'This would help others': Guelph woman's brain donation helps with ground-breaking cancer research

Cindy Graham's family donated her brain and spinal cord for research after her death (Supplied: Graham family)

Thomas Graham remembers the day his life changed forever.

In May 2019, he received a phone call from the school his twin boys, Dean and Darwin, 8, attended, saying his wife, Cindy, hadn’t picked them up yet.

“It was so unlike her, she is very devoted, very organized,” Thomas said.

The University of Guelph professor rushed home from work and found Cindy disoriented in the bed and the house trashed.

It turned out Cindy had a seizure and stumbled through the house, wrecking it along the way.

He brought her to the hospital and at first, doctors said she had a stroke.

“In hindsight, that would’ve been a far better diagnosis,” he said.

But a week later, Cindy was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a deadly brain cancer.

“The cancer had taken all of her faculties,” Thomas said.

She underwent clinical trials at McMaster University Medical Centre, but 20 months later in February 2020, the mother of two died.

“I love and miss her,” Thomas said holding back tears.

After her death, Cindy’s brain and spinal cord were donated to the Sheila Singh Lab at McMaster.

“This is a valuable thing to do, and it would help people,” Thomas said.  “We knew it wouldn’t help her, but it would help others, to hopefully not have to feel the way I do right now.”

Dr. Sheila Singh said this donation is “ground-breaking.”

“This will yield almost an atlas of information that we really don’t have at the moment,” said Dr. Singh, chief pediatric neurosurgeon at McMaster Children’s Hospital and the head of neurosurgery at Hamilton Health Sciences.

Dr. Singh said typically cancer research is done with one brain tumor sample, only providing a snap shot of the tumour.

“We profile that, and then we extrapolate and we think we know everything about that patient’s tumour, but the truth is, that patient’s tumour is evolving in their body, through space and through time and through therapy,” she said.

Glioblastoma is made up of several different types of cells that aggressively invades and mutates in the brain, and Dr. Singh said only having a sample of the tumour doesn’t tell the full picture.

“Imagine the entire brain infiltrated by tumour and as the tumour is extending into the brain, its changing. And the tumour that is distant in the brain from the original location of the start of the tumour, that tumour can be entirely different from the deeper part.  We just have no understanding right now of what I would call spatial heterogeneity of brain cancer” Dr. Singh explained.

“So only by removing the entire brain and studying all the different sections of it, can you get an idea of how the tumor may be different in different locations.”

Dr. Singh and her team will spend the next few years studying glioblastoma and how it spreads and affects the entire brain and testing potential treatments on mice that were engrafted with brain tumours, like the one that killed Cindy.

“Our research program is trying to discover the causes of glioblastoma to try and figure out what are the drivers of this horrible brain tumour,” Dr. Singh said.

Thomas has started a memorial research fund in Cindy’s memory to help pay for further research into glioblastoma at McMaster.

“She’s impactful in life as she is in death.”