For one summer evening, this Issaquah community center is transformed into a concert hall. Young musicians tune their instruments — the boys wearing neckties and sneakers, the girls in head-to-toe black. The audience settles in their seats, waiting for the music to begin.
Tonight, everyone’s here for the same reason: to support better treatments for head and neck cancer. And it’s all dedicated to Sam Chin.
In 2012, Sam, then a program manager with the Federal Aviation Administration, was diagnosed with stage 4 tonsil cancer. After surgery and a year of aggressive treatment, his cancer seemed to be gone, and although he suffered from pain and fatigue, his annual checkups looked good for the next few years.
Slowly, the family found a new normal. Sam’s wife, Sylvia, a realtor, was now the primary breadwinner and Sam’s medical advocate and caretaker. The kids — Nicholas and Angelina (then aged 11 and 9, respectively) — helped out around the house and managed schoolwork and extracurricular activities. Sam retired in 2017 to focus on his health and spending time with family.
“It’s hard growing up with an ill parent and seeing them in pain,” says Nicholas. “And it’s tough to manage family and academic stress. But we talk with one another and give hugs and emotional support.”
Five years later, in March 2018, a heart scan led to a terrible discovery: The cancer had metastasized into Sam’s lungs. His UW Physicians, practicing at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, estimated he had just six to nine months to live.
Today, Sam is on a clinical trial. His family is keenly aware, however, that he would have had a wider range of treatment options and a better prognosis if his tonsil cancer had been discovered at an earlier stage. This fact inspired Nicholas and Angelina to take action and raise money — via the concert in Issaquah — for head and neck cancer research.
The Chin family were among the performers that night. Angelina, a string bass player, was responsible for finding other talented teens, and she invited young musicians in their community to participate. Nicholas, who plays the piano, set up a webpage for donations and put up posters at local businesses.
“We wanted to dedicate this concert to our dad, because we’re inspired by his strength and happiness in the face of his struggle,” says Nicholas.
In August, the teens’ work culminated in a very special musical event, featuring classical pieces and jazz numbers, that raised nearly $6,000. And one of the concert’s sponsors, Safeway, was so impressed that they chose Angelina and Nicholas to be Seahawks Tee Hawks, receiving sideline tickets to a home game and running onto the field to claim the tee.
“The concert felt rewarding — like we’re a part of something a lot bigger,” says Angelina. “I hope the money we raised will help promote awareness and early detection, because that’s the key to successful treatment.”
Gifts from the concert and from the family’s web donation page will benefit UW Medicine head and neck cancer researchers like Neal Futran, MD, DMD, chair of the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the UW School of Medicine and director of head and neck surgery at UW Medical Center.
Gifts to research, says Futran, support everything from clinical trials for promising new treatments to improving quality-of-life issues such as speech, swallowing and appearance. One of the department’s pending clinical trials for tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte (TIL) therapy — a type of immunotherapy that infuses tumor-attacking T cells directly into the body — could help future patients like Sam.
“I truly admire the family’s perseverance and positive attitude,” says Futran. “Even in the face of difficult times, they’re thinking about how they can help others. To me, that’s the greatest gift of all.”
For now, the Chins are taking things day by day, enjoying a family meal at a favorite restaurant or watching a Seahawks game at home. Sylvia and Sam know the future is bright for their kids: Nicholas, a senior, is applying to colleges, while Angelina plans a career in medicine.
“They’ve both learned to be strong and resilient over the years, and I’m so proud of them,” says Sylvia. “The kids made this fundraiser happen, and there was an outpouring of support from the community. It’s been a motivation and inspiration for them.”
There’s no doubt that Nicholas and Angelina, in turn, are an inspiration to their community.