In the spring of 2017, during a routine checkup, Samantha England’s gynecologist found a lump in her left breast. A biopsy was performed and results came back inconclusive. England opted to have the lump removed, which brought her to Dr. Karen Columbus. “One of my heroes,” as England describes her. The tumor was benign, but it was fast growing, which is why England chose to have it removed. That July, she returned for follow-up and to address pain she was having in the same breast from which the tumor was removed.
England had just walked through her front door after returning from a family wedding in Los Angeles when she received the phone call relaying the news: diagnosis, triple positive breast cancer.
“Literally everything stops, just like they say at OHC,” says England, who was to be married in three weeks. Dr. Columbus asked England how quickly she could get her family together. That same afternoon, her entire family drove from Columbus, Ohio, for a meeting to discuss England’s diagnosis and treatment plan. England had great faith and confidence in Dr. Columbus. She knew that she was well connected in the medical community and told England she had the perfect doctor for her. The very next day, England had an appointment with Dr. Cynthia Chua, a medical oncologist and hematologist at OHC. Suddenly, wedding plans and fitting appointments turned into meetings with doctors.
“From the first day I met her, I was impressed with how calmly she took the devastating news about her breast cancer,” Dr. Chua recalls. “She took notes and listened very carefully to what I was saying. The only time she teared up was when I told her I recommended Tamoxifen for 10 years and that would mean avoiding pregnancy. Her fiancé and her parents were in the room, also. She took charge of our conversation.”
England and her fiancé wanted to continue with their wedding plans, and she wanted to have her hair for that big day. Her OHC medical team supported and encouraged that idea.
“We had such fun and a wonderful wedding with all of our family and friends, but there was an underlying feeling, an uneasiness,” England recalls. Four days after her wedding, she had her portable catheter placed, and chemo infusions began the next day.
She met with a reproductive endocrinologist, went through her chemotherapy, bilateral mastectomies with reconstruction. As a sign of her making lemonade out of lemons, she designed the tattoos to be created on her breasts! (Creative art teacher, what do you expect?)
“I love teaching and wanted to continue. My school made many accommodations for me,” England says. “The school secretary scheduled my first two bells of the day as planning periods, in case I had to sleep in or had a rough morning. She also had an alarm set on her phone. If I didn’t show up by a certain time, she would check on me.”
It was an interesting start to the 2018 school year, to say the least. England composed an email to her students’ parents and her colleagues, telling them the whole story. The responses were overwhelming. She heard stories about parents having similar diagnoses and some parents and doctors sent recommendations. Understanding England’s concerns that chemo would cause her hair to fall out and make her sick, Dr. Chua arranged to have England speak with another patient who was partway through a similar cancer treatment and was happy to answer any questions England might have.
“To have a doctor who is that considerate and thoughtful was very impressive. She did all she knew to help me feel comfortable. We communicated through email and it was extremely helpful,” England says.
Her Chemo Art Journey Begins
“I like the word serendipity, meaning the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. Knowing I was going to be sitting for a long period of time [during chemo], I packed up some art supplies,” England says. “Having my art to work on was so great. It kind of took me out of the situation I was in.”
England was, by far, the youngest person at the treatment center. “When you are young in the treatment center, all eyes are upon you. In a way, my artwork was a point of interest, a conversation starter. Even the OHC nurses would stop by to ask about my work.”
She began by drawing a loaf of challah bread for her friend, Katie, who loved to bake challah bread, too, and who was there to support her. “Then I thought ‘Can I do this again?’ The answer was ‘Yes.’"
The final step of England’s project was giving away six pieces of her artwork, all depicting food and drinks. “During difficult times, I have often found comfort in food and drinks, as do many people. As an artist, you often work instinctually, and this just seemed to work that way. It was the best gift I could give to friends and family who had been so faithfully committed to me.”
The final drawing was a slice of pizza for her husband, Michael, who, she says, loves the Italian pie.
“No marriage should ever have to start like ours,” England says. “We went from dancing at our wedding to him taking care of me. We had to give up a lot of different foods and normal things. The first six months of our marriage was basically him helping me through this. I will be forever grateful.”
The chemo drawings gave England purpose and focus. An artist statement accompanies each drawing on her website, www.samanthaenglandart.com.
“Since cancer, my artwork has taken on a whole new purpose — it is to help other women, to educate women,” England says. “Prior to my diagnosis, I had very little education about breast cancer. Now, to be educated and able to help another person in that time of need is a gift that I cannot squander.”
Recently, England presented Dr. Chua with a hand painted picture of a slice of carrot cake, a favorite dessert that Dr. Chua bakes and brings in for her staff. Dr. Chua was overwhelmed by the gift.
What advice would England offer women of any age concerned about cancer?
“Know your body and do not put things off,” says England. “Go to your annual exams faithfully. Also, not every cancer presents the same.”
And listen to your doctors.
“I have done everything [Dr. Chua] has told me to do,” England says. “I have huge faith in her.” And in OHC. “Even financially, at the first visit every question was answered, every issue addressed.”
One of England’s life goals is to have an art show with a mobile mammography unit present for women who may not otherwise have adequate access to healthcare.
“We have to look out for each other,” she says.
OHC adult cancer experts have 10 locations. For more information, call 1.888.649.4800 or visit their website, www.ohcare.com