As I look outside on this cold, grey day in Cincinnati I’m reminded that my friend on the other end of the phone has a similar perspective, yet a much different view on this Sunday. Dr. Victor Nicolas or “Dr. Vic” as we call him is relaxing at his beachside home in Maui, enjoying an extended honeymoon with his wife, Rita. Dr.Vic has been an anesthesiologist for the past 35 years and a Hawaiian vacation homeowner for just shy of eight. He has generously given his beautiful condo to KWF recipients since 2015.
The special thing about Dr. Vic is that he fully embodies our ‘Give First’ mentality. He has a ‘no strings attached’ approach when it comes to sharing the gifts life has given him with others.
When I spoke with him about what prompted his generous spirit he elaborated on the ‘miracle of giving.’ “Anyone who comes here, they come as our guest,” notes Dr. Vic. He went on to explain the importance of making lasting memories for families LIVING with cancer and how if he can provide his home to do just that, he’s “in.”
Just this past November, KWF lost a member of our recipient family, Becky Pellegrini. Dr.Vic was behind this nomination from the start. He knew Becky’s father, Dale and made sure she enjoyed some time on the island he loves so much.
As her family describes, “Becky spent a good amount of time joyfully watching the sea turtles swimming from her balcony that week.” No cancer in sight - just the Haleakala sunrise and blue ocean for miles. Becky loved that vacation so much that her family has decided to all go back next year. Her kids will now have the chance to watch those same sea turtles from that same balcony thanks to the generosity of Vic and Rita.
That same generosity that was on full display just a couple of weeks ago. On December 23rd, KWF gave our 1,000th gift of FUN to 29-year-old Jamie Helbig, a Covid/ICU nurse LIVING with breast cancer. After a year filled with Covid, cancer and a canceled wedding, we knew Jamie needed that trip to Maui. And it is no surprise that Dr.Vic felt the same. His daughter, Cara was present at that delivery to offer up incite on the island and a warm Aloha welcome to Jamie and her fiancé. The same couple has since decided to make that trip a destination wedding.
As our conversation came to a close, Dr.Vic elaborated on the magic of Hawaii. The famous Mama’s Fish House where he frequents, the beauty of the Maaleah Bay and the commanding view of the Haleakalā Volcano in East Maui. All beautiful, yet inconsequential in comparison to the feeling he gets when he can share it all with women and families LIVING with cancer.
We'll give Dr. Vic the last words here, “Very few people get the concept that happiness does not come from getting, it comes from giving and it’s even better if you can give at a personal level. If you can know a real person and their real struggles and their real concerns and make their life a little easier. Even if it’s just for a week or two...it gives me a great amount of personal happiness.”
By: Angeline Wellington
We like Yes people.
Not the spineless, people-pleasing kind. But the ones who are quick to say Yes to things that matter.
KWF is a growing group of friends who say Yes to helping others. And, just as importantly, say Yes to being helped. It’s a two-way street for all of us. Some days we’re on the receiving end; some days we’re the givers. As John Denver put it, “Some days are diamonds, some days are stones.” Yep.
KWF only works if we’re all Yes people.
Our Givers say Yes by finding ways to donate time, money, vacation homes, concert tickets or other fun stuff. Or by nominating a friend living with cancer and helping us put some fun on their calendars. Our Givers are busy, they have jobs, families, responsibilities or their own dreams. But they are Yes people, willing to stop their own races for others. In fact, Yes people make others a priority. Even when the “others” are perfect strangers.
It’s also important that our recipients and their families are quick to say Yes. The magic of KWF only works when we say Yes. If everyone nominated for a trip says NO because they believe someone else is more deserving, then that magic doesn’t work.
We are all born to be givers AND receivers. God didn’t give each of us our own planet to go it alone. He put all of us on this one globe, gave us a bunch of toys, beauty, sharp objects and adversity, and said, “It’s all here, figure it out.” We figure it out by working together and saying Yes to both receiving and giving.
We like the spirit of our KWF friend Krissi who was given a KWF spa day… Her friend questioned why she accepted the gift and didn’t offer to pay for a spa day. Krissi said, I’ve had an awful year living with breast cancer, someone wants to send me to a spa, so I said Yes. When I feel better, I’m going to send three other women living with breast cancer to a spa. Now that’s a Yes person LIVING with cancer. Krissi is a generous giver and has been for years!
Then there are the families who have never been on a vacation before receiving one from KWF. They say Yes even though they don’t have luggage or any idea how to negotiate a busy airport. They are open to receive. That experience gives them memories that last a life-time and beyond. Now, we have women saying yes to jumping out of planes, fly fishing expeditions, traversing the Grand Tetons, chilling at the beach with a group of girlfriends, petting a sloth for the first time and so much more!
