Ocean City, Maryland (CNN)Jeanine Patten-Coble was blindsided by her breast cancer diagnosis eight years ago.
“When the cancer bomb goes off in your house, it’s devastating,” she said. At 39, a life-threatening disease had never been on her radar.
Stunned, she asked her doctor if she could still leave for her family vacation the next day. He agreed.
“We had so much fun that week. We got a chance to rest and relax,” Patten-Coble said. “I felt like a mom; I didn’t feel like a cancer patient.”
During the trip, she had to break the news to her young son. To clear her head and prepare herself, she went for a run. Jogging along the beach, she discovered an abandoned Coast Guard compound. The cluster of dilapidated houses gave her an idea.
“The vision really was to create a place for cancer patients to come, where (they) essentially could get the same thing that my family got that week,” she said.
Since 2011, her nonprofit, Little Pink Houses of Hope, has provided free week-long vacations for almost 600 families affected by breast cancer — giving them a chance to escape, heal and have fun together.
Her team holds 16 retreats annually in communities across the country.
Eleven families attend each retreat, and from the moment they arrive, all expenses are covered. Each family receives their own luxury vacation home, stocked with their favorite foods. They are also partnered with a volunteer who assists with everything from childcare to cooking.
“We can give them an opportunity to just hit the pause button on everything that’s happening in their life with their treatments and their surgeries,” Patten-Coble said.
The week includes activities like paddle boarding, boat rides or visits to a water park. Couples even get a date night while volunteers host a “kids’ night” for the children.
“We want them to really just focus on reconnecting and getting strong as a family unit,” Patten-Coble said. “To watch them and to see the smiles — it’s a gift.”
CNN’s Kathleen Toner spoke with Patten-Coble about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: How much need is there for helping families in this way?
Patten-Coble: Our mission is really simple: to put a huge embrace on families as they’re going through the breast cancer journey. It’s financially, physically (and) emotionally exhausting. It’s stressful on a marriage, on parenting. So, we serve families that are (going through) all stages of cancer.
For many of our families, this is their last trip. We want all of our families to create lasting memories. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about — being with the people that you love.
CNN: What transformation do you see in families over the course of the week?
Patten-Coble: Families come in the first night and you can see the heaviness, especially with the caregivers. They’re holding the weight of the world on their shoulders. You can feel it. And by the end of the week, you can see this lightness that they have.
They’re in the moment. They’ve had fun and been loved on and they realize they’re not alone — and there’s power in that.
CNN: Do families form bonds with each other during a retreat?
Patten-Coble: Cancer’s a very isolating experience, so the wonderful thing about a retreat week is that everybody “gets it.” There’s lots of moms who are bald, kids who are struggling, spouses who are wondering, “Am I a good care-giver?” We create a place of peace for everybody. Caregivers get to know caregivers. It normalizes the experience for kids. And for a lot of them, it’s the first time they don’t feel alone.
All of our activities and meals are optional, but most of our families attend everything because they love the community that we’ve created. After the first 24 hours, you would walk in and feel like you were at a family reunion. And when the retreat is over, our families stay in contact. They end up going on vacation together. Reality is still there, but now they are stronger, and they have more supporters to help them on the journey.
Our goal is to double in size in the next four years and then we want to do this for all cancers because the experience is the same for every patient. It’s a diagnosis that they have to deal with as a family.
Want to get involved? Check out the Little Pink Houses of Hope website and see how to help.
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