'll sit down and see where we're going from there."
Still, there's no getting around the fact that glioblastomas, which affect an estimated four to six in every 100,000 Canadians, are notoriously difficult to treat and have a grim prognosis. As such, raising funds for research into these and other brain tumours can be challenging compared to more common cancers.
But Downie's decision to go public with his diagnosis and the Tragically Hip's subsequent launch of its tour has brought brain cancer into the limelight and set the stage for an outpouring of badly needed donations.
"I'm really thankful to all of the folks from all of the cities on the tour so far that have held fundraising events outside the venues — you know, house parties, all kinds of things have been going on," said Perry, likening the response to 2014's Ice Bucket Challenge in aid of ALS research.
- Ice Bucket Challenge credited with ALS gene discovery
- Ice Bucket Challenge raised $16.2M for ALS in Canada
The Sunnybrook Foundation, which is collecting donations for the Gord Downie Fund, won't tally how much has been raised until the tour's completion Aug. 20, after which the band will decide whether the money will be directed only to research for glioblastoma or for all types of brain cancer.
Sunnybrook is also helping people who contact them about fundraising how to organize events, said hospital spokesman Craig DuHamel.
'A bit of a national cause right now'
"There are quite a few taking place. People are doing everything from backyard parties to larger-scale events in theatres," he said. "Everybody feels this is a bit of a national cause right now, which is terrific."
Susan Marshall, CEO of the Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada, said Downie's courage in publicly revealing his terminal cancer has not only raised awareness of the disease and created a spike in donations, but it has also inspired others battling brain cancer to share their own stories.
"Lots of times we find there's a stigma with brain tumours, so people don't feel that comfortable letting the whole world know," she said from London, Ont. "And now we've had some people who are just so grateful for the opportunity to be like him and be out there and say 'This is my situation."'
The foundation has also benefited from fundraising in Downie's name, including money donated through events held by Tragically Hip tribute bands, among them Practically Hip and Almost Hip.
On its website, the foundation encourages fans attending Hip concerts to wear grey — the colour of the brain — in the same way those raising awareness and donations for breast cancer don pink.
There is also a link to a site called Dear Gord, where people can post messages of support to Downie and share memories from the band's performances or related photos.
The foundation, which will use donations to fund a national brain tumour registry, also financially supports researchers, including Perry, whom Marshall calls one of Canada's leading neuro-oncologists.
As for Perry, he eschews all the attention that being Downie's doctor has brought him.
"It isn't about me. This is about him and about all of my patients who have this disease, and it being an opportunity for awareness.
"It's what I've invested my career in. And if we can use this to take a big step forward, that will satisfy one of the goals I had for my career, which is to help make a difference."