Chronicle of a Stem Cell Transplant (and on through to the other side)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Spacious Heart

Last Wednesday was stunning.

Callanish played host to several hundred generous hearts who attended its biggest fundraiser to date at the UBC Museum of Anthroplogy in Vancouver.

Those of us lucky enough to attend were treated to unparalleled performances by pianist, Maryliz Smith; flautist, Lorna Mc Ghee; violinist, Joan Blackman; and, cellist, Ariel Barnes.

It was humbling, to say the least, to get up and speak amongst such talented artists; however, I am always grateful for the opportunity to gush about the people and organization that have had such a profound effect on my life. By request (though I am somewhat shy in doing so), I am including part of my talk here from this special evening.

I began with a poem written a few months ago after I requested (god knows why) and received my medical records in the mail. While what they contained was no surprise, as I already have most of the documents in some form or another, it was a rather daunting and unsettling experience to look at them all again.

Ironically, as depressing as this poem may sound to you, I actually felt better after writing it. In doing so, I felt like I had the final say.

For the Record
by Kirsten Andersen

You arrived
tattered and torn
bursting at the seams
spilling forth
an account of this body
Four long years
fourteen hundred and fifty-two days
narrated across thousands of pages
by countless doctors
in Vancouver
all describing the “unfortunate young lady”
“an anxious 32-year-old”
“with no history of illness”
“thin and pale”
“a sizeable mass in the chest”
“unusually aggressive disease”
“no known cure - worldwide
palliative chemo for this “tragic case”

Am I tragic?

These words have been dictated, transcribed, typed
and now delivered to me in a ragged envelope,
arriving with the flyers and bills
lying beside me in bed this morning
GPs, surgeons, oncologists, endocrinologists,
radiologists, hematologists,
all have had their way with my body,
its blood, its marrow, its developing cells,
telling a story
seemingly hopeless and futile
sad and tragic


After writing this poem, I asked myself:

“What did I mean by now?”

When was now?”

When did the repair of a body, spirit and heart broken by cancer, begin?

It occurred to me that now was in fact long before the few minutes spent writing this poem. That an invisible mending had begun years before when I first walked through the door to Callanish.

It began when I attended my first Young Adult Support Group at Callanish the evening of my first day of chemo in May 2006.

It began when I attended my first retreat in January of 2007, three months after a stem cell transplant left me confused and unsure how to approach the future.

It began at Callanish in the city, sitting in many retreat day circles and writing groups after I learned that the transplant had not done what was intended and that the cancer had spread to my liver and bones.

It began at a weekend workshop entitled the Sacred Work of Dying in 2009 where we explored the emotional and spiritual obstacles to piece of mind and heart.


Heart is what beats steadily at the centre of all this work at Callanish. It is offered freely, without exception, without limits.

Whether you are young, old, man, woman, gay, straight, Catholic, Jewish, lactose intolerant, there is a place for you at the Callanish table.

Heart is encouraged and nourished in each of us who belong to this community.

It is what many in this room can attest to creating the conditions for healing, whether we are living with or dying from cancer.

And it is the support of this unconditional compassion that brings us here tonight to share in a feast for the ears, and to rest in the spacious, extraordinary heart that is Callanish.

My other two extraordinary hearts with me on Wednesday,
my mom and Brian.