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Honoring a son by helping others

It was hard for Karen Bienz to watch Steven, her energetic son, deteriorate from an aggressive form of melanoma that eventually took his life at the age of 25.

Steven’s cancer story began when his dermatologist removed a “weird-looking” mole from his collarbone. When the pathology report showed it was melanoma, the dermatologist referred Steven to a surgeon to have several lymph nodes removed to check for cancer cells. All of the nodes were cancer free, so Steven went on with his life.

“My son was so outgoing,” says Karen. “He was an accomplished chef who dreamed of owning an Italian food truck. But in 2016— those dreams vanished.”

That’s when Steven began to lose weight and have migraines. After losing vision in one eye and vomiting at work, he went to the emergency room at Swedish Edmonds. An MRI revealed that tumors were causing his brain to swell, so Steven was transferred to the neuro intensive care unit at Swedish Cherry Hill. CT and PET scans showed 34 brain tumors and hundreds more throughout his body.

“When we heard the pathology report, we went from zero to Mach 10 in three seconds,” says Steven’s stepfather Dan. “It was overwhelming. He was in so much pain. We could almost watch the tumors grow from one day to the next.”

But Steven was a fighter. He told his mom that he was going “to fight like hell,” and be optimistic and upbeat. He was sure he would be one of the miracles you read about. Because of his outlook, he had no interest in talking about quality-of-life issues or anything that might signal there was little hope.

At the urging of his medical oncologist Min Park, M.D., and his sister Danielle, Steven met with nurses at the Swedish Palliative Care and Symptom Management Clinic—a visit that changed everything.

“Palliative care is not hospice,” says Karen. “It’s a holistic approach to helping cancer patients. They gave Steven a pathway and something to believe in that would help him do as much as possible while receiving treatment. The nurses—and especially his social worker Vivian Foxx—worked with him personally to manage his diet, pain and mental concerns. They worked with our family, too.”

The Bienzes credit the palliative care team with keeping Steven comfortable for the five months he lived after that fateful trip to the ER.

“They listened to him,” says Karen. “They helped him understand it’s not about dying. It’s about living and making whatever time he had the very best. Because the palliative care nurses made him comfortable, Steven could enjoy every breath and feel like that day—even if it might be for just a few hours—he didn’t have cancer. That was a true gift.”

Karen and Dan were pleased to learn that Swedish had other programs that could support Steven. While he was hospitalized, Steven worried about how he could continue providing for his girlfriend and her baby—a little one he thought of as his own. He was relieved when the patient assistance fund at the Swedish Cancer Institute (SCI) offered a grant so they could buy diapers.

The Bienz family, members of the Founders Circle, donated the proceeds from Steven’s life insurance to support the patient assistance fund, which is funded entirely through philanthropy. Through their gift, they hope that other families who are struggling to live life to the fullest despite a cancer diagnosis, can experience the same kind of support they received.

Thanks to supporters like the Bienz family—and you—our patients have access to extraordinary health care and hope for a healthy tomorrow. To learn more about how your gift is making a difference at SCI, contact Jeff Walker, senior director of philanthropy, at 206-386-3194 or Jeff.Walker@swedish.org.