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Lending his voice

Whether it was in his two-decade career as a broadcaster, his time as the 28th Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, or during his lifelong advocacy for disability issues, David Onley has always been known for his powerful voice.

So when his wife noticed his voice becoming weaker, along with increased difficulty with regular tasks and nearly drowning in his bathtub, they both knew that something was wrong.

It wasn't until David's family doctor referred him to Sunnybrook that the urgency of his condition came to light. After several tests, an MRI revealed an orange-sized benign tumour in his brain. Given the immense risk of brain damage, David underwent emergency surgery the next day.

The surgery marked the start of his treatment at Sunnybrook. While the tumour was removed, David's medical team recommended that he undergo radiation therapy to treat the area left behind.

David began treatment on Sunnybrook's MR-Linac, the first machine to combine radiation and high-field strength MRI. This unprecedented combination allows medical teams to target and treat tumours with remarkable accuracy by daily MRI radiation beam guidance – and spare healthy tissues in the process.

“It means every day you come in for treatment, the team uses that day's MRI of your brain to plan exactly where to focus the radiation,” says Dr. Arjun Sahgal, director of Sunnybrook's Cancer Ablation Therapy (CAT) Program.

David Onley is prepped for treatment on the MR-Linac.

It's quite amazing when the radiation beam is released because a number of patients, including myself, get gentle flashes in their eyes, almost like a flash of lightning. It's not painful, but it's a reminder of the technology that's at work,” says David about this noninvasive treatment.

Thanks to donor support, Sunnybrook was the first institution in Canada to acquire the MR-Linac, treating the first patient in Canada in August 2019. Since then, Sunnybrook's teams have enrolled and treated more than 200 patients on the MR-Linac as part of several clinical trials. All patients are participating in a global clinical trial to study the technology's outcomes, including David.

“We share our data, so we're learning about this technology as a global community,” says Dr. Sahgal.

While the trial is still underway, the impact of the donor-supported MR-Linac is already clear to David, who is speaking strongly once again to raise awareness of this transformative technology. For David, the life-saving potential of the MR-Linac is "enormous."

Watch as David Onley shares his journey from diagnosis to precision treatment.