But there’s a flip-side. When someone says NO to FunNow, there is no guarantee of FunLater.
About 30% of KWF gifts of fun are “last” ones. The past few years, we’ve had some recipients who were given vacations. They delayed and said NO because their kids had important school activities and were too busy for a break. Or they said “NO not now” because they were early stage and thought there would be more time. We lost those recipients and those last vacations were never taken.
In the summer of 2006, Karen and our family said Yes to a vacation to Newport, Rhode Island with close friends. It was a great vacation. Full of new places and experiences, including a ferry ride to an island, a lobster dinner on a picnic table in a park followed by whiffle ball games, spur-of-the-moment sunset ocean fishing with cheap rods hurriedly bought from a Wal-Mart, long walks, smells of the ocean, a tour of a row of mansions, and lots of laughs. It also was our last vacation with Karen. I’m glad our friends offered and our family said Yes.
- Kent Wellington, KWF Board Chair and Yes man
“Pamela’s Bible still sits in the den, right where she left it,” reflects Christopher Smitherman of his late wife, Pamela. “You can’t think of Pamela and not think of her faith. It was the centerpiece of her life.” That’s who Pamela was …and will always be in the hearts of those who knew her.
Pamela’s 50th Birthday is November, 23, 2020. This month, we are honoring Pamela! December would be her 30th wedding anniversary to college sweetheart, Christopher Smitherman, Vice Mayor and new KWF board member. When asked why he is serving on the KWF board, Christopher emphatically states, “I want to stop cancer! Since I can’t, I want to make sure that those who are fighting cancer have fun and enjoy life. I’ve never met an organization that is so much about life!”
Pamela and Christopher met in 1989 at Bowling Green State University on the way in to a Frat Party – not the Animal House kind, but a more dignified crowd! It was the fall of her freshman year and both were focused on their studies. Pamela, who ultimately earned a master’s degree in technical writing, dreamed of impacting the world through education. Christopher was in finance. Their combined sense of purpose made them an unbeatable pair. One year after meeting, they married and began their life together. Christopher’s family and his career brought them back to Cincinnati. His leadership on Cincinnati’s City Council placed the family squarely in the public spotlight.
But Pamela’s public life never conflicted with her personal sensibility and values. Her “integrity and doing the right thing never changed,” says her mom, Michele Banks. She notes “from an early age, Pamela was a leader.” She stepped up when others didn’t. She was a cheerleader, active on student council, played both the flute and piano, academically strong, well-liked, and respected. She was also incredibly talented. She was a seamstress and even sewed her own wedding dress! She was a writer and teacher, swim coach, soccer mom extraordinaire, positive force in her community, and a stand-tall-kind-of-wife. But her best and favorite role was as a mom to the Smitherman’s five children, whom she adored. They have four sons: Christopher (24), Malcolm (22), Isaac (20), Caleb (18). Their sweet long-awaited daughter, Camille (12), came 6 years after Caleb. “Children were everything to her,” Christopher emphatically states.
In December of 2017, Pamela learned she had an aggressive cancer that spread rapidly. The Smithermans banded together, as they always did, under and around Pamela and her mom-sense leadership.
Christopher’s sister-in-law, Liza Smitherman, nominated Pamela for a vacation through KWF. By the summer of 2018, Pamela was too sick to travel, but that didn’t stop them. The Smithermans were gifted a KWF Cincinnati staycation (at the downtown Hilton). The entire family was there, including Pamela’s mom. “Playing games, watching movies, hanging out as a family, talking about favorite memories with their mom,” that’s what Michele remembers most about the last vacation she took with her daughter.
They had three adjoining suites, snacks of every kind – including the best of Cincinnati food, pedicures and lots of other fun activities. But as Michele recalls, “I am most grateful for the time sitting crocheting, watching, listening… together in one room” during this last family vacation.
Six month later, Pamela passed away.
A year before their staycation in Cincinnati, when Pamela was more mobile, they rented a cabin in Gatlinburg. It was just the seven of them. That was a “magical moment,” says Christopher. “The blessing of cancer is that it really brings out the best in you. You focus on what’s important. I feel every second that I’m here.” It’s these memories and moments of joy that solidified Christopher’s interest in KWF’s mission.
Her sewing room remains on the third floor of their family home. And she lives on through her children, especially Camille, who inherited her mother’s spirit and is known to break out in a cheer or two that her mom taught her.
That Bible that sits in the den was well worn over the years. Pamela knew the love of God in her life. Of the thousands of passages she treasured, she wanted these words to be shared at her celebration of life,
“Let your light so shine before men,
that they may see your good works,
and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
It’s a reflection of her faith, yes, but it’s her hope for you as well. Pamela’s light shines on. Through her five children, her husband, Christopher, the many children she impacted in her community, the women she worked alongside of and those reading these words.
