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Lodges Bring Hope, Holiday Cheer to Cancer Patients

Article date: December 19, 2008

Coping with a cancer over the holidays can be overwhelming, especially if you're faced with having to travel hundreds of miles from home to get treatment. In addition to exhausting and expensive therapies, there's the stress of finding transportation and lodging in an unfamiliar town, not to mention anxiety at the thought of spending this special time of the year away from friends and family.

Enter the American Cancer Society's Hope Lodge program, which offers cancer patients and a family member a free, temporary place to stay while getting the cancer care they can't get at home. Currently, there are 28 Hope Lodge locations in the United States. In 2007, more than 30,000 patients, caregivers, and family members stayed at an American Cancer Society Hope Lodge, saving nearly $19 million in hotel expenses. 

Hope Lodges aren't just places to stay – they're vibrant communities where patients and their families can connect with others who are also going through similar experiences. In addition to enjoying a private room, guests can spend time with other cancer patients over a meal or in a common room. They can also find help getting to appointments and tap American Cancer Society resources for information about their cancer.

An estimated 5000 people will stay at a Hope Lodge from November 1, 2008 to January 1, 2009. To make patients feel more at home during this time of year, many Hope Lodges put on special programs.

Spreading joy

The folks who run the Joseph S. & Jeannette M. Silber Hope Lodge in Cleveland, pictured above, start getting ready for the holidays as early as September -- and with good reason. 

The list of holiday activities at the Lodge is longer than most people's holiday shopping lists. There are parties on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, music performances, potluck dinners, arts and crafts classes, and even art and music therapy sessions. Guests and their families can get together to enjoy caroling and cookies, scrapbooking, and board games.

"We make a variety of activities available to people – normal-feeling activities, things that people would be doing in their own homes," said Cris Williams, CHP, director of the Cleveland Hope Lodge.

Williams, who has been at the Lodge for over 6 years, has always had an interest in helping people with special needs. She has a strong clinical background and started her career working with sexually-abused children. She also has firsthand knowledge of what many of her residents are going through. She's a 2-year breast cancer survivor.

Williams, a nimble staff, and a core group of dedicated volunteers keep the Joseph S. & Jeannette M. Silber Hope Lodge Cleveland Hope Lodge humming. The Lodge has 31 beds, and according to Williams, has probably handled more than 12,000 stays in its 13 year history. They have had guests from 20 countries, says Williams. This year, the Lodge is expected to have a 90% occupancy rate from November through December.

During the holiday season, volunteers from local churches, schools, and other organizations donate food, time, and decorations to the Lodge. Recently, volunteers from the Cleveland Institute of Art came by to help out with an art project. 

The Lodge also enjoys a standing visit from Santa on Christmas Eve – he delivers goodie bags containing candy, stationary, toiletries, and other fun items to each resident. Guests also enjoy party platters on Christmas Eve, a lasagna dinner on Christmas Day, snacks and sparkling juice on New Year's Eve, and a pork roast dinner on New Year's Day.

Sara Kubankin, 40, who lives in Salem, Ohio, about 2 hours from the Lodge, arrived on December 9 and will be staying through mid-January. She says that the Lodge offers "a lot of fun things to do to stay occupied so you don't think about your cancer."

"Being here really takes the stress off so you can focus on healing, so you can focus on getting better," she says.

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum…

Come December, the Musekamp Family Hope Lodge in Cincinnati, Ohio, puts on what some might call a "tree-fest." The building, which dates back to the 1880s, features some impressive architectural details along with some equally impressive amenities, including an exercise room, 2 TV rooms, a theater room, a meditation chapel, an inspiration garden, and a Great Room, which has a library, guest computers, a grand piano, and gas fireplace. 

And this year, from November through December, it's also home to 10 brilliant Christmas trees, each with a special theme.

"All of the trees are donated and are decorated around a special theme. We have trees sponsored by the University of Cincinnati, Xavier University, the Special Olympics, and the Kelly Clark Foundation," says Bob Ange, who has been the director at the Lodge for the last 2 years.

