Cancer Graduate

Business leader Brett Wilson proves there’s nothing textbook about prostate cancer

Photographed by Colin way

You’re spending a lot of time there,” Brett Wilson said over his shoulder to his doctor. After all, Wilson was a man who lived like he was late for a bus or, more appropriately, a runaway Mercedes. And rectal exams to check for prostate cancer are something most men want over with much sooner than later.

Wilson is one of Calgary’s best known entrepreneurs. By age 44, he’d made a stunning amount of money as an investment banker doing energy deals. He ran with a similar crowd. He and a group of his Calgary buddies were at Scripps Center for Executive Health in San Diego getting CT scans, blood work and prostate checks.

It was Friday afternoon; the group was anxious to fly to Phoenix – they had planned a round of golf at one of Arizona’s famous courses. Wilson was the last to give blood for a PSA (prostate-specific antigen) test, a key indicator of prostate cancer. After the blood test was the physical exam, which included a rectal exam. It’s the kind of examination most men dread. Wilson thought the doctor was taking longer than normal, and called him on it. The other guys already had their blood work back – all normal. Last on the list, Wilson’s results wouldn’t come until Monday.

By Monday, Wilson was back in Calgary after 18 holes in the Arizona sun. His doctor called from San Diego: “Brett, I want you to have a biopsy immediately.” Wilson’s PSA was up from .7 to 7.6, and the doctor felt a lot of smooth tissue around the prostate gland: not good. Brett Wilson – newly divorced, 12 kilograms overweight, and master of his universe – had cancer. Worse, it was late stage, and had spread to the outside of the gland.

“You’ve met Brett?” asks Peter Denhamer, friend and board member for the Calgary Prostate Network. “Then you know he’s larger than life.” Wilson’s reaction to that cancer diagnosis nine years ago was “absolute shock,” Denhamer says. “His late stage detection scared him tremendously.”

When Wilson comes in for a photo shoot today, he arrives with another moniker. “I don’t call myself a cancer survivor; I call myself a cancer graduate. If you don’t graduate you’re dead.”

Ah, that candor. He is now 52, and shows the photographer three shirts he’s brought for the shoot. They decide on the bright orange one. The photographer points to a washroom where Wilson can change. “I can change here,” he says. He strips off the red-striped shirt with embroidered cars for the intricate orange paisley one; he turns up the cuffs, royal blue.

The stripping down – part unnerving, part refreshing – reflects the unabashed way Wilson dealt with cancer. “Cancer gave me the right to say eff-you to everybody. I was working in a work world where you have clients, you have partners, you have family, and there’s demands on your time from everybody, but all of a sudden cancer comes into your life and you can say ‘no.’”

His three kids came first. “The opportunity came to reprioritize time with my children. I let them know I was indeed their father. Before, I could go weeks without spending any meaningful time with them, because the demands of the office.” His divorce meant he had the kids “50-50 instead of 98-2.” Now, he had to marshal three children to three different schools. And his kids were with him the week of his diagnosis. First he made his funeral plan, and then he drove the kids to their B.C. country place where he began his research. It was July 1, his 44th birthday. Importantly, he also wrote down a new plan for living.

And he called his dad. Wilson’s father was a prostate cancer graduate: He’d had surgery nearly 10 years earlier at age 67. Now Brett had to choose his own treatment. “Prostate cancer is a disease that, if caught early, has many treatment options,” Wilson says. “If it’s not caught early it’s an incredibly challenging disease.” His was the challenging type. That smooth tissue that his physician had felt during the rectal exam was actually the surface of tumours that had grown outwards and together. (Earlier-stage prostate cancer can feel bumpy to a physician.) Wilson went to the Dattoli Medical Center in Florida and underwent external beam radiation therapy and brachytheraphy, a process in which radiation therapists place seeds of radioactive material internally at the tumour site to kill the cancer. It was no picnic.

Five years later, Wilson experienced some serious side effects from the radiation: bleeding from his intestines and bladder, but he’s come through, and has been cancer- free for nine years.

Since then, he’s helped finance the Southern Alberta Institute for Urology Centre in Calgary with Daryl “Doc” Seaman, fellow Calgarian and part-owner of the Calgary Flames. Each man contributed $5 million. (Also a prostate cancer patient, Seaman died in 2009 at age 86.) And Wilson has advocated for early screening for men in their 40s. (“PSA tests cost $30, if you don’t have the money, I’ll chip in half,” he declares. It’s a frequent refrain, but he says that, to date, no one has taken him up on it.) And he’s done more priority setting. “Whereas deals, and money and travel, and art and new cars were priorities, suddenly my health, my relationships with family, and my relationships with friends became priorities.”

