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!
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.