KWF joins with the Smithermans in celebrating Pamela this month! Join us by shining your light to others and LIVING your life to the fullest.
Note: When she learned she had cancer, Pamela insisted that her younger sister, Tracy Stone start getting mammograms. In 2019, Tracy was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. Fortunately, they caught it early. Tracy, her surgeon and treatment team credit early detection for saving her life. She is now doing well. Tracy is married to Jeff and has three children, Katiri, Aliesha and Michael. She lives in Chicago and is currently working on her PhD.
Pamela’s family has established the “Pamela Smitherman FUNd” to give Gifts of Fun to other women and families LIVING with cancer. This includes family vacations, spa days, fun experiences like skydiving, weekends with girlfriends, concerts, trips to the zoo, family gatherings, staycations and so much more.
Text PamelasFUNd to 44-321 to donate or reference the “Pamela Smitherman FUNd” HERE .
“I didn’t think it possible, but my heart has grown another size thanks to the generosity of the donating family, the mission of the KWF, and the memories made with my wonderful family. I am very similar to Karen in that I too want FUN on the calendar. I need to write it down, to anticipate it, and to imagine what it will be” - Jen Anderson
Do Today Well. That was Jen’s life motto, her daily outlook and the legacy she left behind. You see, as my mom would put it...cancer sucks. The chemo, the radiation, losing your hair, the fatigue, the nausea, all the ‘what ifs’ and the extra BS that comes along the way. But one thing cancer does provide is a new life perspective for all those it affects. “Cancer brings out the best in everybody. You really get to see the best side of the world. The KWF is the exclamation point on that statement,” said Jen of her cancer journey in 2015. Jen had an appreciation for life. She understood the power of LIVING for today.
I (virtually) sat down with Jen’s mom, Roz Mathie, this past month to learn a little bit more about herself and Jen’s lasting impact on all those who crossed her path. Roz, originally from the East Coast of Australia ended up moving to the states after high school. She attended Miami University and soon after found her calling as a nurse. Roz practiced at the Christ Hospital for 17 years. And just as Roz lived to help other individuals, she expressed how Jen lived out a similar life mantra. “You know, she should’ve been a lawyer...she loved fixing people’s stories,” Roz states. When asked about Jen’s personality Roz spoke of her daughter's quick wit, intelligence and humor. She was a critical thinker, a model of efficiency, as well as incredibly hilarious. Jen was always telling funny stories. Much of which she did on their KWF trip.
Jen and her family were given a Lake Lanier vacation back in 2014 thanks to the Davenport family. Roz recalls the getaway just like it was yesterday. 11 members of Jen’s family attended the vacation timed perfectly for her daughter’s 35th birthday. Roz mentioned that they wanted to do something special for Jen and make her favorite dessert...fondue! Jen’s daughters, Greta & Maren along with their aunt went up to the kitchen, cracked open the fondue machine only to find that it didn’t work. So they then went to the second kitchen but appeared to be out of luck - no fondue machine (as expected). The girls then ventured to the THIRD KITCHEN to find a perfectly working fondue machine and prepared the world’s best birthday dessert for their mom. “Three kitchens, two fondue machines!” Roz laughs. It’s the little (sometimes extravagant) things that make these experiences so memorable.
Although the fondue was exciting, it definitely wasn’t the trip highlight. Jen’s youngest daughter Greta learned how to swim that week. A memory that the whole family will remember forever. It was a much-needed vacation, a getaway, a chance for Jen to live out the meaning of ‘doing today well.’
As I finished up my conversation, I asked her if there was anything else she would like people to know about Jen or the life mantra she left behind.
Roz left me with this, “Do today well. Sometimes I can only do 15 minutes. Then I go for the next 15 minutes. You can’t fix what you did yesterday, you don’t know what is coming tomorrow...but you’ve got today.”
So today, do just that. Slow it all down and do it well.
By Angeline Wellington
Friends and family of the Wellingtons knew the 4th floor halls of The Christ Hospital (TCH) all too well. “During our 10 years LIVING with breast cancer, our family used to joke that The Christ Hospital was our ‘Mt. Auburn Bed & Breakfast.’” Not only were the halls familiar, but the people were too. “The doctors, nurses and staff on 4West certainly treated us like special guests,” says Kent Wellington, founder and KWF board chair.
The youngest and most precocious Wellington, Angeline, knew exactly where to find rubber gloves so she could do cartwheels down the hall without getting her hands dirty. She also cracked the code to the VHS closet. On hospital sleep-overs, “Father of the Bride” was a favorite with her mom and “Ferris Bueller's Day Off” was a standard to watch with her dad. On Labor day, the view of the WEBN fireworks was hard to beat. (This was long before the new state of the art Spine Center blocked the river view.) Birthdays, family dinners and life happened at The Christ Hospital, not just for Karen, but for the whole family. Together, they embraced LIVING with breast cancer on 4West.
