Samaara Robbins’ life changed profoundly when touched by cancer, but now the changes are on her terms
October 28, 2013
It was the crack of the gavel that made it official. Although Samaara Robbins had already had a year to accustom herself to her new name, it wasn't until she walked out of court with all the official documents in hand that she really felt the transformation was complete.
For Robbins, that change, in 2011, represented a re-birth. Looking back, she sees herself as a completely different person than the one who left Montana and the real estate business and arrived in Colorado in 2008. The catalyst of the change — breast cancer. The following radiation, chemotherapy and surgeries put Robbins on a path she never could have guessed would be hers to travel.
"Change your name, change your destiny," said a woman — a fellow name-changer — with whom Robbins struck up a casual conversation in court. The words have stuck with her, even two years later. Changing her name to change her destiny. Or maybe it had been her destiny all along. Either way, she's the one in charge now.
Robbins was diagnosed with breast cancer on April 29, 2009. The diagnosis came on the heels of a particularly tough year for her. As a real estate agent in Bozeman, Mont., Robbins lost everything when the economic bubble burst in 2008. That included her house, her livelihood and her health insurance. Family tragedy also struck, with the deaths of both of her grandmothers.
With nothing left to do, Robbins sold the majority of her belongings, packed the rest into her car and started driving, on the lookout for a place to make a new start. Though she hit Colorado second out of more than 10 states — a loop through the West, South, East Coast, Midwest and back again — she decided the Centennial State was right for her. At the end of October 2008, she got an apartment in Berthoud and settled into the Colorado life.
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Fast forward to next spring, when Robbins' boyfriend of two weeks encouraged her, at 38 years old, to get a breast exam. The result was the discovery of an aggressive tumor that had reached the lymph nodes and required quick action.
The diagnosis also happened to come two weeks before her employer-based insurance kicked in, making her cancer a pre-existing condition in the eyes of the insurance company, which told her she would have to wait six months for any treatment to be covered.
For a moment, fear gripped Robbins. What could she do? Then she spoke with a social worker, who told her about various programs, most from the Susan G. Komen foundation, that could help her. Robbins filled out the paperwork and was accepted. While she had to pay (and is still paying) her doctor's bills, the grants took care of the larger amounts, including the hundreds of thousands of dollars for chemotherapy and radiation.
"That was really a relief," Robbins said. "It just made everything reasonable."
Kindness from all corners
On May 18, three weeks after her diagnosis, Robbins went in for a double mastectomy. Procedures for breast cancer patients vary depending on the seriousness of the cancer and individual choice. For this surgery, Robbins didn't have a choice. Her tumor was so aggressive that the significant procedure was necessary to remove 18 lymph nodes.
With most of her family living in California, she went in alone. As the nurses prepped her for surgery, she did her best to stay calm.
"When I was in the room, I was doing really good with my emotions, keeping everything in check," she said. But when the anesthesiologist asked her how she was doing, "I said, 'I'm doing really good,' and then I just started crying."
He gave her something to put her out, and when she woke again, the surgery was over, and her plastic surgeon was waiting in the room with her.
"The surgeon never comes back to the room," she said, "but he was sitting there when I woke up."
It was only the beginning for Robbins. In the following weeks and months, she would undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatments as well as multiple surgeries. Fortunately for her, it turned out that help wasn't as far away as it had first seemed.
She met her next-door neighbor, Karen, two days before her first surgery. From then on, Karen was always on hand to help out, whether it was to send her son over to mow the lawn, to watch Robbins' dog or to bring over some extra food.
"My neighbor was amazing. … I would do anything for this woman," Robbins said. "She was probably the most influential person in my life at that point, as far as helping me."
Karen went on walks with her, brought over pie and baked potatoes, and even orchestrated a group of men to come and cut down a tree from Robbins' front lawn when the city threatened to charge her for its removal. Other neighbors also stepped in to help, offering her rides to treatments and taking care of her dog.
"They say it takes a village, … and that is how I got through cancer treatment," Robbins said. "The support, it was unbelievable, (from) complete strangers that I have never seen since or before."
Finding a new path
Amid the surgeries, chemo and radiation, Robbins also received massage therapy. It was the first time she had ever been massaged, but she found it soothing, and it reduced the swelling from her lymphedema.
"I was amazed how well manual lymph drainage works," she said. "I knew from the minute I got that, the minute it started working, that's when I knew. I said, 'That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to help people.'"
Now, she is trained in oncology massage and has certification from the Colorado School of Healing Arts, among others. She moved to Frisco in October 2011 and now works part-time for the Shaw Regional Cancer Center, as well as for private clients, doing oncology massage, lymphatic draining and breast rehabilitation therapy.
Working with cancer patients is rewarding, she said. "I love it. I love what I do, I love who I work with. The clients are amazing."
Coming to her is a positive experience for her patients, who are often inundated with painful procedures.
"It's that hour that you actually don't have cancer," she said of the massage sessions, "even though the other 23 hours of that day you do, or you're dealing with it."
Today, Robbins no longer has to deal with her cancer, though sometimes she still has to deal with the aftereffects, like continued treatment of her lymphedema, or doctor's bills yet-to-be-paid.
But she takes it all in stride. The bills come in under her old name, and once they are paid off, she feels she can leave all that behind forever. Her new name, Samaara, means 'guardian,' she said, symbolizing her new guardianship over herself and her new life.
And she certainly hasn't let her experience with cancer slow her down. She volunteers with cancer-related groups, including Sisters Hope (retreats for cancer patients), Epic Experience (outdoor adventure camps for cancer survivors) and Wapi Yapi (cancer camp for kids). In 2012, she went to Alaska on a mountain climbing expedition and plans to return, and she continues to enjoy her hobby of ice climbing around Summit County.
In 2014, Robbins will have a new anniversary to celebrate. One May 18, five years to the day of her double mastectomy surgery, she will marry her boyfriend, the man she started dating just before her diagnosis.
"Somehow it seems cliché to say cancer shaped who I've become, but it would be a lie to say anything else … ," Robbins wrote of her experience. "When I think about my life now, I think about the cute bartender that got me to see the doctor, that stood beside me through my treatment and that in May will become my husband. I think about the Susan G. Komen Denver Affiliate and their generosity toward making my life move just a bit easier when everything else seemed so hard. I am truly grateful."