Patient Stories

Everyone has a story. Meet some of our amazing patients and their families.

Endovascular treatment is stopping stroke in its tracks
Precision radiation is destroying tumours without harming quality of life
With your help, we’ve opened the blood-brain barrier to treat the untreatable
Image-guided vascular surgery saves limbs and lives
Newborn Gage’s struggle to survive
Saving lives - two heart valves at a time
Preventing stroke with donor support
Recovering from injury - step by step
Getting back to normal after traumatic injury
Changing outcomes for trauma survivors
Innovative cancer care - when it matters most
Preserving quality of life with leading-edge treatment

Endovascular treatment is stopping stroke in its tracks

Yana Matveyeva was terrified. The 20-year-old college student was lying on a gurney surrounded by nurses and doctors. She didn’t understand what was happening. One thing was clear to her: she was in trouble.

A few hours earlier, Yana had returned from grocery shopping and was unloading her bags when she collapsed. Her friend found her on the floor, unable to move or speak, and called 911 immediately.

The ambulance took Yana to Sunnybrook where she was diagnosed with an ischemic stroke caused by a blood clot in the brain. In a time-sensitive health crisis such as Yana's, quick diagnosis and treatment are essential to saving as much brain function as possible. Doctors immediately gave Yana tissue plasminogen activator (tPA), also known as a clot buster. It didn't work because her clot was too large.

If this had happened six months earlier, Yana might not have survived the stroke or may have ended up with severe brain damage and paralysis. But there was a new innovative treatment available at Sunnybrook: endovascular treatment, which, in clinical trials, has been shown to reduce the overall mortality rate of stroke patients by 50 per cent.

Sunnybrook was one of 22 sites worldwide that participated in the study.

Endovascular treatment is performed by inserting a thin tube into an artery in the groin and feeding it through the body's blood vessels to the clot in the brain. This is done using advanced imaging guidance. The clot is then secured and pulled out, restoring blood flow to the brain before permanent damage occurs.

It was two in the morning when neurosurgeon Dr. Victor Yang, neuroradiologist Dr. Peter Howard and a team of specialists set to work, knowing that they were up against the clock. Yana faced multiple hurdles.

She couldn't understand what was happening because both her speech and language comprehension were affected by the stroke.

She couldn't be sedated because the doctors couldn't risk the time to insert a breathing tube and this procedure would have increased her blood pressure.

She was petrified and kept moving around, making it difficult for the doctors to thread the tube through her.

The clot had broken in two so the medical team had to find and retrieve not one, but two clots.

At 4:13 a.m., the second clot was removed. The endovascular treatment had been successful.

Yana has almost fully recovered. She is mobile and talking in both English and Russian again. She is grateful that Sunnybrook offered this cutting-edge treatment.

"About a month after I left the hospital, I saw some friends, and they couldn't believe I'd had a stroke. This endovascular treatment is a miracle. To everyone who helped me at Sunnybrook, 'Ya vas lublu', or as we say in English, 'I love you'!"

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

Precision radiation is destroying tumours without harming quality of life

Bradley Chapman wasn’t about to let prostate cancer get in the way of his volunteer work. When it came time to schedule his brachytherapy treatment at the Odette Cancer Centre, Bradley requested it take place on a Thursday so he could make his weekly delivery of bread to homeless shelters the following Wednesday.

“It took probably an hour to line everything up, minutes for the treatment, and then they cleaned me up and sent me home. Six days later I was doing my bun run,” says the 75-year-old.

The fact that Bradley was able to return to the activities of his daily life so quickly is a testament to the minimally invasive, highly targeted nature of his treatment. High-dose-rate brachytherapy involves the temporary placement of tiny radioactive seeds directly into tumours, enabling doctors to strike cancer with high doses of radiation.

Compared to conventional external-beam radiation therapies, brachytherapy more effectively spares healthy tissue and limits side-effects, such as skin irritation, nausea, fatigue and more. Equally, brachytherapy poses less risk than surgery of causing complications like urinary incontinence and sexual dysfunction.

Bradley and his Sunnybrook oncologist discussed conventional radiation and surgery as possible ways to treat his cancer, but Bradley was reluctant. “I thought, I’m not a young guy anymore, so surgery’s probably not a great thing.” He was also reticent to undergo external-beam radiation therapy, which would have required daily treatment sessions for as many as eight weeks.

