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Helping young adults defy the odds: The Samfund

Everything happens for a reason. Right? Sometimes, the powers of the universe throw curveballs that are oftentimes unexplainable. Sam Eisenstein Watson ’01, MBA ’06, was thrown quite the curveball by life. And she ran with it.

In her last year as an undergraduate at Brandeis, Watson was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. After eight months of treatment and returning to school, one month short of graduation, Watson was diagnosed with an early form of leukemia.

While her bone marrow transplant proved successful for curing her leukemia, she fell behind in school. “While all my friends were graduating, starting careers and getting apartments, I was in the hospital having surgery and chemo,” said Watson in an interview with Brandeis Alumni & Friends. “I had no real job experience. I wasn’t professionally equipped to do anything.”

Watson knew that she could not have accomplished everything she has today without the help of not only her peers but Brandeis itself. Watson realized while she was in treatment that she had “a really solid base of people, a great network of friends and a spectacular community,” she told The Brandeis Hoot. “I probably took for granted how great Brandeis was. Because Brandeis was always good.”

She went on to tell the story about one of her friends that was in treatment with her and the stark contrast between Brandeis and her friend’s school. Watson learned that all the things she took for granted at Brandeis, the deferment on her costs and allowing her to take classes remotely, did not happen at a lot of other universities. “It was so striking to me how different other universities were and the difference that that made. And I appreciate Brandeis that much more because they didn’t have to do that,” said Watson.

A big influence for this was her Dean at the time, Michele Rosenthal. Watson told The Hoot that she was one of the main reasons that Rosenthal started working with helping other young cancer survivors navigate on-campus resources and develop future plans.

Coming back to school was not the only problem that Watson faced but also the bill of her medical expenses. Watson credits her mother, and Brandeis, for helping her navigate through the costs. And in an attempt to assist young cancer survivors like herself, she started her non-profit organization, The Samfund.

Watson eventually came back to Brandeis and completed her MBA in nonprofit management from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management to help her lead her organization even better.

According to their website, “The mission of The Samfund is to support young adults who are struggling financially because of cancer. Through direct financial assistance and free online support and education, The Samfund helps young adults move forward towards their professional, personal, and academic goals.” The group uses the hashtag, #CancerIsntFree.

A company that Watson had been working with helped her come up with the hashtag. “They told our story in just three words,” Watson told The Hoot in an interview. “One of our greatest challenges as an organization is to show the story of young survivors, we can’t always get our story across in photos or concisely. The aftermath of cancer is really challenging. It is really uncomfortable for people to attach a price tag to survival because we’re supposed to be grateful to be alive.”

Watson went on to explain how difficult it is for cancer survivors to ask for help because everyone thinks they should be so grateful to be alive. “There is so much shame and stigma that it’s impossible to reach out for help. This [hashtag] stops people in their tracks,” Watson told The Hoot.

Young adult survivors of cancer are able to fill out an application twice a year with The Samfund to receive an average of $1500 in financial assistance. While some people may be drawn away from the grant because of the application, Watson has found that the application itself is extremely helpful for survivors.

“Filling out the applications is really, really liberating [for survivors] to be able to process this part of their story. It is validating for them,” explained Watson. “There’s so much discomfort and shame in addressing the financial struggles that when we make it okay for them to talk about that, it does wonders.”

Through their grant applications for survivors, The Samfund also collects raw data that has made significant discoveries in the field. According to their website, “In an article published in the peer-reviewed medical journal ‘Cancer Medicine,’ The Samfund determined that young adults who had undergone cancer treatment were $100,000 behind their peers in average net worth.”

According to Watson, the biggest groups that are affected are people in their mid to late thirties. “When cancer hits, everything hits,” Watson told The Hoot. “In the cancer community, there are more conversations happening about the costs of cancer and some of it is young adult-specific and others not. This provides unique opportunities to share what we’ve learned from the survivor side and get credibility from a different way.”

Through this research, they found that student loans were the largest cause of gaps of cancer survivors and their peers, which led them to working with the nonprofit organization Critical Mass, they were able to create the Deferment for Active Cancer Treatment Act, which defers student loans for cancer survivors, which passed in Oct. 2018. Working with Critical Mass allowed both organizations to use their strengths to pass the amendment.

Watson told The Hoot that the leader of Critical Mass, also a young adult cancer survivor, who had spent ten years on Capitol Hill, had a good understanding of the political process while The Samfund was able to provide “data and insight into on the ground stories.” The Deferment for Active Cancer Treatment Act is similar in ways to the Civil Service Members Relief Act, which provides help for people returning from the military to get their footing once back in the United States.

“It started as a free-standing bill but got voted in as an amendment,” explained Watson. “We had so many sponsors jump on the amendment because it let people get a pause on their student loan interests. We weren’t asking anybody for anything.”

While the law has passed, the government is still processing the amendment and working on the paperwork. However, any cancer survivors are able to go to their student loan companies and automatically receive the deferment for six months, 100 percent guaranteed.

Michelle Landwehr, the Chief Operating Officer told Alumni & Friends, “Even after knowing Sam all these years, I am still in awe of how articulate, humble and driven she is. My passion for this work and the cancer community began with Sam and her story but continued to grow as I got to know our grant recipients and their stories, challenges and successes.”

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