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Krembil patient determined to make a difference after life-altering brain tumour diagnosis

Daniel Yolleck
Daniel Yolleck, who has worked as a yoga teacher, motivational speaker and corporate executive, says being diagnosed with non-curable brain cancer has provided a new lease on life and an opportunity to make an impact in the lives of other. (Photo: UHN)

Less than 24 hours after playing one of the most enjoyable tennis matches of his life, Daniel Yolleck was fending off volleys from a different adversary altogether.

"After playing a wonderful match with my wife on Sunday, I had flown to Ottawa the next day for a pair of business meetings," says Daniel, a 65-year-old Toronto business executive and grandfather. "I came off the plane and I remember I had the most terrible headache. It was so bad I could barely concentrate."

When the throbbing continued, a trip to Ottawa Civic Hospital followed where, after undergoing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computerized tomography (CT) scans, Daniel received some startling news.

"The medical staff told me they'd discovered two tumours in my head and that they were aggressive and dangerous. In fact, the neurosurgeon said, 'If you want, we'll operate in the next 24 to 48 hours'."

Seeking the comfort and support of friends and family, Daniel returned to Toronto and the following day paid a visit to the Krembil Neuroscience Centre at Toronto Western Hospital where he met Dr. Paul Kongkham, a neurosurgeon and specialist in brain tumours, who is also a research scientist affiliated with the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

Daniel was immediately impressed with Dr. Kongkham's professionalism, demeanor and candor.

"Right away he made me feel phenomenal. I knew 110 per cent this guy was on my side. He saw me as a human being, he was there for me," says Daniel, who is sharing his story with UHN News in order to help highlight the exceptional work of the Neurosurgery Division at Toronto Western.


Daniel Yolleck
After undergoing brain surgery at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre, Daniel Yolleck was inspired to fulfil a lifelong dream. He put pen to paper and wrote The Way to Enlightenment: In the New Millennium in just 10 days. (Photo: UHN)​

"There was something special about Dr. Kongkham: confidence, kindness and capability. Those attributes came across very strongly. I think after that I relaxed on the medical side of things and what that allowed me to do was focus on taking care of things in my personal life."

Dr. Kongkham's initial observations suggested Daniel's two closely-located tumours represented an area of brain harbouring a glioblastoma, the same type of incurable cancer that struck Tragically Hip front man Gord Downie earlier this year. Average survival for patients with glioblastoma is 14 to 16 months.

"This type of brain tumour is the most aggressive adult primary brain tumour," says Dr. Kongkham. "Time is of the essence when it comes to treating such tumours.

"We can't wait weeks or months because glioblastoma has the potential to progress rapidly."

The startling turn of events gave Daniel pause to reflect on his life. Creative, curious and spiritual, he had spent much of his days on the Earth tackling one professional or personal pursuit after another.

In addition to being a yoga teacher, motivational speaker and coach over the course of a vibrant and fulfilling life, he has also served as a global consultant to health care providers around the world, as well an adviser on corporate leadership and governance.

"I was thinking to myself, what does this all mean? Am I finished? I went from one day, you know, playing tennis, to 24 hours later, being told I had life-threatening brain tumours."

Until that point in time, Daniel had been enjoying semi-retirement: exercising regularly, working casually, spending time with his wife Shayna and doting on his five grandchildren.

Dr. Kongkham performed a craniotomy surgery to remove the tumour just under a week after first meeting Daniel. Using intraoperative ultrasound and an intraoperative "GPS system" to localize and visualize the affected brain, Dr. Kongkham removed as much of the tumour as safely possible.

"Unfortunately, with this type of tumour, you can never truly remove it completely because its borders are not distinct, with tumour cells invading into the brain away from the bulk of the tumour mass itself. We can never get all of it, but we get as much as we can, and rely on further treatment administered by our colleagues in radiation oncology and neuro-oncology to control the disease left behind following surgery" says Dr. Kongkham.

A short time later, Daniel attended a follow-up visit with Dr. Kongkham, where the diagnosis of glioblastoma was confirmed. What followed was a frank discussion about the future.

Daniel Yolleck’s book The Way to Enlightenment
Daniel Yolleck’s book The Way to Enlightenment: In the New Millennium is meant to be a roadmap for living life to its fullest. (Photo: UHN)​

"We do not have cures for this disease. This is a life-altering diagnosis," says Dr. Kongkham. "Telling patients this kind of news can be difficult, but seeing the resilience of people and how they rise to face this kind of challenge is also inspiring to me as a clinician.

"In Daniel's case, he used this event as a springboard to do something bigger with his life."

Within days of the surgery, Daniel was "jumping" out of bed each morning in order to fulfill a life-long goal.

"I wrote this book in 10 days," says Daniel, proudly holding up a copy of The Way to Enlightenment: In the New Millennium.

"I woke up every day and wrote for 11 straight hours. The words just flowed out of me, and I didn't need any editing or anything."

The book is meant to be a roadmap for living life to its fullest. It includes a heartfelt letter to family and friends that Daniel wrote in the days after his diagnosis.

In it, he writes: "My reaction to this new medical diagnosis is 'So what?' We are all living lives that are non-curable. Life can end at any point and I will have many more great days. I intend to continue, as always, to squeeze the most out of every moment I have with great optimism and positivity."

While Daniel has subsequently been assessed at the Gerry and Nancy Pencer Brain Tumour Centre, undergone radiation therapy and volunteered to participate in a clinical trial of a new chemotherapy approach using immune therapy, he's also accepted the reality that he has fewer days ahead than he originally planned.


Dr. Paul Kongkham
Dr. Paul Kongkham, a neurosurgeon at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre, says patients like Daniel Yolleck inspire him to search for answers about brain tumours in his other role as affiliate research scientist at the MacFeeters Hamilton Neuro-oncology Program at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. (Photo: UHN)

Daniel is quick to stress, however, that this diagnosis has provided a new lease on life and an opportunity to make an impact in the lives of others. In addition to the writing the book, he's also offered his coaching skills to help other patients diagnosed with glioblastoma through peer support.

"I think when I went in for surgery that my brain was opened up in a way I never could have imagined," Daniel says. "Afterward, I was much better able to perceive things, to understand things, to have better insight, and it's definitely been validated multiple times. Something has definitely shifted in a positive way."

One person motivated by Daniel's drive, determination and positive attitude is Dr. Kongkham.  When not helping patients, he continues to search for answers in his other role at UHN: as an affiliate research scientist at the MacFeeters Hamilton Neuro-oncology Program at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

"Daniel has tried to turn his diagnosis into something bigger than himself and I think maybe we could all learn something from him about facing adversity," says Dr. Kongkham. "Not everyone who undergoes this immediately switches it from being about them to 'What can I do to help other people.' … I personally find that very inspiring."​

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