Bradley is one of the approximately 300 brachytherapy patients the Odette Cancer Centre treats annually, making it the largest such single-institution program in North America. The centre, a long-time brachytherapy pioneer, will soon be home to a one-of-a-kind suite where the treatment will be guided in real-time by magnetic resonance imaging. As a result, doctors will be able to target tumours with unprecedented precision. For patients, this will mean more effective treatment with even fewer side-effects. Real-time MRI offers another critical benefit: It will allow doctors to adjust radiation dosage and seed placement while brachytherapy is being delivered, because they’ll be able to immediately see the effect it’s having on the tumour.

For his part, Bradley praises the fast and precise brachytherapy he received. “The prognosis is pretty good, if not excellent. I’m delighted,” he says.

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

With your help, we’ve opened the blood-brain barrier to treat the untreatable

A week before 57-year-old Bonny Hall and her Sunnybrook doctors were set to make medical history, she was – understandably so – a bit on edge. “Nervous. Anxious. Excited, because someone has to go first,” reported Bonny, who was about to become the first person to have her blood-brain barrier (BBB) breached in a non-invasive way, so that chemotherapy drugs could reach her brain tumour.

In November 2015, Bonny was the first participant in a groundbreaking clinical research trial at Sunnybrook that is testing the ability of focused ultrasound to temporarily open the BBB and allow medication to reach targeted areas. Everyone has a barrier that lines their brain’s blood vessels and restricts the passage of substances from the bloodstream into the brain. It does this to protect the brain from disease and toxins.

“Some of the most exciting therapeutics for the treatment of malignant brain tumours cannot reach the tumour cells because of the barrier,” says Dr. Todd Mainprize, lead neurosurgeon in Sunnybrook’s Hurvitz Brain Sciences Program and principal investigator of the trial that will enrol as many as 10 patients. “This technique will open up new opportunities to deliver potentially much more effective treatments.”

Dr. Mainprize’s team successfully bypassed Bonny’s BBB by using a helmet-like focused ultrasound device, guided by real-time magnetic resonance imaging, to direct waves of ultrasound energy toward the blood vessels near her tumour. The focused ultrasound waves caused microscopic bubbles, previously injected into Bonny’s bloodstream, to vibrate and loosen the tight junctions of the cells that comprise the BBB. This allowed a chemotherapy drug – also infused intravenously – to flow through the barrier and reach Bonny’s tumour.

Wide-ranging applications

“This isn’t just about a brain tumour,” Bonny says, noting the procedure also has the potential to revolutionize treatment of dementias like Alzheimer’s disease and some mental illnesses.

Bonny’s participation in the trial was a truly selfless act, as she won’t derive any direct benefit from it. The trial’s primary aims are to test the therapy’s safety and preliminary efficacy – a critical step before conducting larger studies with more patients. Following the procedure, Dr. Mainprize removed portions of Bonny’s tumour through traditional neurosurgery, just as he will do for other trial participants.

What Bonny wants most now is a sense of normalcy. “I just want to be a normal mom, a normal grandma…just a normal wife.”

However, her contribution to medical science guarantees she will always be regarded as extraordinary.

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

Image-guided vascular surgery saves limbs and lives

When a physician told Christopher Kent “prostheses are actually really good these days,” he was unimpressed.

He didn’t want a prosthetic leg, he wanted to keep his own.

The four ulcers on his left foot had become so painful that the 67-year-old could no longer stand at his woodworking bench. He couldn’t safely operate machinery, his wife Linda points out, given the medication he was taking to ease the pain.

Finally, a diabetic specialist recognized Christopher’s non-healing ulcers as a symptom of peripheral arterial disease, a narrowing of the arteries in his leg caused by his diabetes. He sent Christopher to Sunnybrook, where vascular surgeons Dr. Andrew Dueck and Dr. Giuseppe Papia are gaining nationwide attention for saving patients’ legs – and lives – with image-guided angioplasties. This method of enlarging a narrowed artery using a balloon is typically used for heart patients, but our vascular surgeons are using it to save legs.

“So many diabetic patients have painful sores on their feet that won’t heal – and it’s not being recognized as a vascular problem that we can fix,” Dr. Papia says. “Without treatment, half these patients won’t survive two years.”

In Christopher’s case, his disease had progressed so far that when Dr. Papia attempted angioplasty, the blockage was too solid to break through. Christopher had developed gangrene and the threat of amputation loomed.

