Spielman's book shines light on wife's struggle

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Stefanie Spielman was diagnosed with cancer in 1998, when her daughter Madison was 4.

Madison Spielman learned a lot from her father Chris' new book.

Now 18, she learned that on a family road trip, when she thought the RV was making a routine stop because her mom didn't feel well, they were in a hospital parking lot. And her father was trying to keep up a calm front while worrying about his wife's cancer.

She had been watching Michael Jackson videos with her three siblings. They had been laughing.

"That shows what a good job my mom and dad did of shielding us from that," Maddie said.

AP Photo/Mark Duncan

Chris and Stefanie Spielman were careful to shield their three children from Stefanie's long battle with cancer.

Chris and Stefanie may have shielded their children from the scariest moments, but they shared their struggles publicly for a decade. Stefanie's breast cancer diagnosis in 1998, when she was just 30 years old, changed their lives. It also thrust them into the spotlight when Chris made the revolutionary decision to take a hiatus from his NFL career to care for his family. He still isn't sure why it caused such a commotion, but he is glad it did.

"That gave us a platform to raise awareness of breast cancer," Chris said.

They could shield their kids only so much once the cancer spread to Stephanie's brain and spinal fluid. Chris tells the rest of the story in "That's Why I'm Here," written with Bruce Hooley.

For Maddie, who was 4 years old when her mom was diagnosed and 15 when she died, the book was a revelation. As much as her mother fought cancer, she also fought for her children to be free of the constant fears that can come with recurrence and treatment. Her father, an All-Pro linebacker, also chose to document some genuinely sweet moments, like the morning he decided to propose.

"I really got to see my parents' love story from my dad's perspective and not just mine," Maddie said.

Chris said he didn't write this book for his children, but for the same reason he and his wife had been public about the diagnoses all along.

In the decade after she was initially told she had cancer, Stefanie was a fundraiser and spokesperson. She reached out to other women who had the same thing, she and Chris even went on the "Oprah Winfrey Show." The Spielmans hoped women might hear Stefanie's story and get a routine checkup or do a breast self-exam. Or a man could hear Chris' story and prompt his wife to schedule her annual exam. That was the goal.

Maddie knew when her mother died, she had a part to play as well. Terrified of public speaking, she signed up for a class in the subject her senior year in high school. Now, she is following the path her mother forged.

Last week, she was the one speaking by her father's side at an Ohio State fundraiser, just like her mom used to do.

"Just to be there for each other," Maddie said. "Because it's not always easy what we talk about. It's very personal, but it has to be."

Chris doesn't just paint himself as the dutiful spouse; he details moments where he crawled into the backseat and cried even as he was due to pick up the kids from school; his anger that this could happen, that his God would reject a reasonable plea for his wife's life.

In person, Chris is centered and calm in talking about the worst days. Faith plays a large part for him. Perhaps the writing process was ultimately helpful for the family. Maddie has also blogged about her experience for a class project and wrote the forward for her dad's book.

"I will never take anything for granted again," she wrote.

Chris describes Maddie as the one who grew up quickly and would put the world on her own shoulders if it meant easing the way for others. But that can be a hard thing for someone so young to bear.

Maddie found an outlet in basketball. Maybe she couldn't control what was happening in the rest of her life, but basketball was something where her effort had tangible results. She could focus on it and find some solace.

"The night my mom passed I was coming home from basketball practice," Maddie said. "My whole team showed up to the funeral. They were so supportive."

In the two years since, Chris has taken on the role of two parents, finding an empathy muscle he hadn't always had to exercise. During one rough patch, he answered as many as 30 texts a day from daughter Macy, who would get anxious whenever he went away as part of his job as an ESPN college football analyst.

"My daughter, the 11-year-old, really had a trouble with me traveling the year after Stefanie passed away," Chris said. "She thought I was going to die in a plane crash the whole time. So I was putting Sharpies [notes] all over her hand; 'Daddy loves you,' little Bible verses, and that helped her deal with it. [It] looked like she could make a guest appearance on 'L.A. Ink.'"

As you can guess, this is not an easy book. It is a profound love story with some football to flesh it out. It is the story of a competitor learning to be a partner and a parent. It is a story of a family's deep faith in God, in an afterlife in which cancer-ridden bodies are made whole again.

And ultimately it is the story of Stefanie Spielman, and that the worst thing imaginable can sometimes bring out the best in us.

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