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Ex-NFL Star raises Breast Cancer funds

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UPPER ARLINGTON, Ohio (AP) — Stefanie Spielman's husband gave her a choice.

Chris Spielman, a former Ohio State All-American, had been sidelined from the Buffalo Bills with a neck injury and was about to announce he was taking a year off to be with his wife and two young children.

He asked her what he should say: family reasons, health concerns?

``Immediately, I saw an opportunity to be a health advocate. I said 'Tell them I have breast cancer,''' Stefanie, 32, said recently while speaking at a forum on health issues.

Nearly two years later, a fund established by the Spielmans has brought in almost $1.3 million, and the couple continue to speak around the country raising awareness.

``They've struck a chord with people in terms of their devotion to each other and their willingness to share their experience publicly in the hopes of helping others,'' said Mary Yerina, associate director of development at The James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute in Columbus.

Yerina solicits and administers donations to the Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research, of which 100 percent goes for research at The James.

In 1998, Stefanie was three months pregnant and detected a lump during a self exam but figured it was pregnancy related. She later miscarried and, in a follow-up exam, mentioned the lump to her doctor.

Months of treatments followed, with the public looking in. When Stefanie shaved her head rather than wait for her hair to fall out, Chris had his head shaved. Stefanie made public appearances smiling beneath the brim of a hat.

The announcement set off a rapid set of events. The advertising agency for the Big Bear grocery store chain was among the first to contact the Spielmans.

``We thought, like everyone, what a great story that was,'' said Ron Foth Sr. of Ron Foth Advertising in Columbus.

On the Spielmans' suggestion, the fund was created in September 1998. Customers were invited to donate a dollar or more to get their name on a paper football to be posted in about 65 stores.

``It became an emotional display of support,'' Foth said. ``It became almost like wallpaper.''

A goal of raising $250,000 in one year was met in the first four months. Soon others began donating, from peewee football players who shaved their heads for pledges to schools organizing walks and runs. The fund has come to represent donations from about 1,700 individuals and companies, Yerina said.

The Spielmans held a luncheon in April to honor champions in the lives of cancer survivors. That brought in $125,000.

Volunteerism has been a way of life for her, Stefanie said. Her late father was a doctor and her mother has been a lifelong volunteer. Besides, Stefanie, a former television magazine show host, enjoys taking on projects.

``Everyone handles health issues differently. In my case, I was sick with breast cancer,'' she said. ``I was not ashamed, and if I had any bit of time left in my life, I'd be damned if I was gonna sit around and feel sorry for myself. I was going to go out and set an example. Most importantly, set a good example for my children.''

In August 1999, the Spielmans faced yet another life-changing event when Chris suffered a violent hit in an exhibition game while playing for the Cleveland Browns. Two days later, he announced he would no longer play.

After 11 years in the NFL, Spielman finds himself being more recognized now that he devotes time as an advocate for cancer research and awareness.

``It's been really rewarding, so you almost feel you have a calling to do this,'' he said.

Spielman also works as a studio analyst for Fox Sports Net's NFL pregame show, and spends a lot of time working out, golfing and playing with their children, Madison, 6, and Noah, 4.

Stefanie helped form a support group for women ages 25 to 40 and also answers questions on her experience through a new Web site.

Carol Hoyt, owner of Over My Head, a store in the Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington that caters to cancer patients and where the support group meets, said Stefanie has helped educate younger women who might not have seen themselves as candidates for breast cancer.

Among those women is Mindy Long, 29, of Dublin. Long had been nursing her daughter and detected a lump after becoming pregnant.

``It really wasn't like what you would think of a lump, it was more of a thickness,'' she said. She dismissed it as a consequence of nursing and being pregnant until she miscarried in September 1998.

Her experience sounded much like Stefanie's.

At the urging of her mother, who had read an article about Stefanie, Long went to the doctor and was diagnosed with breast cancer.

``I would have gone in, but probably not as early as I did,'' she said.

Nurse practitioner Joanne Lester, who works for Stefanie's doctor, said she continually hears from people who have been touched by the Spielmans' story.

``If you hear her talk, she just goes right to your soul,'' Lester said. ``They're genuine people who have a passion for a cause here and they're in a good position to try and turn it around.''

Stefanie is in remission and continues regular checkups. The fund could eventually expand to screening and other areas, she said.

``I can see it has great potential to reach out even more,'' she said.

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