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Gord Downie has aggressive, incurable brain cancer

Last Updated May 24, 2016 at 11:27 pm EDT

A specialist treating the Tragically Hip lead singer Gord Downie says the singer is facing one of the most aggressive forms of brain cancer but has been cleared to perform.

The band announced in a statement Tuesday morning that the dynamic lyricist and performer learned of the illness in December.

Dr. James Perry, head of neurology at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, said Downie has been diagnosed with glioblastoma, which is the most common and most aggressive cancerous primary brain tumour. He also said the brain tumour is incurable.

Glioblastoma affects about two to three people per 100,000 in Canada, the United States and Europe, according to information supplied by Sunnybrook Heath Sciences Centre, which is treating the musician. Perry said it is the most common cause of cancer deaths in Canadians between 40 and 60 years old.

Perry said Downie has a primary brain tumour, which is one that started in the brain itself and not in another part of body. The tumour, a majority of which has since been removed, is located in the left temporal lobe, in the area near where speech and memory are located.

“These primary brain tumours are infiltrative by nature, so they are impossible to remove completely by surgery, they frequently recur and they require other therapies such as radiation and chemotherapy treatments,” Perry said. “They range in how aggressive they are from some that are fairly slow-growing to others that are very aggressive and incurable.”

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Downie first developed symptoms in December of 2015, Perry said. He had a seizure that led to a visit to the emergency room, which led to the tumour diagnosis. Dr. Douglas Cook in Kingston, Ont., performed the surgery and excised the bulk of the brain tumour.

The musician was given radiation for six weeks, which consisted of 30 treatments Monday to Friday, combined with chemotherapy. The treatment was completed a little more than a month ago, and Perry noted he has a type of glioblastoma that is more amenable to treatment. He will be receiving ongoing “maintenance chemotherapy.”

Perry said it’s “too early right now” to understand Downie’s full prognosis. He said there’s a very wide spectrum of possible outcomes for patients with the type of brain cancer Downie has.

“It’s too early right now in Gord’s trajectory to understand what his prognosis might be. When it comes down to individuals we only have statistics and statistics just don’t tell the picture,” Perry said.

But Perry said Downie has recovered much of his physical, mental and emotional strength, and has “rallied tremendously” over the past several weeks. He said it’s safe for Downie to tour with his band this summer.

“Last week, he had a very important MRI scan of the brain that showed all the swelling in his head in the left temporal lobe area has decreased substantially, and the amount of tumour that we see residual has clearly shrunk and he is doing very well,” Perry said.

Dynamic lyricist and performer

Downie is 52 years old and has four children. He is married to Laura Leigh Usher.

He is known for songs like ‘New Orleans is Sinking,’ ‘Bobcaygeon,’ ‘Ahead by a Century,’ and ’38 Years Old.’ He also wrote the poetry book, ‘Coke Machine Glow,’ which was released as an album under the same name.

The Kingston band formed in 1984 and launched their self-titled debut EP in 1987. Their first full-length album, ‘Up to Here,’ in 1989 turned them into bona fide rock stars.

Downie’s performances of ‘New Orleans Is Sinking’ in concert would become one of his trademarks. He regularly thrilled fans by reinventing the hit with different lyrics during an extended musical interlude.

The band has won 14 Junos and been inducted to both Canada’s Walk of Fame and the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.

Downie ‘fighting hard’

Despite the “very tough news,” the band’s statement read, Downie “has been fighting hard.”

Downie has decided to launch a tour with the band this summer. Tour details are to be announced Wednesday.

“Through all of this, we’ve been standing by him,” the statement continued. “So after 30-some years together as The Tragically Hip, thousands of shows, and hundreds of tours … We’ve decided to do another one. This feels like the right thing to do now, for Gord, and for all of us.

“What we in The Hip receive, each time we play together, is a connection; with each other; with music and it’s magic; and during the shows, a special connection with all of you, our incredible fans. So, we’re going to dig deep, and try to make this our best tour yet.

“This feels like the right thing to do now, for Gord, and for all of us.”

The Tragically Hip’s 14th studio album, ‘Man Machine Poem,’ will be released on June 14.

Reaction on social media has been swift to the news.

“Gord Downie is a true original who has been writing Canada’s soundtrack for more than 30 years. #Courage,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a tweet.

Musicians also turned to Twitter to acknowledge Downie’s influence on the Canadian arts scene.

Indie rock band Stars tweeted: “Gord Downie is the poet laureate of the Canadian soul.”

Newfoundland band Hey Rosetta added: “Slapped awake by news radio this morning – we love you Gord Downie, and we owe you magnificently. Steady on skipper.”

Musician Ron Sexsmith tweeted: “Thoughts are of Gord Downie today family & road family Thx for having me on roadside & 4 letting me tag along with U to Madison Square XO RS.”

And actor Jonathan Torrens wrote: “No band in our history has embraced/defined Canadianity more than The Hip. Gutted by this news. Gord IS Canada.”