So you’ve survived cancer, now what?
Samantha Watson ’01, MBA’06, helps young adult survivors tackle life after disease
Samantha Watson ’01, MBA’06, got the message after her last final of her first semester senior year: That pain in her knee wasn’t an injury — it was bone cancer.
“When I found out I had Ewing’s sarcoma, Brandeis stepped up in a huge way,” Watson recalls. “They took care of everything, allowed me to defer my student loans, took care of all the paperwork, arranged for independent study, and allowed me to take classes from my hospital room in New York.”
When chemotherapy left her too sick to participate in classes, the university allowed Watson to withdraw so she could return after treatment.
She never doubted she would come out the other side or that she would return to Brandeis.
The following year, Watson, back at Brandeis, was one month away from graduating when she got another message — this time, she had leukemia. Her odds were terrible. A doctor told her, “Your life will be short.”
Once again, Watson found support in the university.
“I had just been diagnosed, I was trying to find a bone-marrow donor, I wasn’t totally sure I was going to make it to my next birthday, and yet — I had a great last month of college,” Watson says. “Everyone’s support was just so critical to my ability to finish.”
Again, Watson came out the other side. Month after month, her blood tests came back clean. The cancer was gone and Watson faced a new question: Now what?
It’s a question many young adult survivors face. After spending years focused only on surviving, how do you build a full life?
“I struggled to figure out where I belonged,” Watson recalls. “What made my experience really hard wasn’t my diagnosis, and it wasn’t my treatment. It was the fact that I was 23. I was supposed to be dating. I was supposed to be starting a career. I watched my friends do all that; then I came in two years later and had to figure out how to do it on my own.”
Watson sought out other young survivors with whom she could connect and share her experiences. She heard horror stories about survivors dropping out of college because they couldn’t pay both student loans and medical bills; about young adults whose medical expenses made it impossible to pay rent; who couldn’t buy healthy groceries; who couldn’t afford to go to a gym after their physical therapy treatment ended.
“When you are going through treatment and hooked up to IVs, people can understand your situation because you’re bald and you’re sick. Then you start to look more like everyone else and people think it’s done, you’re better, the worst is over. But that’s when a lot of the struggles start,” Watson says.
Watson wanted to help.
The idea was to raise money through a benefit for a charity aimed at helping young adult survivors after treatment — but there was no such organization. So Watson decided to start one.
Watson returned to Brandeis to earn an MBA in nonprofit management from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management so she could learn how to manage a nonprofit.
In the 10 years since Watson founded the Boston-based SAMFund for Young Adult Cancer Survivors, the organization has given away $1.1 million to survivors — helping them pay their rent, medical bills, gym memberships, travel expenses for job interviews, fertility treatments — almost anything to help survivors rebuild their life after cancer.
The organization also runs webinars on topics like tuition assistance, health insurance rights, family planning and employment challenges.
“How do you say thank you to all of the people who helped me, who made sure I wouldn’t have to drop out of college or live on the street?” asks Watson. “It is my responsibility to continue doing this work because there is no other way to say thank you.”
For more information about The SAMFund, visit www.thesamfund.org