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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Alumna Helps Others After Surviving Brain Tumor

By Philip Walzer

Sam Hunter '99 still feels the effects of the benign brain tumor diagnosed five years ago.

Her left leg drags, and some of her toes have lost feeling. Her right side also hurts at times. She sleeps fitfully and occasionally struggles to find a word.

Even so, she toughed out the Marine Corps Marathon - her sixth marathon - last year.

"I never get into anything because it's easy," said Hunter, 51, who lives in Suffolk.

She ran the marathon to raise money for her foundation, Winks from God!, which provides support, information and other resources to patients with brain tumors and their caregivers.

This fall, Winks from God! is sponsoring a virtual fundraiser through Dec. 15, with options including a 5K and a 120-mile cumulative challenge. The registration deadline is Nov. 1. For more information, go to winksfromgod.org.

Hunter said her good fortune inspired her to establish Winks from God!

"As I went through my journey, everything fell into place," said Hunter, who served in the Navy, primarily in cybersecurity, for 25 years.

Family, friends and neighbors offered support. Her military insurance provided sufficient coverage.

"I was so blessed from Point A all the way to Point Z, and I thought about how many people aren't. How could I help them through this journey?"

Hunter joined the Navy at age 17 after a difficult childhood that included homelessness and food shortages. Ten years later, she enrolled at ODU while on active duty and raising her children with her husband, T.C. She remembers the seemingly endless early morning runs as a member of the Hampton Roads Naval ROTC back when she didn't like to run.

She majored in computer engineering because of her background with computers and her skills in math. In particular, Hunter recalled Vishnu Lakdawala, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, as "tough but fair."

"I really struggled in some of his classes," Hunter said. "But my goal was to get through the program. I refused to drop it." She graduated with better than a B average.

She subsequently earned three master's degrees - in computer management/information assurance from the University of Maryland University College, national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College and an executive M.B.A. from the College of William & Mary.

She retired from the Navy in 2011 as a lieutenant commander. Hunter's subsequent jobs included cybersecurity manager at Newport News Shipbuilding.

She began feeling weakness and pain on her left side shortly after she left ODU, years before the diagnosis. But scans found nothing. "I learned to push through the pain because I needed to," Hunter said.

Only in 2015, when she could barely walk, did doctors find a benign meningioma the size of a plum sitting on the frontal lobe of her brain. Her neurosurgeon at Duke University's brain tumor center removed most of it, and Hunter underwent 30 rounds of radiation the next year.

An MRI in 2019 provided good news: The remnants of the tumor had not grown.

Hunter established Winks (short for With INtentional Kindness and Support) from God! last year. "Our goal," she said, "is to lift the burden so patients and caregivers can focus on the fight."

The organization has a four-fold strategy.

First: a free online support group every other month led by Hunter, a radiation oncologist and a retired oncology nurse. Topics have included Social Security disability law and coping mechanisms for kids.

"I learned more in this meeting than I have in my entire journey," one participant told her last year. "I said, 'That's what we're here for.'"

Second, the website, winksfromgod.org, provides resources about brain tumors - what to expect, treatment options, etc. "We've talked to many people who aren't getting the information they need," she said.

In addition, Winks from God! will soon begin providing grants to families to cover nonmedical expenses, such as mobility equipment or lodging for out-of-town doctor's appointments. Finally, Hunter hopes the group will eventually make charitable contributions for research on brain tumors.

A longer version of this article will appear in the upcoming issue of Old Dominion's e-magazine, Monarch Extra, at www.odu.edu/monarchmag

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