A Guelph woman’s donation after her death has the potential to help other patients battling an aggressive form of brain cancer for years to come.
Cindy Graham, a mother, scientist and former pharmaceutical researcher, was diagnosed with glioblastoma in May 2019 and underwent a 20-month battle against the disease.
A month prior to her death on February 24 2021, Cindy and her family made the decision to donate her brain and spinal cord to medical researchers at the Sheila Singh Research Lab at McMaster University in Hamilton.
With this donation, and previous tissue and blood samples collected by the lab from Cindy while she was living, researchers hope to better understand the largely terminal disease and find new ways of treating it.
“I didn’t truly appreciate it at first, the uniqueness of her donations, because it started from the initial tumour, all the way through three resectional surgeries, and the final donation,” said Thomas Graham, Cindy’s husband. “Apparently, that’s unique in the world, and researchers will have the opportunity to see how it progresses.”
The tissue is being studied by the director of the lab, Dr. Sheila Singh. While undergoing treatment for glioblastoma, Cindy became one of Singh’s first patients in a study she was doing with glioblastoma at the time.
“Cindy donated her tissue from that first trial and just followed up with it,” said Graham, adding she also donated blood samples.
“Clearly, it was too late for her, but she wanted to contribute as much as she could.”
To help fund future research by Singh, Graham has created the Cindy Graham Glioblastoma Memorial Research Fund, an endowment fund which will provide money for scholarships and grants for graduate students studying glioblastoma.
Being a professor in environmental studies at the University of Guelph, Graham said he understands how research works and is pushing to keep this rare opportunity going.
“Sheila has all of Cindy’s tissue, and it has all this potential, but this is the real world, and that potential needs all this funding behind it to drive it,” he said.
Currently, the fund has over $43,000 and a GoFundMe page was recently made to raise $350,000. Behind the scenes, Graham has also been contributing separately to the endowment.
“I won’t be getting a new vehicle anytime soon, but I don’t have an issue with that, it’s her legacy.”
When Cindy was first diagnosed with glioblastoma back in May 2019, Graham said she was doing well during the first eight months of treatment.
“She tolerated the radiation, she tolerated the chemo, she even got her drivers licence back,” he said, “and then it all went downhill.”
As her condition worsened, Graham said Cindy went from being able to talk to only communicating through blinking. He adds their eight-year-old twin boys, Dean and Darwin Graham, also saw the toll the disease took on their mother.
“They watched her go from walking, to having a cane, to having a wheelchair, to watching me take her out of bed,” he said.
“She made it to the boy’s birthday. She was not able to speak then, but she watched them blow their eight candles out, and at the end of January, it was time for hospice.”
Cindy, known for being a generous, warm and funny person who was always taking care of others, is also being called a hero by her sons for her donations.
“‘So Mommy’s a hero then?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely,’” said Graham, recalling his conversation with his son about Cindy.
Besides honouring Cindy through research, Graham and his sons are planning to plant a tree at their family cottage using her ashes. When the tree is big enough, they will cut off a branch to fashion into a Christmas ornament.
After everything his family has gone through, Graham wants to give back some hope for others experiencing glioblastoma.
“You see the stats and watch these people, piece by piece, have these things taken away from them and they go from these vibrant, wonderful people, it’s just a devastating thing,” he said.
“If we can avoid somebody going through what we feel, then we win. Cindy wins.”