What can we do when loved ones die? How can we carry on without them? What can we do to remember them and honor their memory?
Some people make art. Some make scrapbooks, or hold on to mementos. Some people start organizations, foundations and scholarships. But some people, like Samantha Mathews, simply walk.
When Samantha, or Sammy, was 12 years old, she lost her mother, Janet, to breast cancer. Although she has experienced a lot of life since that event — going to college, creating a career, and becoming an Indianapolis Colts cheerleader — the loss of her mother still influences her today in how she spends her time and gives back. Much of that influence comes directly from her mother.
While Janet was fighting cancer for six years before her death in 2006, she was walking in local Relay for Life events. Originally from Dowagiac, Sammy participated in those events with her mom in Cass County.
“Mom did a lot of Relay for Life stuff,” Sammy says. “She was sick for six years, and those were a big part of our summers growing up.”
Sammy continued participating in Cass County Relay for Life events through her junior high and high school years after her mom’s passing, not only by walking but also by organizing, raising money and speaking. Those formative years showed her the depth of support that comes from growing up in a small community, and the value of giving back even when she was the one who had lost something.
Relay for Life rallies, however, were only the beginning for Sammy in the collective fight to find a cure for cancer.
In 2015, Sammy, along with two friends from Dowagiac, participated in a Susan G. Komen 3-Day in Detroit, a three-day event for which participants walk 60 miles in a given city. Walkers must raise $750 just to participate in a 3-Day, but the cost was no barrier for Sammy the first or the second time she participated. In September 2019, she did another 3-Day walk in Dallas, Texas and raised more than $3,000.
“[Susan G. Komen is] a really great organization. It’s a good cause, and obviously close to the heart,” Sammy says. “It’s really cool to see a lot of people get involved with donating and walking.”
In both of the 3-Day walks Sammy went to, she was moved not only by the participation of survivors and family members of survivors and lost loved ones, but also by the closeness of so many complete strangers.
“People talking about their stories is the most impactful part of the events,” Sammy says. “There are people who are in chemo, survivors, people walking in memory of loved ones, and it’s a good reminder that no one is really alone in this fight.”
Sammy received significant monetary help for the 3-Day walks from friends and family back in Dowagiac, but she was also supported by the Colts organization, which encourages their players and cheerleaders to community action. Among the Colts cheerleaders alone, there are thousands of hours a year, collectively, put toward charity and community service.
“I definitely have been extremely fortunate for the Colts to be so supportive of other things in my life and career,” Sammy says. “They’re extremely supportive of helping in all those ways.”
Her role as a Colts cheerleader has also provided a larger platform for her charitable work, Sammy notes. While walking for Susan G. Komen is worthwhile and a reward enough in itself, the more young people she can set an example for the better, she says.
“There are support systems for everything,” Sammy says. “It’s absolutely acceptable to be sad and to grieve, but the best way to continue in life is the way [deceased loved ones] would expect you to live, with integrity.”
From Dowagiac to Detroit and to Dallas, Sammy has continued walking in the search for a cure for breast cancer. She hopes to see the fruits of her efforts in her lifetime, not just in honor of her mother, but for mothers of countless young girls to come.
“I’d love to live in a day where they find a cure for breast cancer,” she says.
Photography by Wes Jerdon