October 23, 2015

‘A forever friendship’: Unexpected meeting lead two strangers to form special bond during cancer challenge

When Cynthia Kanko, left, needed a friend to help her through the challenges of a cancer diagnosis, she unexpectedly found one in a stranger, Georgia Frey. They are pictured inside St. Paul Catholic Center in Bloomington, their home parish. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

When Cynthia Kanko, left, needed a friend to help her through the challenges of a cancer diagnosis, she unexpectedly found one in a stranger, Georgia Frey. They are pictured inside St. Paul Catholic Center in Bloomington, their home parish. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

BLOOMINGTON—The usual flow of a friendship begins with a connection at school, on a team, in a neighborhood, at work or during a shared interest.

If we’re blessed, the bond deepens through time, connecting us with someone who not only shares the joy and the fun in life, but also the tough times and the heartbreaking moments.

It was exactly that kind of friendship that Cynthia Kanko needed when she received the devastating news in 2013 that she had the worst stage of breast cancer. The diagnosis left her reeling: “My world came crashing down. I lost every hope.”

Yet there was no one in Kanko’s life who she felt she could lean on, or who could help with the pain.

A native of the African country of Ghana, she had moved to Bloomington less than two years earlier to pursue a doctoral degree at Indiana University. A single mother, she worried more about her then 10-year-old daughter while she also longed for the comfort of her mom, who was in Ghana. And while she was known, involved and appreciated at St. Paul Catholic Center in Bloomington, she didn’t want to burden anyone there.

Then one seemingly chance encounter changed everything—not just for Kanko but for a woman she had never met.

That’s where the story of the remarkable friendship of Cynthia Kanko and Georgia Frey begins, a friendship that has led both women to believe there are no coincidences with God.

The beginning of the blessings

Kanko and Frey first met on July 1, 2013—a day when both women unexpectedly changed their plans.

Ever since she had been diagnosed with cancer three months earlier, Kanko hadn’t been able to attend Mass at St. Paul Catholic Center because of her weakness from the side effects of chemotherapy. Still, she made a point each week to visit the center’s chapel for an hour, realizing “how the presence of the Lord” brought her “a lot of inner peace, joy, comfort and strength.”

“Surprisingly enough, in the midst of all this fear, doubt, sorrow, pain and uncertainty about the future—and the countless questions that went through my mind—never once did I question my faith and my God,” she recalls. “As unbelievable as it might sound, this rather drew me closer to my God and deepened the little faith that I always had in Christ Jesus.”

When she visited the chapel, Kanko usually entered and exited through the back door of the center—“to avoid sympathies from the staff of the parish office.” Yet on that July day, she broke from that routine, coming through the main entrance of the church to pick up some reading material.

Frey also changed her plans that day.

“I was traveling a lot then, and I was getting ready to go on another trip,” recalls Frey, an associate professor at Indiana University who is also a member of St. Paul’s. “I never randomly stop at the church out of the blue. But for some reason, I did.”

During her visit, Frey had a conversation with a few other women, including the parish secretary, Valli Youngs. At one point, Youngs mentioned to Frey, “By the way, Cynthia Kanko has cancer.”

“I said, ‘Who is Cynthia?’ ” Frey recalls. “She said, ‘She’s the woman who always wears beautiful, traditional African clothes at church.’ ”

As Frey pictured Kanko in her mind, she also thought of her own diagnosis of breast cancer in 2009. Even more, she thought of all the fear and uncertainty she felt then, all the radiation and chemotherapy she endured, and all the help she received from others.

I said, ‘Give me her information, and I’ll get in touch with her when I get back,’ ” Frey recalls.

As Frey made that promise, Kanko walked in the main entrance of the church and saw Youngs talking with a few other women. Seconds later, Frey and Kanko were introduced to each other. The two women talked for a long time. Then Frey drove Kanko home to her apartment so she would know where Kanko lived.

It was the start of a journey of friendship for the two women, one that neither had expected when they made their fateful visits to church that day.

“I believe the Holy Spirit had a hand in all of that,” Frey says.

“Nothing was coincidental that day,” Kanko says.

It was just the beginning of the blessings.