But, Dr. Papia refused to give up. He scheduled an urgent surgical appointment to try a different tactic to save Christopher’s leg. It might not work, Christopher was told, but there was hope. With the pain in his foot close to unbearable, he signed the form authorizing amputation in the event surgery was unsuccessful.

“Dr. Papia started at midnight,” Christopher recalls. “At 5 o’clock in the morning, I woke up and saw I had two feet,” he says with a big smile.

Dr. Papia had performed bypass surgery, using a vein from the same leg to bypass the artery down to Christopher’s foot. “But bypass surgery is a temporary fix,” Dr. Papia explains. “The arteries continue to harden, the disease process continues. To maintain his bypass and prevent an amputation, I later performed angioplasty on the very tiny arteries in Christopher’s leg.

“For most patients, angioplasty works the first time. With Christopher, we had to try something different. At Sunnybrook, we do everything we can to save people’s lives and limbs.”

Eighteen months later, Christopher is almost as good as new. He visits Dr. Papia every three months and gets a Doppler ultrasound to test his blood flow.

Now, Christopher is building a guitar in his workshop, chasing after his toddler grandson – and, Linda says with a laugh, “he’s back to taking the garbage out. Thank you, Dr. Papia!”

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

Newborn Gage’s struggle to survive

On January 16, 2015, not much more than halfway through her pregnancy (at 22 weeks and five days), Heather Radford’s water broke. Two days later and still pregnant, she was transferred from her local hospital to Sunnybrook, where she gave birth to her son Gage.

Heather knew that for babies born 17 weeks early, survival is not a foregone conclusion. “Many times we had to prepare for the worst – that he might not get through this,” says Heather. “We knew we might have to let him go.”

Fortunately, Gage, who weighed only 1 lb 6 oz. at birth, did pull through, thanks to hands-on family support and state-of-the-art care in Sunnybrook’s Newton Glassman Charitable Foundation Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Four months later, the day before his due date, he went home to his mother, father and two four-year-old half siblings in Clarington, Ont.

An element of care that is foundational to treatment in Sunnybrook’s NICU – and which Heather credits for Gage’s survival and growth – is feeding with breast milk. “Breast milk is critical for infants, particularly at-risk preemies, because it contains antibodies that help fight disease, prevent infection and promote brain development,” says Jo Watson, PhD, a nurse practitioner and operations director for the Women & Babies Program.

In 2015, Sunnybrook formalized its commitment to breastfeeding by establishing Canada’s first Breastfeeding Centre of Excellence. “Already, Sunnybrook’s rate of exclusive breastfeeding upon discharge from the NICU is twice the national average, and we are dedicated to establishing, improving and sharing best practices,” says Dr. Watson, leader of the new Centre.

For Heather, it took a great deal of commitment to breastfeed Gage. “From the moment he was born, I pumped about 10 times a day, which is very time-consuming. The breastfeeding staff at Sunnybrook were very encouraging. They checked up on me and gave me strategies to make it easier.”

“He has done so well health-wise and I attribute a lot of that to breast milk and the breastfeeding support I received at Sunnybrook,” says Heather.

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

Saving lives - two heart valves at a time

Dale Robarts was frustrated that he could no longer shovel snow or mow grass at his North Bay home. Constantly out of breath, the independent senior lacked the energy even to attend his granddaughters’ hockey games.

In 2015, Dale made Canadian history at Sunnybrook last year by having two heart valve problems treated with separate, minimally invasive procedures at the same time. Weeks later, his nine- and 12-year-old granddaughters were delighted to spot a cheering Grandpa in the stands at their games.

Dale’s exhaustion was related to a combination of serious heart valve problems. His Schulich Heart Centre team of surgeons and cardiologists, led by Dr. Eric Cohen, recommended a MitraClip procedure to treat his leaking mitral valve and a transcatheter aortic valve implantation (TAVI) for his failing aortic valve.

When Dr. Cohen told Dale he would undergo TAVI and MitraClip procedures a month apart, Dale demurred. He said, “I’m coming 220 miles. Let’s do it all at once.”

Sunnybrook pioneered these minimally invasive procedures for patients too sick or unsuitable for open-heart surgery. Both involve using real-time imaging to thread a device to the heart valve by catheter through small incisions. Patients leave hospital sooner and recover much more quickly than when having open-heart surgery.

Previously entirely donor funded, both Sunnybrook's TAVI program and MitraClip device are now government funded.