Kent recalls, “Karen’s room was always a bee-hive of activity. Kids, friends, people she knew who had family members delivering babies just a few floors above her, etc. But we noticed that many of the other rooms were quiet. There were often older patients who had very few visitors. (Other than Angeline wandering in from time-to-time).” So it was only appropriate that the first gift from Karen’s Fund was for the oncology patients on 4West.
With the help of friends and Connie and Dave Laug, the Wellington family KWF hosted a WEBN fireworks party on the Labor Day for every patient on 4West - complete with massage therapists making the rounds, gift baskets for each patient and most importantly, someone in every room keeping the patients company between nurse check-ins. It was a great kick-off for our FunNow mission. And the right place to do it. Karen’s fund also paid for the first “flat screen” TV at TCH – fittingly in the 4West lounge. “The same lounge,” Kent notes, “where we celebrated the kids’ birthday parties and watched them unwrap and pedal new bicycles down the hall.”
Today, a strong KWF advocate and friend is Nurse Navigator, Lisa Shelton. Lisa has been with TCH since 1998. She originally was an ICU nurse, but after her own Breast Cancer diagnosis (2006) she began looking for a role as a patient advocate. As a Nurse Navigator her role now involves education, patient contact, and navigating them through the unknowns. “Some patients have never been ill their entire lives before their diagnosis,” Lisa says, “and Breast Cancer is such a scary word in and of itself.”
Lisa also runs the Metastatic Breast Cancer Community Support Program at TCH. Participants of this group talk about how to LIVE with Stage 4 Breast Cancer. They share stories candidly, learn from each other’s journeys, and have ongoing education opportunities from professional speakers and community members. “This is an empowering group of women...not a sad group,” Lisa shares.
Lisa first learned about KWF’s FunNow mission years ago. She was hooked. Just this year, Lisa has nominated over a dozen patients for a gift from KWF. It reinforces in her life what it means for her to keep LIVING and putting FUN on her calendar. “After my journey with cancer a lot of things changed for me. Material items meant nothing… I was giving everything away to family and friends. I told my children that I only wanted gifts that were LIVING, like plants and flowers,” she says.
When The Metastatic Breast Cancer Program staff recently asked their women what it means to be LIVING with Breast Cancer the answer was consistently and overwhelmingly “time and connection with others.” We couldn’t agree more. Each KWF gift experience connects people to the overwhelming generosity of our donors, homeowners and partners. This cycle of giving and receiving is a powerful force. It creates time and space for women to connect with their friends, family and themselves. For many of our recipients, it’s the first time since their diagnosis that they have had a respite from the day to day of living with Breast Cancer and their treatment.
It was only appropriate that while attending one of KWF’s annual Karen’s Gift bashes (see below for more info on the 13th annual Karen’s Gift on Oct 9), she won one of Karen’s paintings in the raffle. ‘Lemons to Lemonade’ now proudly hangs in Lisa’s kitchen.
Angeline recalls, “As a child, having a parent with cancer is unpredictable, scary and confusing. And whether we chose it or not, Christ quickly became a second home for my family. The medical team went above and beyond to make both my mom and our family comfortable. They provided normalcy and a bit of fun in a time when it was desperately needed (sometimes even helping me pull off my little pranks in the cafeteria).”
Robby Wellington, the older of the two siblings, most vividly recalls, “one of the oncologists showing me the room where they stored all the little ice cream cups… and maybe letting me sneak one out if I asked nicely. It’s the small seemingly insignificant things that makes a world of a difference.”
Lisa says that “The art of nursing… is making things happen for people. Little acts of kindness for our patients and team mates.” Lisa says. For many years now, TCH has been doing just that. From the Wellingtons to the women they now serve, they are caring for and making small but important magical moments for their patients.
Thank you, TCH, for many years of friendship, putting FUN on the calendar, and helping people to continue LIVING. Cheers to you, The Christ Hospital!
KWF’s Medical Advisory board is made up of skillful and caring healthcare from the entire Cincinnati community. We receive nominations from every hospital system in Greater Cincinnati including, UC Cancer Center, Tri-Health, St. Elizabeth, Cancer Family Care, Radiation Hematology and Oncology, Mercy Hospital and more. If you are a medical provider and would like to nominate a deserving woman, please NOMINATE here.
“Recipients are the heart of [KWF].....the Recipient Ambassador Board has not only been a great addition to the foundation, but it has also empowered recipients to be able to give back” - Lori Falke, RAB chair.
