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By BERNIE BELLAN
Winnipeg-born Michael Permack has lived 22 years with a brain tumour. That makes him Canada’s longest-living brain cancer survivor – by far.

Now a resident of Calgary, where he and his wife Francine have made their home since the late 1980s, Permack has been “giving back” to the Canadian Cancer Society by serving on the board of the Alberta Cancer Society for the past seven years (and as chair this past year).
Permack has also been spreading the message that “You have to keep moving forward to maintain hope.”

When Michael Permack was 29 years old, his future looked bright. Back in 1993, Michael was married and had two young daughters, aged 1 and 3. He had an MBA from the University of Western Ontario and a successful career in commercial real estate.
But one day as he was driving to a business meeting in Edmonton with a colleague, Michael noticed he couldn’t talk. He continued to the meeting, but felt that something wasn’t right. “I started feeling really bad. I took a cab alone to the hospital and vomited at the reception desk. At first, they thought I was on drugs.”
When his wife Francine arrived at the hospital, Michael couldn’t even remember her name. Routine tests showed nothing, so Francine insisted on an MRI, which revealed a tumour in Michael’s brain. (Francine adds that she has been an aggressive lobbyist on behalf of Michael throughout his struggle with cancer – something that she recommends to anyone finding him or herself stymied by our medical system.)

Although it was benign, the tumour had the potential to grow quickly. Doctors recommended not to operate or have radiation treatments at the time of his diagnosis because it was benign. They told Michael his survival rate was one or two years. “I stopped working so that I could spend as much time with my wife and kids as I could… I bought into what the doctors told me about life expectancy.”
Initially, Michael was devastated. He and Francine had always hoped for a family of three children. But with Michael’s prognosis, they put those plans away among other dreams.  Then Michael spoke to a psychologist who told him that he had two choices: to act as if he was going to die or to act as if he was going to live. “I chose life,” says Michael “and decided to make a 180 degree turn in how I was going to live my life”.

At one point, Michael says, he was just about to go to San Francisco to have his tumour operated on, much to the dismay of the doctor who was treating him in Calgary. He was advised by the San Francisco doctor who wanted to operate on him, however, that the likelihood was that he would emerge from the operation a “vegetable”.
But, what would you do? Faced with the prospect of having only a very short time to live or the alternative of a longer life, but in a highly incapacitated state, Michael was torn. In the end, he decided not to go to San Francisco. Instead, he relied upon the advice of his trusted Calgary doctor, Peter Forsyth, to spurn any surgery.
As it turns out, the pessimistic diagnosis that Michael had been first given was wrong – and after a long period of recovery during which Michael was off work for almost four years, he was able to resume working once again.
Three years after his diagnosis, Michael and Francine fulfilled one of their family’s dreams when Peter, their third child, was born.

In 2002, the family received more bad news. Francine was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. “She had an amazing attitude that she was going to live life fully no matter what,”  Michael says. Fortunately, Francine is now clear of cancer.

Then in 2004, Michael had a “really bad” seizure, the first in 11 years since his diagnosis. An MRI showed that his tumour had become malignant. Surgery removed only 30% of the tumour to protect his quality of life. “They took out as much as they could,” he explains. Radiation and chemotherapy treatments (Temodal) soon followed.
By June 2005, another MRI showed that the rest of the tumour appeared to be gone. By September, Michael was back at work. “I am so fortunate that I did a 180 and chose life. You have to keep moving forward to maintain hope”.

Then, a few years ago, when the entire family was holidaying in Gimli, one day when Michael was out jogging, he suddenly developed a severe headache and was rushed to the Gimli Hospital. From there he was taken to Winnipeg, where doctors decided to remove the rest of the tumour from Michael’s brain. The result was positive and now Michael is completely free of cancer.
Does he have any explanation at all for his incredibly good fortune?
“None at all,” Michael says. He admits that he’s not at all religious, nor does he attribute his having survived to anything particularly spiritual. Yet, as one might expect, his experience has endowed him with a determination to remain positive – and to communicate the importance of remaining positive to anyone else suffering from cancer with whom he comes in contact.
This past March Michael was awarded the Alberta Cancer Society “Volunteer of the Year” medal – something which he deeply treasures. No doubt it’s a cliché to use that rather overworked expression, but if anyone can be said to be “paying it forward”, it’s Michael Permack.
Considering what both Michael and Francine have endured, one might say they are both extremely lucky to be alive, but in both cases their fierce determination to survive cancer ultimately won out. Are there any great lessons to be learned from either Michael or Francine’s case? Who knows? This story was not intended to deliver any sort of a spiritual message, disappointing as that may be. Certainly, neither Michael nor Francine ever gave up hope – and that, perhaps, is the one simple lesson to be learned from their experiences, banal as that may seem.

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