While our heart team has saved hundreds of lives with TAVI and MitraClip in the last few years, Dale is the first patient to have both at once.

“With Dale, it was the right thing to do for him,” says Dr. Sam Radhakrishnan, director of the cardiac catheterization labs at Sunnybrook and one of Dale’s physicians. “It does have to be individualized but I believe there will be more patients who could potentially have the procedures at the same time.”

Dale is overjoyed at the results. “I’m feeling great now,” he says. His son, Dan, marvels at the difference in his father. “It’s a huge transformation. Before Dad couldn’t walk up more than a few stairs without having to stop and take a break. Now he’s got his old self back. My daughters are thrilled to see him at their games.”

While Dale still relied on his neighbour’s snow blower to clear any major snowfalls from his driveway, he was delighted to shovel the lighter dustings himself.

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

Preventing stroke with donor support

Physically, Bernard Davis didn’t feel any different after having a Watchman device implanted in his heart at Sunnybrook – but psychologically, he felt a whole lot better, knowing his risk of stroke due to blood clots had been cut by two-thirds.

“I’m a 70-year-old man,” he says. “It’s marvellous that I can look forward to healthy years ahead.”

Retired from careers in export sales, international shipping and finally teaching, the trilingual Bernard enjoys amateur handyman work and travelling through Europe and South America with his wife, Hilary. “Now I can travel more confidently,” he says.

Bernard has atrial fibrillation, a condition involving an irregular heart rhythm. People with this type of arrhythmia have a risk of stroke three to five times higher than those without it. Clots commonly form in their left atrial appendage, a small pouch on the left side of the heart. These clots can move to the brain and cause a stroke.

Blood thinners are typically recommended to reduce the risk of clots forming but not everyone is a suitable candidate, especially those at risk of bleeding. In Bernard’s case, he had fallen on ice several years earlier and had bleeding in his brain.

For these patients, Sunnybrook is offering a new, non-drug treatment that is funded entirely by donors. The procedure involves feeding a small device, the Watchman, by catheter from the groin to the heart to close off the left atrial appendage and prevent clots escaping.

“For patients with atrial fibrillation, this procedure reduces their risk of stroke to the same as if they were on blood thinners,” explains Dr. Sheldon Singh, a cardiologist and cardiac electro-physiologist in Sunnybrook’s Schulich Heart Centre.

In November 2015, Bernard became the first Toronto-area patient to have a Watchman device implanted. The procedure is not yet government funded in Canada and is available only through Health Canada’s special access program. Sunnybrook donors cover the entire cost of each procedure.

Dr. Singh wants to spread the word to both physicians and patients with atrial fibrillation that, thanks to donor generosity, this life-saving option is now available for patients like Bernard who can’t take blood thinners.

Meanwhile, Bernard and Hilary can begin planning their next trip. “We’re very appreciative that Dr. Singh was proactive,” says Hilary. “He’s greatly helped Bernie’s quality of life.”

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

Recovering from injury - step by step

The stairs were the beginning of Kerry’s journey.

Kerry Delaney, an active, independent woman in her 60s, was housesitting. She got up in the middle of the night to use the washroom but missed a step, tumbling down 21 stairs.

For over 12 hours, Kerry lay at the bottom of those stairs, unable to move. Both her wrist and femur were shattered. She knew she had a friend coming over at the end of the day, so Kerry waited in pain for her to arrive.

The ambulance took Kerry to a community hospital and once X-rays were completed, she was sent to Sunnybrook where she underwent two operations. In the first, Dr. Veronica Wadey cleaned the open femur fracture, removing the small pieces of bone that could later lead to infection. She then stabilized Kerry’s leg with an external frame and fixed her badly broken wrist with a plate and screws. Later, Dr. Richard Jenkinson operated on Kerry’s leg to clean the bone, and repair the torn tendons, broken knee joint and femur bone.

Kerry spent three weeks in acute care at Sunnybrook. “They took such good care of me. I cried when I left.”

Then the hard work began. Kerry spent six weeks as an inpatient and 13 weeks as an outpatient at Sunnybrook’s St. John’s Rehab. Her physio and occupational therapy teams challenged and encouraged her with exercises which Kerry accomplished with dogged determination.

She worked to strengthen her wrist so she could brush her teeth and feed herself. She practised walking using an underwater treadmill. Eventually, she could raise her leg three inches so she could step into the shower.

