Renowned Pianist Recounts Miraculous Recovery

Her physicians told her she’d likely never play two-hand piano again.

But two years to the day after being diagnosed with a rare cancerous growth, she was once again playing “my beloved Chopin.”

Janina Fialkowska tells of her battle with cancerDuring a noon concert of the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival at Asbury United Methodist Church, Janina Fialkowska tells of her battle with cancer in her left arm that threatened to end her career as a concert pianist.
Photo by Jim Bishop

Internationally-acclaimed Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska recounted her miraculous recovery during a noon program June 14 of the annual Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival.

Speaking to an audience as part of the daily noon concerts held at Asbury United Methodist Church in Harrisonburg, Ms. Fialkowska said she feels “almost terrified” in thinking back to what might have been, but if her experience can inspire and encourage others who are going through difficult situations “it is worth it” to share her story.

She returned to the Lehman Auditorium stage at EMU to play Chopin’s “Concerto No. 2 in F Minor for Piano and Orchestra” and “Concerto No. 1 in E Minor for Piano and Orchestra” during the second concert of the festival June 15.

She first collaborated with the Bach Festival in 1999.

An Early Beginning

Born in Montreal to a Canadian mother and a Polish father, Fialkowska started piano studies with her mother at the age of five.

She received advanced degrees from the University of Montreal at age 17 and one year later entered Juilliard School of Music in New York. Her career was launched by Arthur Rubinstein after a prize-winning performance at his inaugural Master Piano Competition in Israel in 1974.

When Fialkowska turned 50 in 2001, “everything was going extremely well” in her life with musical career that spanned the globe. Then, her mother, “my greatest supporter,” died of leukemia, she said.

The 9/11 terrorist attack made touring more difficult for her, but that was offset by marriage to “a wonderful man, Harry Oesterle, from Germany.”

While on holiday, she noticed a swelling in her left arm that wouldn’t go away. In early 2002, she saw a specialist who told her to get an MRI. That test revealed a tumor, a rare cancerous growth.

Aggressive Treatment

She endured five weeks of daily radiation and several surgeries in that arm at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City – “they played Mozart over the public address system during the procedures,” she told the audience – followed by a rare muscle transfer from another part of her body.

After that, she had to keep her arm “absolutely still” for eight weeks, with “no idea” at the time if the uncommon procedure would prove successful.

Along with regular physical therapy sessions, she began playing concertos arranged for one hand, which helped her regain confidence.

“The doctors never expected me to play again – they didn’t tell me that at the time,” Fialkowska said. “But, I set a goal that exactly two years after the initial biopsy, I would again be performing my beloved Chopin, and I was – in January 2004,” she smiled.

Critics from around the world declare that her playing now exceeds her virtuosity prior to the ordeal, a testimony to the power of music and healing against all odds.