By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special to the Bulletin | Published September 26, 2013
ATLANTA—Sam Robb has attracted many fans over the years. They show up for events like golf and basketball tournaments and attend evenings of wine tasting. His biggest fans remain his immediate family, who serve meals to those hit by childhood cancer—the same disease that took Sam’s life at age 20 in 2007.
When parents walk through the door of childhood cancer they can never go back, according to Annamarie Robb. She and her husband, also named Sam, know firsthand the intense range of emotions that comes with the news of cancer. Any parent would rather take the place of his or her child, she believes, than to have to watch a child suffer. During challenging times like these, having faith and feeling the support of a parish community can make a world of difference.
“Faith and family enable you to deal with things,” Sam, the father, shared in an email. “You either turn on God or rely on him when you go through this type of thing.”
Those who knew their son Sam will recall his enthusiasm for life and his courage, illustrated by his “warrior mindset,” according to his father, and through his love of sports.
Weighing in at 230 pounds and standing 6 feet 5 inches tall, Sam was a leader on the football field even as a sophomore at Blessed Trinity High School in Roswell. He was a college prospect who led the school to its first varsity victory.
“Sam was coming into his own,” said Annamarie, remembering the season when the news broke.
X-rays of a nagging left knee injury uncovered bone cancer, or osteosarcoma, that led to a prosthetic knee replacement and the end of his football career.
Undeterred, Sam took up baseball at an elite level, eventually pitching and winning the final game of a world series in Tampa with his teammates.
“Although he never would achieve elite athletic status, he loved being part of a team,” his family recalled in their online tribute to Sam.
Sam attended Young Harris College after high school, and was a member of its baseball team. He had enrolled at Clemson University for the fall of 2007, but unfortunately his cancer returned. When osteosarcoma reoccurs it tends to affect the lungs, Annamarie explained. A large mass had grown in Sam’s chest. “It was like a coral reef was between his lung cavities.”
The week before Sam’s scheduled surgery to remove the growth and a lung, Sam went on a “farewell tour,” visiting the University of Georgia, going to Atlanta Braves’ games and entertaining relatives and friends in the family’s basement. Sam underwent surgery, but the grapefruit-sized tumor was too difficult to remove; he died on the operating table.
“In some ways it was a blessing he died as he did,” Annamarie said. “We remember him as the strong, valiant and personable young man he was.”
The journey with childhood cancer has strengthened the family’s faith and reliance on prayer, Annamarie testified. “With prayer, it doesn’t mean you automatically get what you want. … (Suffering) is not what God wants. The world is unjust and imperfect, but God gets you through it. … You still do storm the heavens with prayers. God helps you travel the journey.”
She cautioned against a limited view of faith, but expressed great appreciation for how it is manifested through community. “That’s God’s love; it’s people. You can’t always change your fate or science, but that’s God there. Some people may have miracles, but you don’t want to get too simplistic, like thinking ‘maybe I was praying to the wrong saint.’ … You can’t go down those roads.”
Annamarie, the development director at Queen of Angels Elementary School in Roswell, also has come to a fuller appreciation for the Eucharist, and added that her three daughters also “know the significance and are totally committed to their faith.”
“I’ve come to really look to the Eucharist and look to Mass. … It will get you through it.”
Having logged many volunteer hours serving cancer patients and their families, Annamarie has witnessed the toil for families without faith. Families are more traumatized, Annamarie said. Husband Sam also observed this. “Things like (cancer) strengthen strong relationships and families while the converse holds true. … It splits and weakens fragile relationships and families.”
The value of faith at these times is evident and provides comfort and fortitude.
“You see families face the tragic death of a child by various causes or maybe it’s their only child. They only have faith to carry them through to help them get up in the morning. They find the strength not to let death have the last word,” Annamarie said.
Each experience with childhood cancer is different, Annamarie explained. “It’s very important to remember that everybody’s experience is unique. … What we went through has its own handprint and footprint.”
While the journey is different for everyone, there remains a tight-knit community among families facing childhood cancer. Annamarie rapidly named more than a handful of local families battling childhood cancer who are enrolled in Catholic schools. She knows when their cancer was discovered and what the latest developments are.
“We try to keep in communication as best we can,” she said.
An important component to the Robb family’s journey has been the priests who continue to offer their support.
“We’ve been blessed by priests who have crossed our paths,” Annamarie acknowledged.
One has been Msgr. Frank McNamee, now rector at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta, and former pastor of St. Peter Chanel in Roswell.
“Sam lived life to the full and he was never dull,” said Msgr. McNamee. “He had a tremendous sense of humor and fought cancer like it wouldn’t beat him.”
While he made the most of his days, “at the same time he had a deep awareness of where he was going on after this life and of his relationship with God.”
The Robb family continues to be “amazing and has tremendous strength.” Msgr. McNamee pointed to the numerous ways the family contributes to finding a cure for childhood cancer, such as serving dinner at the hospital to families in similar circumstances and the annual grade school basketball tournament held in December to honor Sam’s memory and raise money for CURE, a nonprofit dedicated to funding research and supporting cancer patients and their families. In the six years since Sam’s death, the Robb family’s efforts have raised $365,000.
“They knew Sam would not want them just sitting around,” said Msgr. NcNamee, who walks a half-marathon every year to raise funds for children’s cancer research.
Other ways the Robbs contribute to CURE include an annual golf tournament in Sam’s honor.
“Having events help us remember Sam,” Annamarie said. “It brings his friends back.”
The family also supports a medical fellowship for doctors researching cures for childhood cancer. It’s a fitting tribute to Sam, who “connected to his doctors so well,” Annamarie recalled.
The atmosphere among those researching cures for childhood cancer is collaborative and offers hope for future remedies.
Annamarie recalled that when Sam was battling his own cancer he was often asked to visit younger children facing the disease.
“He was not one to be a poster child for childhood cancer, but the doctors and staff used him a lot to casually go in and visit kids.”
Sam (the father) said his son was better at handling his cancer than even he was. “(Sam was) a pretty selfless guy.”