But her biggest hurdle was both physical and emotional: climbing and descending stairs. Stacie, one of her physiotherapists, took her to a practice staircase at St. John’s Rehab: three stairs up, a landing, and three stairs down. Kerry shook with fear as she held the railing tightly with one hand and her crutch with the other. Stacie stood beside her throughout, coaching her through the process.

“Going up wasn’t as bad as going down. It was so scary, but when I came down that last stair, I felt liberated. Exhausted, but liberated!”

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

Getting back to normal after traumatic injury

Joanne Papps was taking a back-road detour to her mother’s Muskoka cottage when a car slammed into hers. “I knew immediately I was very seriously injured,” recalls the 63-year-old speech pathologist.

“I was in a very awkward position, slouched, and I couldn’t move.”

Seven months later, the mother of three and grandmother of one speaks of celebrating “small miracles” that never occurred to her she might mark as an adult: to be able to feed herself again, walk with support, turn pages of a magazine and use an iPad.

Joanne credits these milestones to her faith, intensive physiotherapy to rehabilitate her muscles, strong family support – and a team in Sunnybrook’s Tory Regional Trauma Centre that, from the moment she arrived by air ambulance, worked quickly to save her life and ensure she would regain as much function as possible.

Joanne suffered a dislocation and fracture of her upper spine, explains her neurosurgeon, Dr. Leo Da Costa. The injury was classified as partial. She could still feel sensation but couldn’t move anything. “She had a very severe motor deficit,” he says. “The strength was almost completely gone in most of her muscles.”

With spinal cord injuries, it’s critical to look for “evidence that some function is preserved because that means there is tissue that is potentially salvageable,” he says. “Then you have to work quickly to pull the bones and discs away from the spinal cord to get the pressure off and give the nerves the best chance.” The longer it takes to relieve that pressure, the more extensive the injury may become.

After the trauma team determined there was no internal bleeding, Joanne was put in traction to correct her spinal alignment and relieve nerve pressure. Next, Dr. Da Costa performed surgery, using screws, rods and her bone, to fuse the bones and ensure they wouldn’t move again.

“Sunnybrook has an elite trauma system in place at all hours to deal with catastrophic injuries,” Dr. Da Costa says. “Timing is critical. We have the people and resources to achieve the best possible outcomes.”

In the challenging weeks after surgery, Joanne says her recovery was linked to the sense of hope she sustained, fed by the encouraging words of Sunnybrook’s nurses, physiotherapists and chaplain. She continues to work hard and anticipates a very different summer this year. “I’m looking forward to visiting my mother’s cottage again,” Joanne says with a smile.

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

Changing outcomes for trauma survivors

Joseph Macchione feels Sunnybrook’s elite trauma team gave him a second chance at life. He’s determined to make the most of it.

Days after finishing Grade 12, Joseph and his buddies headed to a park west of Toronto to fish. “All I can remember is getting out of the car and walking down the path,” Joseph says. His next memory is of awakening in hospital days later. Friends tell him that as they walked along a trail, he turned to them and slipped, falling to an embankment. The ground gave way and Joseph plunged 100 feet into a shallow river.

A friend performed emergency CPR and Joseph was airlifted to Sunnybrook. Paramedics resuscitated him on the way. When he reached the hospital, massive internal bleeding meant Joseph’s heart had stopped and he was effectively dead.

But Sunnybrook’s trauma team, led by surgeon-in-chief Dr. Avery Nathens, was standing by, ready to act the moment Joseph arrived. They opened his chest, restarted his heart and sent him to the operating room to stop his severe internal bleeding.

Joseph’s mother, Carmen Tavares, had never been to Sunnybrook before what she says was “the worst day of my life”. But she had always been aware of its reputation for caring for the most severely injured people in Ontario. “When I heard Joseph was at Sunnybrook, I knew it was serious. But I also knew he was in good hands. I knew that if Sunnybrook couldn’t help him, nobody could.”

Sunnybrook is an international leader in trauma system design. Dr. Nathens is globally renowned for his work in this area, says trauma centre medical director, Dr. Homer Tien, also chief medical officer for Ornge, the province’s air and land ambulance system.

After three weeks in hospital, Joseph is home, continuing to gain strength on his way to a full recovery. He is investigating various post-secondary school options and planning for a future he almost didn’t have. “I felt like Joseph was in the right place,” Carmen says. “These are the best doctors in Canada. I owe that hospital my life.”