For our recipients, the magic of KWF does not fade away the minute they walk out of the spa or as their homebound plane wheels touch down on the tarmac. Oftentimes, we’ve found that it is quite the opposite. It’s when they get home and have an opportunity to help give or plan a spa day or vacation for someone else that makes them come alive. That certainly was how my mom, Karen Wellington, did things. Whether it was dressing me and my friends up for Halloween and having us pass out candy to patients in the chemo chairs or simply going above and beyond to make each individual in her life feel seen - she knew the importance of giving. And that’s certainly consistent with KWF’s Give-First mantra. That giving spirit lives on thanks to the leadership of our Recipient Ambassador Board.
Our RAB is made up of 12 highly energetic, hilarious and passionate former recipients. It’s a sisterhood of sorts, a growing group that openly shares the struggles that come with cancer, while quickly pivoting to share the 4 types of alcohol mixed into their favorite cocktail recipe which they will be enjoying on this month’s virtual happy hour (open to ALL recipients.) You see, these women are used to making the best of bad situations. So when their in-person happy hour gets bumped to Zoom, they don’t complain - they pour more into their glasses and toast to resilience.
This past month we added two new incredible additions to our board, Penny House and Tara Riley. While I will check-in with Penny on a later date, this month I got the chance to sit down with Tara to discuss why she joined the RAB.
As a wife, mom, grandma and longtime educator, it quickly became apparent that Tara has always been a caregiver. With a give-first mentality, she is quick to find silver linings in hardship and provide a sense of hope and sisterhood to those in need. Tara told me that when first diagnosed with cancer, she was gifted a pink fuzzy blanket. She then passed it along to a friend who was diagnosed after her. And although that blanket has been deemed the “gift that keeps on giving” - Tara decided that she would buy a fresh pink blanket and give it to each new survivor she befriended. Although it is a club no one wants to join, she found that inviting those in with a gift of cozy solidarity seemed like the best place to start.
Tara also pointed to the significance of her KWF vacation and the impact it had on her life. Tara and her husband, Charles, went to Naples Florida back in 2019. Despite her excitement, leading up to the trip, she had little to no energy. The physical and mental pounding from cancer had taken its toll. She was tired and for good reason. However, the minute her feet hit that white Florida sand a new boost of energy came over her. “I immediately jumped in the air,” she remembers. Tara beams that this magical trip not only changed her life, but provided a sense of relief for her husband and caretaker during a very important time. “It lifted my soul,” Tara says.
In joining the RAB, Tara noted the importance of being active in finding good people in good community while focusing on giving some happiness to others. We say it all the time, but at its core, KWF creates a healthy cycle of receiving and giving. Which is consistent with Tara’s life mission of bringing joy to others. Tara understands that LIVING and giving go hand and hand. She will fit in perfectly with our RAB and their mission of having FunNow while giving even more away. This group knows how to see life with a glass half full mentality. And whether you choose to fill yours with love or chardonnay is completely up to. But you’ll quickly find, they pour both.
Tara & Penny, welcome to the sisterhood!
“We both agreed it was a godsend. Just at the right time. Just when we needed it,” Dave said as we discussed the impact of the KWF vacation on his family.
Dave and his late wife Terri had the opportunity to go on a last vacation to Key West, Florida in 2017 thanks to our givers. But their story starts 30 years prior.
Dave met Terri right out of college while both were working at the Kenwood Towne Centre in Cincinnati. Dave worked on the loading dock and recalls carrying empty boxes past Terri pretending he had work to do in that area to get her attention. After a good amount of effort and a couple hundred boxes later, Dave succeeded. They hit it off. He ended up proposing to Terri in 1985 before he left to serve in the Air Force as a physical medicine specialist.
Together, the military gave them the opportunity to live all over the world. From the US to Asia - Terri was by his side, but paving her own path. She always was her own person. During their 4 years in Japan, Terri volunteered for several charitable organizations, dedicating her efforts to the Red Cross while making sure she took time for adventure herself. Terri was a free spirit. “She loved to travel, do new things and go new places. In 1989, “when our first son came along,” Dave notes, “she would hop in the car with him and go explore. She had an excellent sense of direction.”
Whether it was navigational expertise or a strong moral compass, Terri also had a strong sense of directional purpose. She moved through life with a unique and loving perspective that guided her. Raising their sons Pete and Andy - Dave worked to provide structure and discipline to the household. Terri was on board, but she made it her mission to always bring the love into whatever the family did.
