Stefanie Spielman's legacy
When Stefanie Spielman died of breast cancer in late 2009 at age 42, her courageous battle to raise awareness and funding for research didn't end. A look at how her friends and family are carrying on her work.
The Spielmans in 2008, from left: Madison, Stefanie, Chris, Audrey (front), Noah and Macy.
Amy Parrish Photography
All the emotions—the pain from his devastating loss, the growing fear he wasn’t up to the task ahead as a father—seemed to envelope Chris Spielman as he lay in bed. He tossed and turned, he felt alone, scared of a future that no longer included his wife, Stefanie. Chris had been strong for her, for their four children, for all those affected by cancer who depended on the Spielmans to set the example and lead the way. And now, these feelings he’d shoved down and ignored for so many years clawed their way to the surface.
It was the night of Nov. 24, 2009—hours after the funeral, or, as Chris calls it, the celebration of the life of Stefanie Spielman. She had died a few days earlier after a long, courageous and public battle with breast cancer. Shortly before, when they knew the end was near, Stefanie gave Chris his marching orders: After I’m gone, I’m counting on you to be the best dad you can be and I expect you to carry on this fight we started together to beat cancer. And don’t you or the kids ever use my death as an excuse for anything; use it as a reason to keep going.
“I’m lying in bed thinking to myself, ‘How in the world am I going to do what she did? I’m all alone, I’m all alone,’ ” Spielman says.
Fear and self-pity aren’t what made Chris an All-American linebacker at Ohio State and an All-Pro in the NFL—and the next morning these emotions were replaced by dogged determination. His heart ached, but his faith was strong, and he was ready to continue what Stefanie started soon after she was diagnosed with cancer in 1998. “God has a plan for all of us and this is what he has in mind for me,” Chris says. “Stef and I were given the opportunity to do something good in the face of bad and serve others.”
Since Stefanie’s death, Chris has taken over her role as the face, voice and emotional leader of the Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research, which has raised more than $8.5 million for Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center-Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. Private by nature, Chris nevertheless has become a public figure and gives countless speeches at a never-ending series of events that benefit the Spielman Fund.
His life now revolves around the four Fs: faith, family, the foundation and football, apparently in this order. “I think a better way of saying it is my life revolves around service, and that’s service to God, to family, to the community,” says the deeply religious Chris. “That’s a good purpose to have and how I try to live each day.”
Along the way, Chris also has come to realize he’s not alone. Stefanie inspired countless others to take up the call to arms, to fight their own brave battles against cancer and provide care for loved ones fighting the disease. Many of these people knew Stefanie, many didn’t—and they’ve all joined Chris to form an army of cancer warriors.
As for Chris, he has learned to put his ego aside and ask for assistance: in raising his kids and seeking money to beat cancer. “To me, Stef’s legacy is she took something very difficult and turned it into a positive,” Chris says. “She was a leader in the fight against breast cancer and a leader in being a mom.”
Jennifer McDonald, who helps run the Spielman Fund, remembers a time a few years ago when she and Stefanie visited the home of a woman with breast cancer just before Christmas. Stefanie’s cancer had returned, yet again, and she was enduring another exhausting round of chemotherapy, but refused to let it slow her down.
“This family lived in a little apartment, with not much furniture, no presents or a Christmas tree, and this woman was in the final days of her battle,” McDonald says. “We set up the tree with the kids and decorated it and we brought presents and Stefanie said to one of the little girls, ‘What’s your favorite Christmas carol?’
” It was “Silent Night,” and Stefanie led everyone in singing this Christmas classic.
“And then . . . ” says McDonald, who pauses to wipe away a tear and regain her composure, “Stefanie knelt down beside this woman, who was in a wheelchair, reached into her pocket and pulled out an ornament that said ‘hope’ on it and told the woman, ‘You always have hope.’ ”
McDonald thinks about Stefanie every day, about how she raised her children, how she lit up a room, how she could motivate people with her warmth and passion and how she loved to laugh. “I never once saw her get angry or upset with anyone,” she says.
McDonald, whom Chris calls his “right-hand person” to run the fund, sees many of the same qualities in Chris as she saw in Stefanie—and some differences.
“Stefanie’s style was very open and honest and Chris is the same way,” she says. “They’re not afraid to share personal experiences. But Chris is a football guy and he’s all about action. He’s like: ‘What’s the plan, let’s go.’ Stefanie was more thoughtful and would say: ‘Let’s slow down and look at the best approach to take.’ ”
Stefanie was 15 when she met Chris, who already was a football star at Washington High in Massillon. “There wasn’t an ounce of cockiness in her, she just had a genuine confidence and was also humble,” he says.
