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Jane Kenyon's leukemia: searching for a bone marrow donor


Jane Kenyon's leukemia: chemotherapy and the Philadelphia chromosome
Donald Hall Poet
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Well then started the 15 months of Jane's leukemia.  And of course one of the terrors was that my own cancer would return and I wouldn't be able to take care of her, but it did not, at all. Five years after my liver operation, when the cancer had not recurred, I was considered cured, or am cured, but by that time, Jane was herself dead. She was hospitalised for a month to be put into remission by means of chemotherapy. I wanted to be with her as much as I possibly could so I rented a motel room near the hospital, it's about an hour away, so that I didn't spend so much time driving back and forth.  And Jane's mother, who had moved to New Hampshire two or three years earlier, moved into this house and took care of our animals, our beloved dog, Gus, and an old cat, while I spent every day, all day, pretty much, by Jane's bedside. And oh, her hair fell out... started to fall out so she had it shaved, and all the predictable effects of chemotherapy. At the beginning our attitude - hers and mine - about her leukemia, was certainly not that death was inevitable, it was as if, well, this is the worst challenge we've ever faced... oh boy, what a... what a tough time... but the assumption that she would come through.  But really the chances were always rather poor, as I came gradually to understand.  She had ALL - acute lymphoblastic or lymphocytic leukemia - which is the kind that kids get, and these days kids largely recover from it, but when you are... how old was she then? She was 46. When you are 46 years old and you get it, your chances are not nearly so good. There is a protocol for treatment - I think two years of treatment - lots of different chemos followed by radiation, that cures some people and so we started on that.  But then there's a complication. Every leukemia's almost different from every other leukemia, there are minute differences which can show in an electron microscope of the DNA of the cancer cells. There's something called a Philadelphia chromosome - because it was discovered in Philadelphia at some point - and it's a fragmentation in two of the strands of DNA, and no one knows why, but when the cancer cell has this fragmentation, the chances of cure by chemotherapy become nil - it's impossible. We didn't discover this, or we weren't told it - I think the pathologists were originally not certain - we didn't know it until perhaps late February or March, but that meant there was only one possibility to save Jane's life, which was a bone marrow transplant.

The 14th US Poet Laureate Donald Hall (1928-2018) was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, then earned a bachelor's degree from Harvard in 1951 and a BLitt, from Oxford in 1953. He published many essays and anthologies of both poetry and prose including String too Short to be Saved: Recollections of Summers on a New England Farm, White Apples and the Taste of Stone, Without: Poems, and Ox-Cart Man, a children's book which won the Caldecott Medal. Hall was editor of the magazine Oxford Poetry, literary editor of Isis, editor of New Poems, and poetry editor of The Paris Review. He won many awards, including two Guggenheim Fellowships and a Robert Frost Medal. At the end of his first Oxford year, he also won the university's Newdigate Prize, awarded for his poem Exile.

Listeners: Kendel Currier

Kendel Currier started working for Donald Hall in August of 1994 as his correspondence typist. Later she took on his manuscript typing as well, and in October of 1998 moved 100 meters down the road from Donald and became his personal assistant, adding many various new tasks to her work. As well as working for Donald for the last 10 and-a-half years, Donald Hall and Kendel Currier share a set of great (or for Kendel great-great) grandparents, making them distant cousins and part of a similar New Hampshire heritage.

Tags: New Hampshire, Gus, ALL, Jane Kenyon

Duration: 3 minutes, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008