When Stefanie Spielman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998, she and her husband, Chris, a former Ohio State and professional football standout, established the Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).

Their goal was to raise $250,000.

Stefanie SpielmanA quarter-century later, the Spielman Fund has generated over $26 million, including some $20 million raised since Stefanie died in 2009 after a 12-year battle with her disease. And donations to the fund continue to arrive from a generous community that shares the Spielman family’s commitment to supporting research that leads to advances in treating breast cancer.

Stefanie once said she had never asked, “Why me?” and hoped she never would. Rather, she was “determined to find the good in something bad.”

The “bad” was her diagnosis and the associated travails of treatment, fear and uncertainty, not only for herself but for her husband, children, family and friends.

The “good,” as she explained, was the love and support she received from the community, the everyday blessings that she now didn’t take for granted, and the tremendous impact of the Spielman Fund in helping multitudes of patients and their families.

An outpouring of support from the breast cancer community

The tremendous success of the Spielman Fund should perhaps come as no surprise to those who remember Stefanie’s cheerful and inspirational persona.

“Am I astonished? No. Impressed and grateful? Absolutely,” says David Cohn, MD, MBA, interim CEO and chief medical officer of The James. “The Spielman family, their friends and supporters, and the entire community have done a remarkable job of recognizing what was important to Stefanie. People remember her as a caring person who was committed to helping others.”

Nor is one of Stefanie’s chief caregivers at the OSUCCC – James astonished.

“I am not surprised at all by the success of the fund,” says William Farrar, MD, a retired surgical oncologist who first diagnosed Stefanie in his breast cancer clinic at The James. He helped her and Chris determine a treatment plan, performed her initial surgery and assisted with all of her follow-up treatment.

“Stefanie and Chris had a very difficult time dealing with her diagnosis,” Dr. Farrar recalls, “but after their initial shock they put together a plan they thought would help them win this battle — a plan using their strong faith and the ability to use Chris’ notoriety as a former Ohio State football player. They quickly realized that her diagnosis gave them a forum for reaching thousands of patients who also needed support, and Stefanie felt that she needed to give it. (In return) came donations to further the fight against breast cancer.”

Stefanie Spielman and her husband Chris
Stefanie and Chris Spielman started a breast cancer fund at Ohio State that has raised $26 million — and counting — to support clinical and research advances and enhanced patient care, among other initiatives.

Jennifer McDonald, an assistant vice president of Development who leads fundraising efforts for the OSUCCC – James, believes Stefanie and Chris “were surprised and thrilled by the outpouring of support from the community as they very quickly surpassed their original funding goal.”

“Stefanie was so present with the fund; she truly saw it as an opportunity to give back and make a difference,” McDonald explains.

“Her presence and the presence of her entire family are what really helped the fund grow. If she could attend a fundraising event, she was there, and often her children were with her.”

Stefanie Spielman speaking while holding her sleeping daughterMcDonald remembers an Ohio State women’s softball fundraiser for the Spielman Fund that Stefanie attended with three of her and Chris’ four children. 

“When it was her time to speak, she carried her youngest daughter, who had fallen asleep on her shoulder, in one arm and in her other hand a microphone, while also holding onto a pacifier,” McDonald says. “She walked to the pitcher’s mound and delivered a heartfelt message of gratitude and hope. She was so relatable: a young mother fighting breast cancer and doing what she could to help current and future breast cancer patients. In that moment, I knew this was a special cause and a special fund.”

Spielman family carries on Stefanie’s work

Maddie Spielman, the eldest of the Spielman children, attributes the enduring success of the fund to “the power of my mom. She made everyone feel as if they were her best friend.

“And she was the best listener. She could relate to just about anyone she came into contact with, and so many years later, people remember. Her authenticity and love for others came easily to her, and I think that’s why people still want to do all they can to keep her memory alive.”

Maddie Spielman
“Everything I do, I do to honor her,” Maddie Spielman says of her mother. Maddie has made a career of supporting cancer research funding, including for the Spielman Fund, which was started by her parents.

Maddie, who after college pursued a career in sports broadcasting but always knew she “wanted to end up working for The James,” is an assistant director for leadership annual giving at The Ohio State University Alumni Association, and her work focuses on The James.

“I cover multiple cancer areas, including breast cancer, which means I can work directly with Spielman Fund donors and their families,” she says. “I’m blown away every time someone wants to give back despite going through unimaginable circumstances.”

Putting breast cancer funding to work for patients

“The wonderful thing about donating to the Spielman Fund is that every dollar supports research, technology or patient care,” McDonald says. “That was an important decision by Stefanie and Chris. They chose to partner with the OSUCCC – James and Ohio State to ensure that charitable dollars would have full impact without the overhead of running a nonprofit.”

Spielman family group shot
The Spielman family, from left: Maddie, Stefanie, Audrey, Chris, Noah and Macy.

