Im grateful for the kindness of strangers in my cancer recovery – The Globe and Mail

By daniellenierenberg

Illustration by Adam De Souza

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at

A few days after my stem cell transplant this year, a young cleaner entered my hospital room to disinfect and swab. Broad faced and friendly, she saw me lying in bed reading a book.

Do you like reading, she asked? Well, I have the book for you. It is called Fifty Shades of Grey. Its porno!

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That last part was whispered behind a cupped hand, as she grinned and then giggled. For good measure, she also recommended the teen vampire series Twilight.

Once shed left I laughed out loud in a way I hadnt done for days, weeks in fact. When you have cancer, these moments are golden.

Over the last year I have spent months in hospitals, being infused with chemotherapy that laid me low and then undergoing a risky transplant of stem cells from a heroic unknown donor. During this long period of remission and recovery, I have valued every opportunity to smile, to breathe and to feel hope. Much of this sense of being fully alive has come from the kindness of others.

The transplant had made me feel very sick and there was a point at which I was terrified of dying. I asked the hospital staff for a spiritual adviser and the next day a Buddhist monk came to visit me. I didnt expect this, but his calm face and compassionate manner brought me peace. He read me poems for meditation, encouraged deep breathing, and assured me that all emotions in illness are human expressions of identity and not to be judged or feared. His gentleness was echoed two days later, when a nurse with the loveliest face I had ever seen knelt down next to my bed, held my hand, and reassured me I would be okay.

Day by day, my son, his girlfriend, and my husband encouraged and supported me, too, even when I could barely hold up my head or speak without tears. My 21-year-old son sat with me through many painful procedures, setting his phone to play Bachs Brandenburg Concertos, squeezing my hand, looking into my face, loving me and giving me strength I didnt think I had.

I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in February 2019; before that fateful month I was a modern German historian teaching university students on the Weimar Republic, Nazism and the Holocaust. There were days when I had wept and raged with my students over the historical accounts of Nazi inhumanity, barbarity and chilling callousness inflicted upon innocent civilians, especially the Jews. I have often questioned whether human nature is fundamentally selfish, violent and nasty. Right now, in this world of hateful populism and climate devastation, I ask these questions even more. But since I became sick, the kindness, indeed the goodness, of other people has been a constant companion to me. I have been overwhelmed by the extraordinary outpouring of support and concern from so many. Compassion, care, affection, hope all have been expressed to me by family, friends, students and colleagues. Blood drives were organized in my name, and students asked me if they could be tested as a possible bone-marrow donor. My sister (who hates medical procedures) underwent several tests to see if she could be a sibling transplant. One colleague even offered me the umbilical blood he had saved from his three children. (Ultimately the hospital found a donor from an international registry.)

Friends and family kept in touch or visited despite the long drives to the two hospitals where I received treatment. Two of my girlfriends texted me every day, sending love, inspiration and photos of flowers. From other well-wishers I received quilts and artwork and shawls, books and lotion and lip balm. I read notes and e-mails that told me I was not alone, that love surrounded me and would lift me up. Prayers were said for me in Protestant, Catholic, Unitarian, Muslim and Jewish places of worship. Students sent me good luck charms, including a chemo bear (it worked! I went into remission). Money was donated in a go-fund-me campaign to help with the costs of travel and accommodation to cancer centres. Strangers (friends of friends) offered their homes at the times when we couldnt find accommodation. Delicious meals were dropped off at my home or brought to the hospitals: lentil soups, macaroni and cheese, banana bread and smoothies, all preventing me from having to imbibe those horrible meal-replacement drinks or the cafeteria food. Cancer patients came to see me and shared their experiences and wisdom. A quietly stoic man in his 40s with Stage 4 colorectal cancer expressed hope in the advances in cancer treatment; another inspirational friend with breast cancer revealed she had undergone over 100 chemo treatments and still managed to propel her bike in the annual Ride to Conquer Cancer. Other leukemia patients in my wards became friends and sources of enormous support. My sister-in-law, a liver transplant survivor, understood my physical and emotional pain and talked me through several hard times. On the stranger than fiction level, old boyfriends and ex-friends reappeared, expressing their love and sending me cards or messages that brought tears to my eyes. At the same time high-school and university pals from my ancient past got in touch and told me to hang in there!

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I got through the worst days because of the superb doctors and nurses, the donor who gave her or his stem cells, and our excellent health-care system. But I also made it this far because I did not feel alone. I was constantly reminded that I am loved and that I have so much to live for. In the arduous world of my cancer treatment, the face of compassion has appeared so many times and in such beautiful ways that I now place much more faith in the goodness of human nature because I have seen that many of us will care for each other, especially in hard times.

I may not decide to read Fifty Shades of Grey, but I love that this young woman wanted to suggest something to make me forget the cancer and feel better. And, really, because of her and the support that surrounded me, I did.

Carolyn Kay lives in Peterborough, Ont.

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Im grateful for the kindness of strangers in my cancer recovery - The Globe and Mail

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