Stefanie’s Legacy

With the recent release of Chris Spielman’s book, “That’s Why I’m Here,” we remember Stefanie Spielman, a wife, mother, friend, fundraiser and ferocious cancer warrior.

This is an excerpt from “Stefanie’s legacy,” which ran in the July 2011 issue of Columbus Monthly. It is reprinted with permission from Columbus Monthly.

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 envelop 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. 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 NFL star—and the next morning these emotions were replaced by dogged determination. He was ready to continue what Stefanie started soon after she was first 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.

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.

Lisa Cisco is one of Stefanie’s cancer warriors.

She owns Travel Partners in Dublin, 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.”

The Spielmans’ decision to go public after Stefanie’s breast cancer diagnosis put them both in the spotlight. “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 emails 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.”

Shannon Peterson met Stefanie at a fundraising event in 1999, soon after a breast cancer scare that turned out to be a benign lump.

“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.”

Stefanie knew she had found a kindred spirit in Peterson, and began to introduce her to key people in the cancer community and involve her in The Spielman Fund.

“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.”

Before her death, Stefanie made videos and wrote letters to her children Madison, Noah, Macy and Audrey (whose ages now range from 18 to 9). “The kids will always know her voice,” Chris says.

The Spielman kids have begun to participate in fundraising events, especially the two oldest, Madison, 18, and Noah, 16. 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.”

“Today’s a good day.”

This is now how Chris 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.”

Some days this is easier than others.

“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.”

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