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!
It's a simple mantra. It also works. As we enter our 13th year of GIVING, our growing group of friends and, more importantly, their children, have tapped into the greatest untapped resource in our nation: generosity. It's not that we're not generous as a nation. In fact, we're statistically the most generous country on earth on a variety of levels. It's just that there is so much more we can do. If we think Give First.
The Karen Wellington Foundation for Living with Breast Cancer is less a foundation and more an attitude. KWF spends no money on a cure. Not a dime. Instead, we focus on the healthy side of families LIVING with breast cancer and put some fun on their calendars. Vacations, spa days, concerts, sporting events. Fun stuff only.
It started 13 years ago with a decision to give one vacation to a family LIVING with breast cancer when Karen passed away at age 40 after 10 years of LIVING with breast cancer. One vacation turned into three. Three turned into six. And then we got lift and started to fly.
KWF is a bit of an anti-cancer foundation. We have no rules. We're as unfair as cancer is. We're also not just for the sickest or the poorest. We are not the grim reaper. Just the opposite. KWF looks for women who are not done LIVING yet. It has been more than 50 years (and $500 billion) since President Nixon declared our country's War on Cancer in 1971. We're financially supporting, hoping and praying for a cure. But we're not waiting. We know there are too many Karens out there who will likely not be around for a cure.
At our core, KWF is God-led, friend-fueled, fun-focused and, make no mistake about it, girl-powered. We've given over 800 special vacations, spa days and gifts of fun since 2007. Not to mention scores of FUN nights out with sisters, staycations, trips to Chicago, Pink, Bruce Springsteen, ZZ Top concerts with best friends and so much more. Although 30 percent of our vacations are "last" vacations, the majority of our recipients return with an attitude of Give First. They nominate a friend next to them in the chemo chair, or they ask that neighbor with a vacation home to give KWF a week a year. What we've unintentionally created is a very healthy cycle of receiving and giving – which LIVING with cancer and, life really, is all about.
We also have included our children along the way. Kindergarten classes do pink lemonade stands. A group of high school field hockey players gave up their Senior Night, a night usually self focused, to send the school's beloved custodian and his wife LIVING with breast cancer to the beach. I don't think I've ever seen a group of high school students happier. State sports championships or homecoming dances are no match for a young person learning the power of Give First. As they grown up, bake sales turn in to cheese coney contests at college fraternities. When they enter the work force, they have the mind and heart (and now a platform) to Give First.
Give First cuts through all the negativity. It's the great paradox of life: The more we give, the richer are our lives. And our chapters are growing as well. Each one started by a friend who approached us and applied a Give First attitude to families LIVING with cancer in their own communities.
So when you think of your friend, sister or co-worker who may be having the worst year of her life because of a cancer diagnosis, don't just dream about a cure for cancer. Think Give First. Our over 100 generous vacation home donors do that every year. That allows us to move some very deserving families off our waiting list and onto a beach, mountaintop or peaceful place somewhere. Yes, we collectively dipped a little deeper into our community's very deep pool of generosity.
We think we can go a lot deeper together.
Kent Wellington is board chair of the Karen Wellington Foundation for Living with Breast Cancer and a partner at Graydon Law Firm
This (edited) article was originally published in the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2016.