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

Innovative cancer care - when it matters most

Duane Smith and his parents Ed and Barbara are either lucky or unlucky, depending on one’s perspective. They believe the former.

All three have been successfully treated for cancer at Sunnybrook – Duane and Ed for prostate cancer, and Barbara for breast cancer.

“The care has been brilliant,” says Duane, 46, who received radiation and hormone therapy in 2011 under the direction of radiation oncologist Dr. Andrew Loblaw. It was Duane’s second bout with prostate cancer. His prostate gland was surgically removed at another hospital in 2009.

Barbara, 73, and Ed, 77, are also impressed by the treatment they received through the Odette Cancer Program. “I knew I was going to get excellent care. I felt safe, in lots of ways,” says Barbara, who also had to contend with a recurrent cancer.

Fortunately for Duane, a husband and father of two, his cancer remained confined to his prostate region. Dr. Loblaw treated it with 37 radiation sessions over eight weeks, followed by six months of hormone therapy to temporarily eliminate Duane’s production of testosterone, a hormone essential to the growth of prostate cancer cells.

Treatment was difficult, but Duane was ultimately able to return to his active lifestyle, including competitive hockey, triathlon training, golfing and coaching his kids’ hockey teams. The Smiths, however, weren’t out of the woods. Ed was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2014, prompting Duane to contact Dr. Loblaw to see if he would review his dad’s file. Rather than receive standard radiation therapy in Kingston (closer to their Trenton home), Ed chose to come to Sunnybrook to be treated by Dr. Loblaw with a novel radiation therapy called stereotactic body radiotherapy. Thanks to the therapy’s power and precision, Ed required only five sessions. “I would recommend it to anybody. I had no side-effects,” Ed says.

Just when the family thought they were done with cancer, Barbara learned in the fall of 2014 that her breast cancer had returned, 11 years after undergoing a lumpectomy and radiation for a small tumour in her left breast.

Dr. Loblaw again played an important role in the family’s care, connecting Barbara to experts within Sunnybrook’s Louise Temerty Breast Cancer Centre. They were able to conserve her breast by performing a lumpectomy and using radiation therapy. Barbara is also undergoing genetic testing at Sunnybrook that may provide some clues as to the prevalence of cancer in her family.

Through the delivery of advanced, personalized care, Sunnybrook saved a family and made their journey a little easier. For their part, the Smiths are enjoying life and feeling that, just maybe, luck is on their side.

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.

Preserving quality of life with leading-edge treatment

Nelson Pau, hasn’t allowed two battles with cancer to slow him down too much. “I’m now busy being happy,” says Nelson, who, as a husband and father of two, a grandfather of four and a man with no shortage of hobbies, has plenty to keep him busy.

The retired architect is thankful that a leading-edge radiation treatment he received at the Odette Cancer Centre both vanquished his metastatic kidney cancer and had a relatively small impact on his ability to do the things he loves, such as badminton, golf, tai chi and photography.

“It was perfect,” Nelson says of the treatment, known as stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT). He underwent five SBRT sessions in July 2012, each time receiving a powerful and highly targeted dose of radiation to destroy a tumour that had virtually swallowed his bottom-right rib. The treatment took place five years after Nelson’s cancerous right kidney had been removed through minimally invasive surgery at another hospital.

Only a handful of Ontario hospitals offer SBRT, and Sunnybrook’s use of the treatment on Nelson’s metastatic kidney cancer is even more unique. Typically, patients would have chemotherapy drugs pumped through their veins, which can cause nausea, hair loss, fatigue and other side-effects.

For Nelson, SBRT produced just a few complications, such as temporary pain at the tumour site and the development of a fibrosis, or lump, where the tumour used to be. However, he’s thrilled the treatment was so effective that he didn’t have to undergo chemotherapy. “I’ve had friends who have gone through chemo, and you feel half-alive during the process,” Nelson says.

Stereotactic body radiotherapy is part of the Odette Cancer Centre’s Cancer Ablation Therapy Program, which harnesses a range of precision therapies to treat tumours without invasive surgery. Through the program, Sunnybrook is building a suite that will house Canada’s only magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)-guided radiation machine.

Known as an MR-Linac, the machine combines simultaneous delivery of radiation with MRI, so that doctors can target tumours with unprecedented accuracy and immediately see how the tumour is responding to radiation. The technology promises to make SBRT even more precise and effective, which is good news for patients like Nelson.

If you’d like to support life-saving innovation at Sunnybrook, donate now.