At the start of their marriage Terri and Dave didn’t have the time or the money to take the honeymoon they always wanted. Between the wedding, military service and kids, a honeymoon never seemed to be in the cards. But in 2016, priorities quickly changed when Terri was diagnosed with cancer. The long overdue “honeymoon” could no longer wait. Thanks to our KWF givers, Dave and Terri honeymooned in Key West, Florida. The trip was perfect. Dave remembers it all. From the sandy beaches to the exact location of the condo and, of course, the red mustang rental that happened to be Dave’s dream car. He also remembers the smile on Terri’s face. A gift.
The trip also gave Dave and Terri a chance to be together and leave the cancer behind. This was important because Dave, like many spouses LIVING with cancer, had “to get used to not being able to solve this problem.” "I’m a caregiver, so it was tough,” Dave said, “you have to get used to sitting on the bench sometimes.” The belated honeymoon got Dave off the bench and onto a beach with Terri. That was significant.
The trip also proved more significant than most honeymoons due to Terri’s short time horizon. Dave and his sons lost Terri this past January.
As our conversation came to a close, Dave offered one last comment about KWF vacations that stuck with us, “It was something tangible, something different, something that gives hope.” We liked that. We also really like Dave. A good man who carries on the adventurous and abundantly loving legacy of a very special lady every day.
By: Angeline Wellington
Chelsea’s nomination popped into our KWF inbox in early December. From the moment we scanned the nomination, we were hooked. We knew we would do whatever it took to put some Fun on her calendar! She was nominated by multiple friends and colleagues from the Graydon law firm. As we dug into her story, checking out her Caringbridge page, her hilarious, candid, and heart-tugging journal entries made us love her even more.
Chelsea’s story with breast cancer began when she found a lump in her breast. Her 21 month- old infant was still trying to wean and, like most moms would, she chalked it up to a clogged milk duct. Her doctor agreed that it was likely “nothing,” but scheduled a mammogram, just in case.
She remembers feeling silly as she sat in the waiting room among many other women thinking to herself that she was just wasting resources that other people needed more than she did. She was in the middle of earning her doctorate and she could think of plenty of other places she would rather be than there. It wasn’t until after her doctor ordered biopsies and the nurse began ‘preparing’ her for what could happen that Chelsea got scared. By the time she left, all the other women from the waiting room were gone and she was in tears.
Days later, she received the dreaded call. She was home alone when she found out she had Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. Chelsea remembers screaming into a pillow and then trying to get a hold of her husband and other family members. She talked to a close confidant in the medical field who assured her that this was “totally treatable.” Chelsea decided to treat cancer like everything else in her life. One step at a time. She even bumped up her doctorate and finished all of her work in just ONE week. Work that was would have typically taken over a month.
“Chemo wasn’t what I wanted to do … it was just one more thing on my schedule that I had to do. I was counting down those chemo appointments on the calendar week by week.”
Just as she was completing chemo, surgeries and radiation, she was feeling like herself again. She used exercise as a form of therapy. But not for long. One day she started having persistent headaches. Several MRI’s and tests later, Chelsea was diagnosed with leptomeningeal carcinomatosis - it had metastasized to her brain, specifically her spinal fluid.
Chelsea was told that she had months left to live. In the hospital her friends and loved ones rallied around her. They cried and laughed together. This was the point when Chelsea’s nomination landed on our desk. Right after this life changing news. I was new to KWF, just learning the ropes and wanted to do everything I could to help her. Chelsea’s strong, confident, yet peaceful tone was a bit of a comfort to me as we got excited about her vacation.
This trip was just what the doctor ordered. In fact, he told her, “do it, and do it now.” It was also a dream vacation for Chelsea’s son, Keaton. Everyone in their family had been to Chicago... even his little sister, Mara, had been before him! Keaton was absolutely sold on the trip after he found out that he could see SUE the T.Rex at the Chicago Field Museum.
Chelsea told herself, “I’m taking that kid to see the dinosaur. I’m not dying until we see that damn dinosaur.”
So early one January morning, Chelsea and her family hopped on a private jet and bypassed the chaos of a bustling airport. While in Chicago, they went to Shedd Aquarium, Navy Pier and enjoyed an unseasonably warm winter weekend! Little Mara got new pajamas for her baby doll from the American Girl Store (which Chelsea notes are more expensive than any pair of pajamas she has ever personally owned). They also received a private tour of the dinosaur exhibit at the Field Museum, and Keaton finally got to meet Sue the T-Rex! Keaton finally got to see the damn dinosaur.
Chelsea says, “I'm thankful for the days I do have… especially the good days. You just never know when you’re going to go. No one does.” Every time I talk to Chelsea, she teaches me what’s important. Like having a sense of humor. “Humor is my coping mechanism. I have a very morbid sense of humor. I’m always joking about setting up my husband with his ‘new wife’” she says, laughing. Her tone changes when she talks about her kids. “Right now I’m trying to make videos for my kids for the future. I’m scared they won’t remember me. It’s definitely painful and really really hard.”