‘Cynthia’s Angels’ come into view

When Frey learned she had breast cancer in 2009, her diagnosis came shortly after her mother received the same diagnosis. Within months, Frey’s sister would also be diagnosed with breast cancer. Devastated, the then-45-year-old Frey—a wife and a mother of a teenager—turned to the foundations of her life.

“Through my treatment, I had a lot of support from friends, family, the church and the community,” she says. “I knew how important it was to get that support. I wanted to make sure Cynthia had a similar support system.

“I also had some very strong opinions about providers of cancer treatment. Cynthia and I almost basically had the same treatment—chemo first, then surgery, then radiation. So I just gave her advice with the caveat that everybody’s experience is different.”

Frey has done much more than give advice. She listened to Kanko’s concerns and set up a MyCancerCircle website called Cynthia’s Angels.

“It’s where helpers and volunteers could sign up to help me in various ways,” says Kanko, who is 42. “Some signed up to bring us food, others to go grocery shopping for us, still others to take my daughter to the library and her various programs—all in a bid to help me focus on my healing and recovery without having to stress about minor issues.”

In their conversations, Kanko also told Frey about her mother’s impact on her life. Knowing how much a mother’s support means, Frey tried to find a way to cover the cost of a flight from Ghana, which ranged from $2,500 to $3,000. She contacted a woman she knew from her cancer experience, a businesswoman who decided to donate all of her frequent flier miles to cover the trip to Indiana for Kanko’s mom.

“She didn’t want any credit for doing it,” Frey says.

When insurance didn’t cover a substantial part of a medical bill, the members of St. Paul Catholic Center became involved again.

“We got the radiation screening center to hold off on billing her until we could do something as a church,” Frey says. “We made appeals in the bulletin and from the pulpit. People were so generous. We got over $10,000.”

Frey refers to each of these generous responses as either “another little miracle” or “another God-inspired connection”—the same phrase she uses for one of the people who drives Kanko an hour each way from Bloomington to her treatments in Greenwood and Columbus.

“I didn’t have a lot of time to drive her,” Frey says. “A woman who doesn’t go to our church told me that if Cynthia needs anything to let her know. I asked if she could help with the driving. She said, ‘Of course.’ ”

‘A forever friendship’

When she considers all the outpouring of help and prayers that so many people have provided for Kanko, Frey remembers one of the greatest pieces of wisdom that she received during her battle with cancer—wisdom that she believes everyone should embrace during the struggles of their lives.

Frey received the advice from Jillian Vandermarks, the director of religious education at St. Paul.

“One of the things I really learned through cancer treatment is that you can say, ‘I can do this on my own. I don’t want to bother anyone.’ When I was sick, Jillian impressed upon me something about all the people who wanted to help. She said, ‘All these people are Jesus with skin. Their gift of assistance is a gift from Jesus. These people are put in your life to help you. You have to be open to their help. And accepting their help is a gift for them.’ ”

Kanko has embraced that gift even as her fight against cancer continues 2 1/2 years later. Her gratitude overflows for all the help she has received, and all the prayers that have been offered for her from Indiana to Ghana.

“My ‘angels’ give me the strength and the courage to live and fight another day to make cancer a thing of the past,” she says. “They all represent Christ here on Earth with dedication and devotion.”

She becomes especially emotional when she talks about Frey.

“Since the day we met, she’s been like a sister to me. She’s willing to do anything for me. We have a wonderful and beautiful relationship.”

All those relationships have strengthened her relationship with God.

“My faith remains unchallenged and deepened, and my yoke has been made lighter,” she says. “God has been and still is so good to me. I will forever serve him with a joyful heart.”

Frey is also there for the long run with Kanko. She, her mother and her sister all have “no evidence of cancer” at this time. She keeps praying that Kanko will reach that point, too.

“It’s been a privilege to witness her courage and perseverance,” Frey says. “The best thing is that ‘a forever friendship’ has come out of all of this. And it’s a reciprocal friendship. It’s not just me doing things for her. She’s someone I love and trust and like being around, like all my friendships.

“I just think it was all orchestrated by the big guy—God.” †

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