As for Chris, yeah, he had an ego. And he wasn’t exactly the world’s greatest husband, especially early in their marriage, when he was consumed by football. “I was selfish,” Chris says. “I married young and was an NFL player and was obsessed with being the best I could be. I thought I was a good husband, but football was my God and my priority.”
The arrival of children changed this a bit, and so did the wisdom of Stefanie. “She said, ‘I’ve never met anyone living the dream who’s as miserable as you are.’ And she was right. I was never satisfied and was always pushing to find a competitive edge . . . when we lost I’d sit outside the audio-visual guy’s office until the film was there and stay there until 2 or 3 in the morning . . . or get real quiet and not communicate. I could have been there more for Stef; I was there physically, but not mentally.”
All this changed in May 1998, when Stefanie felt a lump in her breast. It was cancer—and a battle began that would include several recurrences just when it looked as if the fight had been won. Cancer is a bastard this way. Chris, on the mend from a neck injury that prematurely had ended his 1997 season with Detroit, sat out the next year to remain at their Columbus home to care for Stefanie.
“It was a no-brainer,” he said of his decision in a November 1998 Columbus Monthly article. “For 10 years, Stefanie had sacrificed everything for me. . . . When they said she would have to go through chemotherapy, I thought, ‘I can’t leave her.’ ”
Heather Salazar had no idea the woman sitting next to her in the treatment room with the matching IV dripping powerful chemotherapy drugs into her arm was a celebrity.
It was 2005, and Salazar had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. She was terrified. Salazar and Stefanie were close in age with young children and loving husbands, and they were fighting a deadly disease. They had a lot to talk about.
“She told me her story,” Salazar says. “How she was diagnosed at 30 and it reoccurred after her third child—and she was so positive.”
After a few e-mails, Salazar discovered the identity of her new friend.
Now, Salazar is following in her friend’s footsteps. She recently started the Pink Ribbon Girls of Dayton, a nonprofit organization that provides support—meals, transportation, childcare and housecleaning—for women with breast cancer. It’s difficult raising money and organizing and running a nonprofit. And when the going gets tough, she thinks of Stefanie.
“I remember what she said to me,” Salazar says. “She said she does it for all the other women out there and for all of our daughters, so they won’t ever have to get this. . . . It’s hard, she said, but we’ll win.”
"I was somewhat of a minor celebrity in Columbus,” Chris says modestly. As one of the all-time Buckeye greats, he’s a major local figure, and the Spielmans’ decision to go public after Stefanie’s breast cancer diagnosis put them both in the spotlight in Columbus and Detroit, as well as nationally after they appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
“Our privacy was trumped by our opportunity,” Chris says. “She was this 30-year-old woman who I thought was beautiful and had such a presence and ability to speak and show strength in a time of trouble, and so many women related to her.”
For more than a decade, as Stefanie battled cancer and spread her message of hope, Chris observed and learned. “I watched how she responded to e-mails and listened to phone conversations and now I do my best to offer support and motivation and prayer,” he says. “Whatever I do now, I inherited from Stef.”
Bruce Hooley used to host a sports talk show with Chris and has written a book with his former radio partner: That’s Why I’m Here: The Chris and Stefanie Spielman Story, which will be published later this year. “I can’t imagine anything more difficult than watching the woman you love, the only woman you’ve ever dated since high school, go through that, and I can’t imagine anyone showing more spiritual strength and commitment to his wife and children than Chris,” he says.
Chris sees a little bit of himself in Shannon Peterson, an Upper Arlington neighbor. “She’s a real grinder and won’t stop,” he says. “She’s like a pit bull and will go and go and go.”
Peterson was a natural-born organizer and fundraiser in search of a cause. And then, in 1999, she had a cancer scare: For five days, after the biopsy of a suspicious lump in her chest, Peterson could only wait and worry if she had breast cancer.
The lump turned out to be benign.
Soon after, Peterson heard Stefanie speak at a fundraising event. “It was a life-changing moment for me,” she says. “Stefanie talked about a new drug, Herceptin, that she said had saved her life. Here she was, standing in front of me, proof of the importance of research.”
The two met through a mutual friend and set up a play date for their daughters. “We talked the entire time and one of the things she told me was, ‘I’m a mom first,’ ” Peterson says.
Stefanie knew she had found a fellow cancer warrior in Peterson, and began to introduce her to key people in the cancer community and involve her in the Spielman Fund. She asked Peterson to join committees and take charge of events—and she always said yes.
