A fighting spirit

Name: Samantha
Age at diagnosis: 15 years
Diagnosis: Stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma
How Family Reach helped: Grants to assist with the mortgage and 2 car payments

Al and Susan Bienkowski never expected that their active, athletic 15-year-old daughter, Samantha, would be struck by a life-threatening illness. Nor would they have thought a persistent cough and case of intense itching would prove to be warning signs of cancer. However, what was initially suspected to be bronchitis and dry skin was later diagnosed as Stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that affects less than 10,000 people in the US each year. For Samantha, the news was devastating. In early August of 2009, Samantha began treatment at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), 65 miles away from the family’s home in New Jersey. The chemotherapy treatment lasted nearly 7 months and proved to be effective. Samantha’s parents felt helpless at times and found it difficult to watch her suffer. Susan said, “I didn’t know what to expect. She was so sick. It was hard.”

At first, Samantha only told a couple of her friends about the cancer diagnosis. “I didn’t want people to start treating me differently because they felt sorry for me,” she said. It wasn’t until Samantha began playing volleyball on the high school team that others found out she had cancer, since it wasn’t possible to wear her wig while playing. Though she accepted her illness, fought bravely, and tried to continue life as a normal teenager, some of Samantha’s friends were uncomfortable. As she explained, “I felt like some of my friends thought that I was going through a lot and backed off. They didn’t really know what to say because they didn’t understand.” However, Samantha also found a lot of support from other friends. Her Girl Scout troop made bracelets with the words “Smiles for Sammy” and sold them at several high schools to raise funds for Samantha’s family.

Like so many families coping with cancer, the Bienkowski family felt the strain of the added expenses of treatment. “We were already struggling before [the diagnosis]. This really put us over the top,” said Al. “I had a good [healthcare] plan at work but all of the co-pays—$30, $50, $60—the tolls, the gas, parking…We let other bills go. We fell behind on a lot of different things.” Samantha’s mom was planning to go back to work but couldn’t after Samantha became ill. “I was always at the hospital. You can never leave a child,” explained Susan. It was a relief when a pediatric oncology social worker from CHOP connected the family with Family Reach, who provided grants to assist the family with their mortgage payment and 2 months of car payments. With these expenses covered, it was easier for the family to pay for the costs associated with treatment. Said Samantha’s dad, ”I was overwhelmed by how many generous people are out there wanting to help.” Samantha is now in remission, has her energy back, and is doing well. She played spring soccer and lacrosse and is enjoying life, as any teenager should.

Last update: July 31, 2011