Cancer, observes Peter Denhamer, seems to have galvanized Wilson as an advocate for dozens of charities. “He leads with his wallet.” And he expects others to do the same. Find a beautiful wreath on your door? It’s from Wilson with an envelope asking for a donation for the Calgary Urban Project Society. Go to one of his fancy parties? It’s all free, but be prepared to donate to the cause of the night. It’s not an approach that everybody favours, but Wilson is a man unleashed. And he’s out there. Literally.

Denhamer recounts the time his daughter Julie looked out the window of her Calgary food shop last November to see Wilson entering a clothing store across the street in nothing but his boxers for an event to raise awareness and money for prostate cancer: The clothing store owner dressed Wilson and friends, and each man donated the cost of the clothing money to charity.

He does a lot of behind the scenes handholding, too. So when Denhamer was diagnosed with early-stage prostate cancer in his 40s (“My wife asked me three times a day: have you been tested?” he says.) Wilson was there. “He gave me an ear; he was very private, and he set the tracks for me in terms of my options and maintaining a positive attitude.” And he’s done that for strangers, as well. Wilson replies to a post on a cancer support blog: “Contact me so we can discuss our mutual challenges.”

After the photo shoot, Wilson sits on a white canvas couch to talk about his life post-cancer. After cancer is when he started his holding company, Prairie Merchant. It’s also when he famously beat out several hundred others for a spot on Dragons’ Den, the CBC show where average Canadians pitch ideas to investors. (“Dragons’ Den is a small part of what I’ve done, but a big part of how I’m perceived.”)

He also supports various cancer foundations and organizations through donations and time. Bob Shiell, the Calgary-based vice-president of one such organization, says, “He’s been very generous to our support group, so he’s enhanced our support group, but even more important, in being open about his own journey, Brett has raised the profile of prostate cancer tremendously.

“Men don’t like to talk about anything below the belt,” Shiell continues. “But the more men will go out and get themselves tested, the better.”

In a startlingly candid presentation to a cancer support group, Brett Wilson is filmed talking to men with prostate cancer in Calgary. He begins with talking about the layman’s challenge to understanding treatment options.

One section didn’t make the recording, he says, since the videographers were changing a tape. “There’s a room full of guys, most of them in their 60s and 70s, most of them with their spouses. I decided to just be open and walk through my journey, this is my journey, if you learn something from it, great.

“And I said: ‘Let’s have a conversation about erectile function’….then I said, ‘OK, everyone can look up now,’ because their heads just fell. And I offered, ‘Let’s be blunt. It doesn’t work very well after you get treated, it doesn’t matter what your treatment protocol is. So let’s just get that out there, it’s not going to work as well.’ Then I talked about the fact that with patience, time and some drugs, things can get better.”

The fear of cancer’s reprise doesn’t daunt him. “The small-c is kind of up over my shoulder looking at me, but I don’t look back at it at all. Some people who have been treated still die of prostate cancer, but I can’t live worrying about it. I could be hit by a bus before the cancer comes back.”

And then it’s time to go. Brett Wilson grabs his suit bag, shakes the hands of the photo crew, strides out.

He’s heading to Toronto for meetings, and then jetting off to the Caribbean.

To Catch a Killer

Dr. Don Morris has been working hard to infect prostate cancer cells with a reovirus that, while it has no impact on healthy tissues, is killing cancer cells.

Morris’s work builds on that of Dr. Patrick Lee, who first published the encouraging results of his Calgary lab’s work with cancer and reoviruses in Nature magazine 12 years ago. “Since then, there’s been a world of oncolytic virus work occurring in labs,” Morris says.

Other labs have been using a variety of viruses, such as polio and measles, against cancer. These killer viruses have to be manipulated in the lab to render them harmless to people. Reoviruses need no such treatment as they produce no clinical symptoms in the humans they infect. “But they have high activity against cancer cells,” Morris says.

First, they undertook a small trial of six men. “We examined the prostate gland after prostatectomy. Against their prostate cancer, we saw a robust immune response [that killed cancer cells] where we had injected reovirus into a cancer lesion three weeks earlier,” he says. The limitation: “Other lesions on the same gland were not affected due to the body’s immune response.”

To get around the conundrum, Morris and his team developed a way to use t-cells to trick the immune system into recognizing the virus attached to a cancer cell, killing the cell at the same time as clearing the virus. The team |has seen some good results in animal models and Morris is submitting his latest research for review in Cancer Research magazine.

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