Almost two million dollars have been raised for the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research at Sunnybrook. And part of that money is helping educate specialists for the future. I sat down with Dr. Sarah Ironside to see what it’s like to be the first Gord Downie Fellow in Neuro Oncology.
First of all, what is a neuro oncologist?
Neuro oncology is an area of medicine focused on the diagnosis, management and treatment of patients with brain cancer and cancers of the nervous system. A fellowship is an opportunity to do advanced post-graduate medical training to develop expertise in a specialized area. Neuro oncologists also help to manage neurological problems associated with cancer or cancer treatment. For example, things like seizures, nerve pain and blood clots.
Is it true that you are the only female neuro oncologist in Canada?
I’m not the only one, but I’m certainly one of only a few!
Most Canadians have memories of the Tragically Hip…
I’ve been a fan of the Tragically Hip my whole life! I grew up in a small Canadian town and have so many memories of listening to their music. Little did I know that many years later, my life would be touched in such a profound way by Gord Downie and his journey with brain cancer.
Glioblastoma, the brain tumor Gord Downie had, is one of the most common forms of primary brain cancer. It’s also one of the most aggressive and hard to treat. That’s why there is an urgent need to invest in research and clinical trials so we can find better ways to treat glioblastoma.
You deal with a lot of difficult situations along with patients. How do you manage that side of the job?
Over time, I’ve learned to balance that side of the job by focusing on research. Being able to come into a room and discuss options like clinical trials with a patient and experimental therapies and new treatments that are being developed brings hope into a situation.
What’s the best part of your job?
I think the most meaningful part of my job is the patients, and the opportunity to work with patients and families. I’ve also had the chance to work with a highly dedicated interdisciplinary group of health professionals. I really like being part of a bigger team, and I find that part of the job particularly rewarding.
How does it feel being the first Gord Downie Fellow in neuro oncology?
It’s been so incredible. Gord was an inspiration to so many Canadians in the way he so bravely and publicly shared his journey with brain cancer. I’m starting out in my career and I hope by the time I retire we are managing this disease in a much different way and have better treatments and more options. I think the Gord Downie Fellowship, and the money that’s been raised by the generosity of so many Canadians, is an opportunity to make that happen.
You’re done your fellowship in June. What’s next?
One of the amazing things about this fellowship is that every year, it will give a lucky doctor the chance to study further in this important area. This will be ongoing and will hopefully make a huge difference for brain cancer treatment and research.
Personally, I’m in the process of deciding where I will go next. But wherever the next step takes me, I feel very well prepared thanks to the incredible training and mentorship I’ve had here at Sunnybrook.
* This interview has been edited for length and clarity.