Chelsea’s irreverent joy, and level headedness are truly incredible. I later gushed to Chelsea that I’ve been fan-girling over her tattoos (which I noticed the day I met her). She has been adding a new tattoo for every month she continues to LIVE with Breast Cancer. And as for her next tattoo - she’s plans to get one of Sue the T-Rex. Chelsea and Keaton are both very excited.
Thank you to our GIVERS for this special trip: Michelle and Kevin Jones - KWF Board Member/supporters; Rick Pawlak - Ultimate Air Shuttle donors; Amanda Penick - Nominator, Graydon; and those of you who made a financial gift to KWF so they could see the damn dinosaur.
- Grace Smith, KWF Program Manager
Update: Since publishing this story, Chelsea Rust passed away on October 14, 2020. Chelsea leaves behind her loving husband David and their two children Keaton and Mara. Chelsea, thank you for inspiring us to take the trip. We look forward to carrying on your beautiful and adventurous legacy. Cheers to you. You will be greatly missed.
“I’m not in charge of the outcome, but I am going to do everything I can to run your race beside you,” she said as we discussed the significance of building long-lasting, genuine relationships with her patients. Susan Crafton has been an oncology nurse at The Christ Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio since 1983. As she is approaching the end of her career in oncology, we sat down with her to chat a little bit about why she chose this profession that is still very much a part of who she is 37 years later. Growing up on a farm in Piqua, Ohio, Susan had always envisioned leaving her small town and heading to a big city for a “glamorous career,” but circumstance and a bit of faith drove her somewhere else. “It was not glamorous, but it was my vocation,” she says.
In a profession where oftentimes it’s much easier to disconnect your feelings and stick to medicine, Susan did both. She is a firm believer in cultivating meaningful relationships and connecting with her patients on a deeper level, while providing the best care possible. She describes the outcome to be well worth the risk.
Although Susan would never say this herself, she is a fan favorite among her patients and for good reasons. The truth in that statement lies in the words of her former patient and friend, Ashley Gill. Ashley will always be remembered as a vibrant wife, friend, mother of two twin girls and so much more. Although Ashley, a KWF recipient, passed from cancer last August after LIVING a full life, her words continue to resonate and are a testament to Susan’s character:
“Susan is the imperative buffer between the doctor and patient. She always has the layman’s term explanation to the ridiculous amount of jargon that your doctor rattled off and expected you to understand. She’s the one that makes things less scary, and always with her own little flare. For the sake of keeping these comments PG we will just call it 'flare.' Susan is that nurse that prays for you when you are in a tight spot physically and/or mentally, then reassures you everything is going to be okay with her signature, 'There’s my girl.' Even though she has many, 'girls' she has a way of making me feel like I’m the only one. I honestly believe that despite my doctor’s life expectancy expectations, I am still here today because of Susan Crafton. She’s that ride or die (pun totally included) girl you need fighting for your life.”
Just as Ashley speaks to her character, Susan is quick to commend her fellow nurses and colleagues working at The Christ Hospital during today’s pandemic. She gives credit where credit is due, even if that means downplaying any and all accomplishments to speak to the bravery of those risking their lives working on the front lines. Susan is grateful that she has the opportunity to work alongside such incredible medical professionals who quickly turned into lifelong friends.
As Susan looks back on this journey of a career, she would probably tell you she couldn’t have done it without strength, humor, resilience, a whole lot of faith and a bit of irreverence. Although she may be hanging up the scrubs soon (or so she thinks), being an oncology nurse will always be who she is. As we were ending our conversation she said, “to be honest, it saved me as much as I saved anybody.” A testament to the power that lies in connection.
By: Angeline Wellington
Susan Crafton is the first recipient of our KWF “LIVING through GIVING” nurse award. Given to a nurse who embodies KWF’s core values , goes above and beyond, and works behind the scenes to better the lives of their patients. Thanks Susan.
Before August of 2018, Samantha & Michael were like most young engaged couples. They were gearing-up for the happiest day of their lives. They met at an art camp in Connecticut many years ago. Both art teachers from opposite ends of Ohio, they hit it off immediately. He moved to Cincinnati to be closer to her and complete his masters in art at DAAP. She’d already finished hers.
They were meant to be together.
Their wedding day, though, was laced with fear and uncertainty. Three weeks earlier, Samantha received news that she had cancer. She was diagnosed with Stage 1B, triple positive breast cancer – the fastest, most aggressively spreading cancer. She’d just turned 30.
Their appointments with caterers and florists, quickly turned to visits to the breast surgeon and oncologist who mapped-out a plan that looked nothing like the plans for their first wedding and year of marriage.
As active outdoorsy people, they’d planned to travel, hike and have an adventurous first year.