While most of the people who stay at the Lodge have a Christian background, the Lodge strives to decorate the Lodge in a way that is "festive" and "spiritual" rather than exclusively Christian.

"We have an electric Menorah, and we keep all of the major religious texts in our meditation chapel," says Ange. 

In addition to decking the halls, Ange and an ever-growing group of volunteers put on several dinners in December and hosted a big Holiday Open House mid-month.

Deicy Casallas, 41, who was diagnosed with Lymphangioleiomyomatosis and struggles with tuberous sclerosis, arrived in the United States not knowing anyone, without knowing the language, and with only $200 in her pocket. She found the Cincinnati Hope Lodge through the Cincinnati Children's Hospital, and has been overwhelmed by the "warm, tender, and kind treatment" she has received there. (Deicy is pictured here with director Bob Ange.) 

Her mother passed away 10 years ago on December 21 and since then she says she has had a hard time celebrating Christmas. Nowadays, she says, thanks to the love and support she has received at the Hope Lodge, she is now starting to regain her joy for the season, something she describes as a "revival of the Christmas spirit."

"I want to especially express my thanks to the women's support group that takes place here once a week," she says.

Coping with Cancer During the Holidays

If you're going through treatment during the holidays, you need to special care of yourself, regardless of whether you're staying in a Hope Lodge, hospital, or your own home. Here are some guidelines to help get you through the season.

Set lower expectations. Don’t worry about decorating, baking, or buying gifts. Remind yourself, “This is temporary. For a short period, I can let some things go, and it’s OK.”

Let other people do things for you. Delegate tasks and errands to others. They may be looking for a concrete way to help.

Rest each day. Many people experience fatigue during cancer treatment and need to find the right balance of rest and activities.

Keep it simple. Find a way to be festive, such as choosing a few close friends for a small, manageable dinner party. Make it a potluck supper where everyone brings a dish, so you won’t have to do all the work.

Stay in the moment. It can be hard not to fast-forward and worry about the future or dwell on the past, says Greta Greer, MSW, LCSW, American Cancer Society, director, survivor programs, but do your best to stay in the here and now. It can help to think of the things you are grateful for right now.

Don’t isolate yourself. If you're not up to visiting with people in person, stay in touch with friends and family online. You can also join an online community of survivors who understand where you’re coming from. The American Cancer Society Cancer Survivors Network is a great resource, advises Greer. Access it at csn.cancer.org.

Make no apologies. If you need to retire early or skip a gathering with hyper grandchildren, do so without regret or an elaborate explanation. "I don't feel up to it," should suffice.

Don’t center the holiday around cancer. Others may need to help the person in treatment see past his or her illness to capture the joy and excitement of the holidays. While it is impossible to ignore the fact that you are dealing with cancer, it does not have to dominate the entire holiday.

Decide how you're going to talk about your illness. People around you still have their own problems and issues. Consider each person's capabilities and give them as much information as they need about your illness, but not more than they can handle. Get more information about how to talk about cancer here.

Let people get close to you. You’re fighting a life-threatening battle, which makes you emotionally vulnerable. If you share these feelings, and spend extra time over the holidays with family members, you will be rewarded with deeper personal relationships.

Celebrate the spirit of the season. Dip into a book of inspirational thoughts, or if you feel up to it, attend a religious service. Finding spiritual meaning in the holidays is helpful, regardless of whether you meditate, belong to a religious organization, or read philosophy.

To learn more about the Hope Lodge program, visit the ACS Hope Lodge Web site, which includes detailed profiles of all 28 Hope Lodges as well as contact information. If you need help now and want to talk to someone about what you're going through, call the American Cancer Society National Cancer Information Center at 1-800-ACS-2345.

Reviewed by: Members of the ACS Medical Content Staff

ACS News Center stories are provided as a source of cancer-related news and are not intended to be used as press releases.

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