The Spielman Fund comprises several sub-funds, including some that can be tapped to make an immediate difference. Collectively, these monies have led to such innovations and achievements as:

The Spielman Patient Assistance Fund — This fund has supported many educational and support programs for breast cancer patients, caregivers and families, addressing holistic well-being, quality of life and adjustment to living with cancer. Primary programs include an annual breast cancer survivorship conference, living well with advanced breast cancer programming, support groups and development of educational resources. Topics within these programs involve healthy lifestyle, nutrition and exercise, stress management, expressive arts, parenting through cancer, sexual and reproductive health, side effect management and clinical trials.

The Spielman Genetic Breast Cancer Cohort and Tissue Bank — One of the nation’s largest and most comprehensive repositories of breast cancer clinical data, tissue and blood samples, this bank has acquired thousands of samples from women treated for breast cancer at the OSUCCC – James, including those recently diagnosed and those with metastatic and advanced disease. Using samples from this bank, investigators have gained millions of dollars in research grants for studies that have been published in leading medical journals.

Attracting and retaining top breast cancer researchers and clinicians — The Spielman Fund has supported the creation of endowed positions to attract brilliant faculty. One example is the Stefanie Spielman Chair in Cancer Imaging, which has been held since 2009 by Michael Tweedle, PhD, professor in the Department of Radiology at Ohio State and a member of the Translational Therapeutics Program at the OSUCCC – James.

State-of-the-art technology — The Spielman Fund has helped The James acquire prone radiation boards that were developed by doctors at the OSUCCC – James to help reduce radiation exposure to other organs and tissue during treatment. The fund also supported the purchase of the Stefanie Spielman Comprehensive Breast Center’s first tomosynthesis machine, which uses 3D imaging technology to increase the chance for early detection of cancer.

Basic research — In 2013, OSUCCC – James researchers and colleagues in Italy conducted a large study of triple-negative breast cancer and showed that microRNA can be used to define four subtypes of this aggressive disease — a discovery that led to new screening methods, prognostic markers and targeted treatments.

Clinical research — Spielman Fund support for clinical trials at the OSUCCC – James has led to several innovations in cancer genomics, antiestrogen therapies and reduction in chemotherapy side effects.

Equipment for research and patient care — The Spielman Fund’s purchase of the VisioPharm® artificial intelligence (AI) platform has expanded digital pathology research to assess breast cancer biomarkers.

Educational fellowships — Ohio State’s Breast Medical Oncology Fellowship program offers physicians specialized training in this discipline.

Exterior of the Stefanie Spieman Breast Cancer Center
The Stefanie Spielman Comprehensive Breast Center.

Establishing a lasting legacy for breast cancer patients

On Oct. 24, 2011, The Ohio State University further honored Stefanie’s memory by renaming the new JamesCare Comprehensive Breast Center – which had opened in January of that year — as the Stefanie Spielman Comprehensive Breast Center (SSCBC). The center offers a full continuum of breast cancer care, providing patients with access to digital mammography, diagnostic imaging, nuclear imaging, clinical trials, chemotherapy, lab services, nutrition services, financial services, reconstructive surgery, and social and psychological counseling.

Roman Skoracki, MD, an oncologic plastic surgeon and director of the SSCBC, believes support from the Spielman Fund over the years has enhanced the OSUCCC – James’ vision for the breast center, which was the first of its kind in the Midwest.

“The vision of The James at the inception of the breast center, together with the vision of many community leaders, donors and the Spielman family, has enabled us to build this model in which everyone is together under one roof, facilitating greater communication and collaboration,” Dr. Skoracki says. “It also means there’s a sense of family, which includes those caring for our patients, and invariably our patients become part of this family as well. Delivering cutting-edge care in an environment that has a nurturing and family feel is at the core of everything we do.”

The “sense of family” aligns with the Spielmans’ determination to help the OSUCCC – James and the community follow Stefanie’s often-quoted admonition to “continue to fight, continue to live.”

“My mom was almost this angelic presence that people would lean on in their darkest times,” says Maddie, who serves as family spokeswoman for the Spielman Fund while her dad and younger siblings — Noah, Macy and Audrey — also remain active in signature events. “Everything I do, I do to honor her.”

McDonald foresees no ebb in the Spielman Fund’s momentum.

“We’ve made great strides; there are treatments today that didn’t exist 25 years ago,” she says. “However, we still lose loved ones and friends to breast cancer. For me, that’s motivation enough to keep fundraising and investing in research initiatives that lead to better therapies and quality of life for our patients.”

And if Stefanie herself could return and see all the good her family’s fund has brought about, she might well think, “Not bad. Not bad at all.”

Support Stefanie’s legacy

Your gift to the Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer research helps more patients “continue to fight, continue to live.”

Give today


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