The plan now was for another adventure, but not a fun one.
Four days after their wedding, she got her port inserted. The next day she started chemo. “Staring down 10 rounds of chemo was daunting,” she remembers. But with her parents, husband and friends at her side, she was supported. Still… she was scared.
That first day of chemo, she “instinctively packed up art supplies…” and took them with her. “It’s what I do.” Her first “Chemo Art” project was a drawing for her dear friend, Katie, who baked challah every week. Katie has stood by Samantha’s side though thick and thin. Creating that first piece of art was “the best decision. It was a bit of my own therapy.”
In the meantime, she went back to work as an art teacher at Summit Country Day Middle School. The Summit’s Character Based Learning program is school-wide curriculum that reinforces a different character quality for each grade. Her class’ focus, Perseverance. Each student worked on a related project for the school year. Samantha joined them. From the beginning, she was open about what was happening. “I didn’t want to scare them, but I thought they should know.” She explained that she might be wearing a mask some days. That her hair would fall out other times. Her life was up in the air, but it was important to working together. That year, perseverance became a class project, with Samantha leading the way.
With only one year under her belt at Summit, she was concerned about how things would go.
In true form, the Summit family came through. Jen, the school administrative assistant set an alarm on her phone reminding her to check in on Samantha every morning. The school gave her an additional 70 minutes in the morning, knowing she was sick most days from chemo.
Samantha was given a special parking spot closer to the building, her lunch from the cafeteria packed and set aside to avoid the crowded lunchroom, a hand sanitizer dispenser was installed outside her classroom and disinfectant wipes for the tables were provided so the kids could help keep the tables clean. Parents donated gift cards from restaurants for dinner when she wasn’t feeling well. They checked in on her and went WAY “above and beyond,” making it possible for her to continue working.
Then there was chemo. This is where perseverance really kicked-in. Samantha committed to take her art supplies with her and create a new piece at each of her chemo sessions. “It became a symbol of gratitude,” she says. Each piece was “inspired by them for them.” “Most of them are of food,” she laughs. “Maybe it was a bit of a fantasy since food is a symbol of comfort and I was uncomfortable.” (Link to Samantha’s Chemo Art.)
She was the youngest patient in the room most times, which made it awkward. “It can be lonely in there, even if you have great support.” Many of the older patients wanted to know her condition and ask her questions. She didn’t want to talk about that… Instead, her art opened a whole new conversation. People would ask, “What are you working on?” and she’d show them.
“Even when we were all super sick, people became curious about my art.” That was a welcomed relief.
By November she was bald. By December her chemo was done. And in February she had surgery. Yet she remained faithful with her art. Just as she was feeling better after her surgery, two teachers lured her to their room. They had a surprise. They sat her down and told her she was going on a trip that summer thanks to the Karen Wellington Foundation for LIVING with Breast Cancer. She’d never heard of the foundation, but was overwhelmed. Through her tears, she felt their love.
“Finally, I could call my husband with some GOOD news!” She says, of that day.
By late spring, she had a “little peach fuzz growing.” She felt stronger and better and was ready for that trip!
By this time, the KWF team had been busy planning the perfect honeymoon for Samantha and Michael. They would be heading west to a ranch in Missoula, Montana. This incredible ranch is nestled in the heart of the northern Rockies, right on the Blackfoot River. This very special home was donated by Tony and Keke Sansolone, also a Summit Family and a generous supporter of KWF. Their daughter, AC delivered the good news with Angeline Wellington, Karen’s daughter.
Samantha and Michael were presented with a huge bag of goodies including everything they needed to know about where to eat, what to do, places to hikes and the best white water rafting tours. The icing on the cake, they received “Fun Money,” only to be used on the trip. A highlight was a hot air balloon adventure.
Things were starting to look up for them. “Having that ray of hope during a scary and dark time was the best gift.”
When Michael and Samantha married, they figured their honeymoon budget would be spent on medical bills. Their first year of marriage was overcast, but the sun shines again.
What’s next? They are looking at doing an artist in residency in the Pacific Northwest; maybe Alaska one summer. They want to hike and stay active. Samantha says her dream is to have an art show featuring her Chemo Art with a mammography unit present to bring awareness and hope to others.
She says, “I thought I was a grateful person before cancer, but I wasn’t. I realize you can’t sweat the small stuff. I guess I’m more grateful and appreciative.”
Of the vacation, she says, “That trip helped me get my sense of adventure back and created new memories with Michael.” I realized that “I could still do some pretty cool things…”
Yes you can, Samantha. And we can’t wait to see what they are!
*Thanks to our generous givers and vacation home donors KWF creates FUN-only experiences for women like Samantha. If you or someone you know would like to be part of this unique #FunNow mission, please join us!