“ Feel sorry for yourself when you need to and have a good cry once in awhile – releasing those (normal!) emotions will make it possible for you to recognize a good moment when it happens and thoroughly enjoy it.
Samantha Eisenstein Watson is already an accomplished mAss Kicker! After kicking some Ewing’s Sarcoma mAss and then kicking some Leukemia mAss, she started the nonprofit The SAMFund to help supplement money for young adult survivors that was lost during treatment. They provide grants and scholarships to help pay for transitional issues such as education, living, job search and lingering medical expenses. We were very lucky to catch a few minutes with this extremely busy woman!
mK: Hi Sam. Thanks for spending time with us. First question… What/ when was your diagnosis? How did you find out about your diagnosis?
SEW: I was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma in December of 1999, right in the middle of my senior year of college. I had had recurring knee pain for several years, which is what led to the tests that found the cancer – but it turned out to be a fluke…the pain wasn’t related to the Ewing’s – it just happened to be in the same spot. In April of 2001, I was diagnosed with Secondary Myelodysplastic Syndrome (pre-leukemia). My blood counts took forever to recover from the chemo and I was constantly tired and catching colds, etc – in April they did a bone marrow biopsy which confirmed the MDS.
mK: Wow! What a journey! Why did you start The SAMFund?
SEW: I created The SAMFund with a friend in April of 2003 because it was very clear that a) very few, if any, organizations at that time were focusing specifically on young adults and b) none were providing financial support after treatment. Originally, we were going to organize a fundraiser for an organization doing these two things – but when we realized there weren’t any, we decided to create one.
mK: That time after treatment is filled with both relief and anxiety! There are so many challenges that pop up after coming face-to-face with your mortality. By providing assistance to those who need it, The SAMFund becomes heroes to many young adult survivors that need assistance. Who is your hero or heroes?
SEW: There are plenty of well-known people who I respect and whose characteristics I try to emulate at times, but my true heroes are the ones I learn from on a daily basis: My mom. My dad. My husband. My grandma-in-law. My friend Hailey. And, of course, my bone marrow donor, Eli.
mK: So, what motivates you?
SEW: Honestly, when I get frustrated or feel discouraged in my work, I think of the hundreds of people to whom we’ve awarded grants, and who have been able to go on to do great things because of them. Their determination to keep moving forward motivates me to keep doing what I’m doing. I also think about the hundreds of deserving young adults to whom we have to say no each year, because we just can’t raise enough funds each year to help everyone who needs them – and that serves as my strongest motivation to try even harder.
mK: Yeah, we all feed off each other’s energy. When was the first time you felt like yourself after your diagnosis?
SEW: When I went to my very first conference in Boston for young adult survivors in April of 2003 (it’s no coincidence that that’s exactly when The SAMFund was born, too). It was the first time I felt like there was a community of people who spoke my language – who had been to a similar place and were dealing with the same fears, frustrations and challenges. It was the first time I didn’t feel like I was from a different planet than everyone around me. I finally felt something light up again.
mK: What makes you laugh, cry, angry?
SEW: My son makes me laugh on a daily basis. On a related note, seven months (so far) of sleep deprivation makes me want to cry sometimes. People who are mean make me angry. (They also sometimes make me want to cry.)
mK: Mean people suck! What would you say is the most interesting thing you’ve done?
SEW: Started The SAMFund, probably. I also once sang the National Anthem at Fenway Park.
mK: Wow, that’s pretty impressive! That must have been tough singing in front of all those people! What was the toughest challenge you faced as a survivor? How did you overcome it?
SEW: I’m a self-proclaimed control freak. So one of the toughest things about going through treatment and all of the aftermath has been accepting that there are just some things I have no control over. I try to take the best care of myself that I can, to minimize whatever risks I may face – but in the end, I have to let go of wanting to know how things are going to play out over time. My secret to overcoming it was having a really good therapist.
Also, I struggled a lot with chemo brain right after my second round with cancer. I used to remember things like birthdays and phone numbers without even having to think about it – and then all of a sudden I couldn’t remember anything. I even once promised my boss at my first job a ride to the bus stop after work – she asked me at lunchtime and by 5 pm I totally forgot and left without her. It was a horrible feeling, and not just because she was my boss. I think what made it so hard was that I didn’t cope well with chemo brain because it was such an obvious change for me – so when I forgot something, I would beat myself up over it, which would make me feel worse, which would make it harder to keep anything straight… at some point, I realized that there may not be anything I could do to change the chemo brain itself, but that I definitely could cope better – to this day, I write everything on post-its, send myself emails, and I’m probably one of the last remaining Filofax users in the world… no electronic calendars for this girl.
mK: What’s a “Filofax?” Hee hee, We’ll admit we had to google that! No Franklin planner? Anyways, what is your guilty pleasure?
SEW: Dark chocolate Hershey’s miniatures. We have them in a dish on our desk and I eat more than my fair share when I think no one is watching.
mK: HAHAHA! You gotta cover your tracks… hide the wrappers… What do you like to do in your spare time?
SEW: I love to just sit and watch my son’s curiosity as he discovers new things, learns new skills and just enjoys everything around him. He’s amazing — at just 7 months old, he’s teaching me how to stay in the moment and not worry too much about what happened in the past or where it will take me in the future. I also love to cook, I’m determined to get back into knitting, and I’m obsessed with farmer’s markets.
mK: Knitting… We’re noticing more young people getting into knitting. Seems like the cool thing to do. What are you up to now?
SEW: Right now I’m trying to figure out how to possibly raise enough money to help everyone who needs it, so we’re working on some new fundraisers and getting ready for our year end “Please give us money so we can give it to all the young adult survivors who need it” campaign. Here’s hoping that next year, we don’t have to turn many people away!
mK: Any advice for people or loved ones that get daunting diagnoses?
SEW: Surround yourself with people who make you feel good. Don’t feel guilty avoiding those people who bring bad energy to your life. Don’t Google your diagnosis or do medical research online. Feel sorry for yourself when you need to and have a good cry once in awhile – releasing those (normal!) emotions will make it possible for you to recognize a good moment when it happens and thoroughly enjoy it.
mK: Tell us something about yourself that people probably didn’t know… anything.
SEW: I’m a Brandeis University lifer. I have a BA in Spanish and an MBA in Nonprofit Management from Brandeis, I’m currently Adjunct Faculty, co-teaching a Sociology of Disability class, and my husband has worked there for four years. Even our dog goes to Brandeis most days. (She’s very smart.)
mK: Very cool! Any parting words (in English) for all the mAss Kickers?
SEW: Keep kicking mAss!
Samantha Eisenstein Watson, motivated woman, young mother, Filofax guru, eternal student, knitting champion, and all around sweet girl! Please support The SAMFund when you get the chance. A young adult survivor will thank you!