When Paul Poirier rides into the Greater Toronto Area this weekend, he'll stand out from the procession of roaring Harley-Davidson, Honda and regular Yamaha motorcycles that ride around him.
First, there's his bike: It's a monster among Yamahas, a powerful V-Max with an output of 145 horsepower. Then there is his impressive frame. He stands 6-foot-3 and tips the scale at about 280 pounds.
What won't be readily apparent is that the leader of this motorcycle brigade has brain cancer. The 45-year-old, who works as a chiropractor in Cornwall, Ont., has been struggling with the disease for 16 years.
"It is an invisible disease. It's not like a broken leg, you can't see it," said Ginny Pereira, Mr. Poirier's wife.
Mr. Poirier is currently organizing a Terry Fox-esque ride of hope, the latest ride scheduled to tour Mississauga on Saturday. In the past, he has gotten anywhere from 30 to 100 participants.
And these men and women are serious about their motorcycling. Many have had a number of bikes in their lifetime. Mr. Poirier has had 13 since he started riding at the age of 14. Clad in leather and shades, most of the participants in these charity rides belong to motorcycle clubs such as the Canadian Motorcycle Cruisers. But they are not "Hells Angels types," Mr. Poirier said. They ride for social occasions and enjoy the presence of others who love their hogs.
With such a merry band of riders supporting his Bikers against Brain Cancer, Mr. Poirier hopes to raise awareness of and funds for a form of cancer that doesn't have its own coloured ribbon or international promotional campaign.
Mr. Poirier was first diagnosed with cancer in 1995 after having a seizure on a tennis court in California. After running "every test known to man," doctors found the tumour in his frontal left lobe, a portion of the brain that controls many aspects of a person's personality, emotions and sense of right and wrong. The doctors took it out.
Shortly after this surgery, he met his future wife. Life was on an upswing, especially since he was told the cancer was in remission. But almost 10 years to the day, the cancer returned. By this time, he and Ms. Pereira had two young sons. And after a second operation to remove the new tumour, Mr. Poirier had a serious complication.
"I said, 'Doc, I don't know what it is and don't ask me how I know, but there is something wrong,' " he told his doctor in 2005.
The unwell feeling persisted for a few weeks, prompting Mr. Poirier to return to an emergency room. After 15 hours in a Montreal hospital, Mr. Poirier said his head looked like a football – it was swelling on one side. Doctors eventually realized he was suffering an infection and his skull was filling with pus. So Mr. Poirier went under the knife again. But it wasn't his last operation – about a year later he had a fourth to reconstruct a segment of his head.
Mr. Poirier has also undergone seven rounds of chemotherapy. Initially, doctors thought he would only need a year of this treatment. Recently he has found out he will likely need to continue with the chemo for three consecutive years.
All of this has had a significant impact on his life. Ms. Pereira has noticed that it has affected his personality.
"He doesn't have the same range of emotion. He is more monotone with his emotions," she said.
Then there have been the lifestyle changes. There's still the possibility Mr. Poirier could suffer another seizure. And because there is no warning, it can strike at dangerous times. One of the most frightening moments happenedwhen he was sitting in his basement holding his son, Benjamin, who was an infant.
"I felt my whole face go numb. I could feel my brain cooking. I couldn't breathe for three to four minutes and I eventually passed out," he said.
But before blacking out, Mr. Poirier – mid-seizure – had the presence of mind to push his son out of the way so that he didn't roll over him.
The unpredictable threat has brought the family closer. They spend more time together. Sometimes it's for safety's sake. Ms. Pereira mentioned that occasionally she has the whole family huddle in the bathroom when she showers so she can keep an eye on things.
The disease has also had another positive impact on Mr. Poirier: The motivation to raise awareness. He came up with the idea for his motorcycle rides after one of his clients, who also had brain cancer, died.
"Most bikers are the most generous type of people you are going to meet," he said.
(Brain surgery patients who have suffered a seizure normally lose their licence for a year after the operation, and Mr. Poirier was no exception. But because he is on medication and doctors have deemed him not at risk for having another seizure while he's taking it, he got his licence back.)
Brain cancer affects thousands of people in Canada. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, so far this year 2,700 new cases have been diagnosed and 1,800 Canadians have died from brain cancer.
"It's going to get to a point where there are so many cases, everybody is going to have a cousin that has had it or something," Mr. Poirier said. "It is becoming a mainstream problem and that's why it needs to be made more aware of by the public."
The first ride, in Cornwall last October, raised $3,400 for the Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada. This summer Mr. Poirier has organized three more: another in Cornwall, one in Ottawa and one in Montreal. This year's Cornwall ride featured 105 bikers and raised just over $15,000.
Next year, he's planning to have more rides in Canada. He's even had someone from Florida contact him about starting up a procession there. Eventually, he wants these events to be a North American phenomenon, with international recognition.
Mr. Poirier doesn't let his prognosis get him down. In fact, it makes him even more motivated.
"How can I change this? It is what it is," he said. "I don't want to throw myself a pity party because what's the long-term benefit of doing that?"