Michael and Francine Permack (photo by Bernie Bellan)
Winnipeg-born Michael Permack has lived 22 years with a brain tumor. 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: “You have to keep moving forward to maintain hope.”
When Permack was 29 years old, his future looked bright. Back in 1993, he had already 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. Then one day, as he was driving to a business meeting in
Edmonton with a colleague, 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, he couldn’t even remember her name. Routine tests showed nothing, so his wife insisted on an MRI, which revealed a tumor in Michael’s brain. (Francine added that she has been an aggressive lobbyist on behalf of Michael throughout his struggle with cancer – something that she recommends to anyone finding themself stymied by the medical system.)
Although it was benign, the tumor had the potential to grow quickly. However, doctors did not want to operate or use radiation treatments because it was benign. They told Permack that his life expectancy 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,” he said.
Initially, he was devastated. He and his wife had always hoped for a family of three children but, with the prognosis, they put away those plans, as well as other dreams. Then he 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,” said Permack, “and decided to make a 180-degree turn in how I was going to live my life.”
At one point, he was just about to go to San Francisco to see about having the tumor removed, much to the dismay of the doctor who was treating him in Calgary. He was advised by the San Francisco surgeon, however, that the likelihood was that he would emerge from the operation a “vegetable.”
Faced with the prospect of having only a very short time to live or the alternative of a longer life in a highly incapacitated state, Permack was torn. In the end, he decided not to go to San Francisco. Instead, he relied upon the advice of his Calgary doctor, Peter Forsyth, to decline any surgery.
As it turns out, the pessimistic diagnosis that Permack had been first given was wrong. After a long period of recovery, during which he was off work for almost four years, he was able to resume working again.
Three years after his diagnosis, the Permacks fulfilled one of their family’s dreams when Peter, their third child, was born. However, 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,” said her husband. She 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 the tumor had become malignant. Surgery removed only 30% of it to protect his quality of life. “They took out as much as they could,” he explained.
Radiation and chemotherapy treatments followed. By June 2005, another MRI showed that the rest of the tumor appeared to be gone. By September of that year, Permack was back at work.
A few years ago, he had another scare. When the entire family was holidaying in Gimli, Man., Michael suddenly developed a severe headache when he was out on a jog and he was rushed to the hospital in the small town on Lake Winnipeg. From there he was taken to Winnipeg, where doctors decided to remove the rest of the tumor. The result was positive and Permack now is completely free of cancer. Does he have any explanation for his incredibly good fortune?
“None at all,” he said, admitting 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, Permack was awarded the Alberta Cancer Society’s Volunteer of the Year medal, something he deeply treasures. No doubt it’s a cliché, but if anyone can be said to be “paying it forward,” it’s Michael Permack.
Bernie Bellan is the editor of the Jewish Post & News, where a longer version of this article was originally published.