“Stefanie told me she saw the passion I had to fight this disease and she knew I’d jump in,” she says. “I also feel like I owe it to Stefanie to help continue her work and carry on her legacy. She gave me this gift by opening doors of opportunity to be more involved—now it’s up to me to do something with it and not throw her gift away.”
Before her death, Stefanie made videos and wrote letters to her children: Madison, Noah, Macy and Audrey (whose ages now range from 17 to 8). “The kids will always know her voice,” Chris says.
He plays the videos often for the kids, and talks to them about her. “The new normal is living a happy, productive life without my wife and their mom,” he says. “The kids have more responsibility and what we emphasize on a daily basis is trust in one another and that they have to help and I have to let them help me.”
Chris also has come to rely on the aid of family and friends, and even a housekeeper to handle the laundry and cooking chores. “One of the things my ego wouldn’t allow me to do was ask for help,” he says. “It wasn’t until the fourth time Stef had cancer that I could ask for help. I didn’t want to share my burden with anyone.”
Despite all this assistance, being a single father can be difficult, especially during football season, when Chris travels for his job as an ESPN announcer. One of his daughters (he declines to say which one) was frightened every time he had to fly somewhere.
“She was scared I would die and had a very difficult time with me leaving,” Chris says. “So I talked to someone about it and they told me about coping mechanisms.”
Chris wrote messages on his daughter’s hand before he left for a trip: “I love you” and “God loves you.” Soon one hand wasn’t enough, and he wrote messages on both hands. “And then I put my aftershave on her arm or wrist so she could smell me until I got home, and she gradually came out of it.”
The Spielman kids have begun to participate in fundraising events, especially the two oldest, Madison, 17, and Noah, 15. Chris is careful not to push them. “I don’t force my children to be in this fight, but if they do get in the fight, I tell them you have to throw punches left and right—there is no halfway in,” he says.
Madison has begun to speak at functions, growing more comfortable. “Maddy made the statement at an event that, of course, we want her back, but that would be selfish,” Chris says. “We know where she is and that we’ll see her soon.”
Lisa Cisco calls Stefanie “the only walking angel I ever met.”
She is the owner of Travel Partners in Dublin, a travel agency, and in 2007 Cisco created the annual Buckeye Cruise for Cancer, which raises money for the Spielman Fund. The 2010 cruise hosted 2,000-plus people and raised more than $500,000.
Cisco got to know Stefanie first as a client and then as a friend. “I knew I had to have a cause that was totally inspiring to me—it had to be something very special—and I knew it was Stef,” she says of approaching the Spielmans with her idea for a fundraising cruise. “And I knew this cruise would take over my life, which it has, but that’s a good thing.”
Last year’s cruise was a bittersweet occasion for Cisco. It was the first without Stefanie. Chris and the kids were aboard and took part in a flash mob dance on opening night. There also was a “pink out” (everyone wore pink) to honor Stefanie.
“She always loved to dance,” Cisco says of her friend. “And there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about her. She’s my inspiration.”
Nancy Shapiro Rapport met Stefanie in a support group for women with breast cancer that also included 10TV news anchor Heather Pick, who died three years ago.
In the summer of 2009, Stefanie attended her last support group meeting. She was in a wheelchair, not doing well, and Chris had to bring her to the meeting.
“They told us they had decided they were done with treatment,” Rapport says. “Then they sat and talked to us for 45 minutes about their life decisions and how at peace they were with it and that it was the right thing to do. And Stefanie said she had watched Chris step up and that he was ready to take over and she said, ‘He can do this, I trust him to take care of everything. He’s ready.’ ”
"Today’s a good day.”
This is now how Chris Spielman tries to lead his life. “You have to live for today and not waste it on being angry or upset,” he says. “You have to put all that behind you and enjoy the moment, whether it’s driving the kids to school, making stupid jokes or giving life lessons.”
And, yes, some days this is easier to do than others, and sometimes it’s difficult not to be angry or feel lonely when Chris sees Stefanie’s smile on the face of one of their kids, or walks past a picture of her on a wall in their home. But he’s a man on a mission, a husband honoring his wife’s legacy. “
Grief comes in stages and is a long process,” Chris says. “You can’t be afraid of it, you can’t be afraid of walking past a picture of Stefanie. Instead of being sad, you have to have a happy thought. I can’t tell anyone else how to deal with grief, but I have no fear. My only fear is one of my kids will get sick. But I have no fear of me dying, or what cancer will do to me. It took my wife, but I have no fear of it. Cancer cannot win.”
Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer.