ROBENA Sheikh never thought she would be a widow by the time of her son's fifth birthday.

Robena’s husband Zahir was diagnosed with lung cancer in December, 2009 at the age of 42. The cancer was in both lungs and it was terminal.

"I never expected death to knock on my door at my age," says Robena. "I had two young children - a four-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter - when my husband was diagnosed. There was little they could do."

The following July, Zahir and Robena had a visit from Bradford's Marie Curie palliative care team.

"I was very cold towards them. I didn’t want interference in my family," says Robena. "Some Muslim families can be distrusting and may not want to let others in, and I understand. It was only over time that I learned I could trust the palliative care team and the hospice."

By August the cancer had spread to Zahir’s brain. "He had a DIY store and had been working long hours but he had to stop. I was a court administrator and had to take time off work to care for him," says Robena. "Looking after Zahir and two children was difficult. Zahir needed constant care because he was losing his balance and had trouble walking. I couldn’t leave him on his own."

In August, the palliative care team suggested Zahir went to Bradford's Marie Curie Hospice for an assessment, and he learned he had just weeks to live. "That was a big shock," says Robena. "Zahir seemed still strong, determined and positive - we thought we had much more time. I'd hoped he might make it to our little boy’s birthday in October. Sadly, he didn’t."

When Zahir moved into the hospice it was better than Robena expected. "He had his own room where visitors could stay overnight. There was a prayer room, conservatory, and multi-faith church. The staff talked to me about how I was coping. I didn’t expect to make so many friends and to experience such a loving environment.

"At the hospice I saw the warmth of humanity. It felt like there was a ring of people holding hands around me and my children. I’ve never experienced this before or since."

For the last few weeks of Zahir’s life, Robena had wanted to move him home so he could die there, but in the end she decided he should stay at the hospice where he had quick access to pain relief and other medical care. "And perhaps more importantly, I knew I would get more quality time with him," she says. "I told family and friends how ill he was and, as is the case with many Asian families, people came from far and wide to visit him. We often ate together in the eating area. As Zahir became very ill we had to restrict visitors. The hospice helped us manage this, it’s not something we could have done in a hospital.

"Often in the Asian community people believe the family should look after the relative at home. But this hospice felt like home for me. I will always be grateful for those last days with him."

Robena found the staff supportive and reassuring. "I was worried I might not be there with Zahir when he died, but one nurse said if I was meant to be there then I would be. That felt like just the right thing to say. And I was with him at the end on September 19, 2010."

Zahir's death has been hard for Robena to come to terms with. "We had been married 18 years. I felt lost without him. I had counselling at the hospice for around a year, it really helped."

Robena's daughter, Zaynah, has raised money for Marie Curie at school, and Robena makes regular donations in memory of her late husband. "In giving to charity I believe, and it’s linked to my culture, that it will help ease his burden and pain," she says.

This month fundraisers like Robena have been making donations to Marie Curie's Great Daffodil Appeal, which has been raising awareness and funds since 1986. Every March, millions of people show their support by wearing a daffodil pin.

Last year saw Marie Curie’s most successful appeal, raising £8.26 million and funding 413,000 nursing hours. Every £20 collected pays for an hour of nursing care.

Alison Steadman was the face of the charity's first TV ad campaign, which raised more than £5 million.

As well as paying for nurses, funds raised go towards bereavement booklets for young people who’ve lost someone close; day therapy for terminally ill people, who benefit from activities such as gentle exercise or an art class; and slide sheets to move patients safely in bed.

* For more about Marie Curie and hospice care ring (01274) 337017.