Olympian channels competitive drive to conquer cancer
When Gord Henry awoke in severe pain at 4 a.m. in February 2013, he had difficulties breathing and thought he might have kidney stones.
“I drove to the University Hospital Emergency Department and they found that I had pneumonia and a partially collapsed lung. An X-ray also showed a tumour in my chest the size of a tennis ball,” says Gord.
A biopsy and testing revealed he had Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. No one is quite sure what causes this, but the chance of having lymphoma increases with age.
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a cancer of the lymph nodes and has more than 30 subtypes. Gord was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s diffuse large B cell lymphoma.
Gord was referred to Dr. Ian Chin-Yee at LHSC’s London Regional Cancer Program, for treatment.
“Pathologists diagnose the subtypes. The diagnostic technique is highly sophisticated at LHSC, in fact laboratories and hospitals throughout southwestern Ontario send their tissue samples to us for diagnosis. We are fortunate that we have a very good laboratory here at LHSC,” says Dr. Chin-Yee, now the Program Head for Laboratory Medicine.
A world-class athlete, Gord rowed for Canada at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. In his mid-50s at the time of diagnosis, he still had that competitor’s edge.
“My doctor said that my survival rate was about 70 per cent,” says Gord. “I have always been in the top one per cent of whatever I’ve done. I never thought of the possibility of this being fatal for more than a few brief seconds. I was confident that I would survive, but I was preparing myself that it would be an ordeal.”
Because Non-Hodgkin’s diffuse large B cell lymphoma it is one of the more common subtypes, the treatment is well researched through clinical trials, and is standard worldwide.
“For this type of lymphoma, treatment is a type of chemo named CHOP-Rand, in Gord’s case where there is a bulky mass, treatment also includes radiation to reduce the mass,” says Dr. Chin-Yee.
The cancer cannot be removed through surgery because it is located within the lymph node system which is interconnected.
Training for the challenge
Gord had a week to prepare for the start of treatment, and he literally began training for the challenge both mentally and physically.
“I just decided everything I’ve ever done in my life has a challenge to it. The most successful thing I’ve ever done is to make the Olympic team.”
He went from working out four to five times a week for 45 minutes, to five to six times a week for one hour, to get his fitness level up in a short time.
“You’ve got to believe you’re doing everything you can. Mentally I had to get in the state that this was a competition and if I do what I’ve always done to get ready for a competition, I will win.”
Gord had eight rounds of chemotherapy over five-and-a-half months. While he had some side effects, he found that the nausea medication really worked. He also found that while his hair didn’t fall out, it also did not grow.
“The treatment sucked all the energy out of me and, by the fourth week, I was no longer working out. But I did still go to work every day,” says Gord.
The biggest side effect he experienced was hot flashes.
“The sweating was incredible. I had to change clothing a couple of times every day. It took about a year before the sweating was more or less gone. Still today, I sweat a little more easily than before,” says Gord.
For Gord, another difficult part was telling people.
“People look at you like you are done. It’s the C word. So I stopped telling people. It became too difficult to talk about -- that the outcome will be positive, that the worst isn’t happening,” says Gord.
“The day of my diagnosis I picked up my wife from the train station. We were home for half an hour before I told her. I didn’t want to see that look in her eyes.”
Gord has been cancer free for close to four years now and he no longer needs to see his cancer specialists.
“We follow the patient for two to three years after which time the chance of a relapse is exceedingly low,” says Dr. Chin-Yee. “At that point the patient is considered cured.”
Gord says that was such a good feeling.
“I beat cancer because the doctors and staff found it early, before it spread, and I got great treatment quickly,” he says. “And I am so grateful they don’t need to see me.”