"Though I'll never say that being diagnosed with cancer was a blessing, there have been moments, people, places, and experiences that have made me feel blessed since my diagnosis."
Reading through the hundreds of entries on the nonprofit For Pete's Sake webpage, those words, written by 34-year-old Gina Etzrodt, stand out amongst submissions from cancer patients, survivors, and those who lost their battle to the disease.
Many of their stories follow similar paths – A stage-3 colon cancer diagnosis at 33. A 40-year-old mother of two diagnosed with breast cancer. Mounting medical bills. Lives turned upside. Children wondering if Dad is well enough to have a game of catch.
They all have something in common as well.
Trips to Florida and Wildwood. Rides on roller coasters and quiet moments by a pool, holding hands with a loved one. Reconnecting with family. A week without bills or appointments, and moments of remembering what it means to be alive, and how much there is to be thankful for.
"Doctors are so good at treating people with conventional medicine, but what we like to focus on are the therapeutic benefits that come from respite," says Marci Schankweiler, founder and president of the For Pete's Sake Cancer Respite Foundation. "When someone gets sick, it changes the direction of life, and the whole identity of families. We ultimately want to make their journey a little easier."
Schankweiler has experienced the life-changing nature of cancer firsthand, after her husband, Peter Bossow, was diagnosed with and ultimately succumbed to cancer in the late 1990s. While receiving treatment, the couple's friends threw a beef-and-beer fundraiser, and Peter decided he wanted to use the money to take a vacation.
"We realized the significance of that," says Schankweiler. "It was really the only time in his 13-month battle that we could take a break and concentrate on the true meaning of life. We kind of had a chance to refresh and reconnect – a time to laugh and a time to cry."
The vacation meant so much that when Peter passed, he placed a notice in his obituary asking for donations that would ultimately be used to fund the Plymouth Meeting-based nonprofit. For Pete's Sake started slowly, sending 17 families on all-expense paid vacations in its first year in 2000. But things have snowballed since then, with the count of families who have received much needed respites from the organization well over 800, and another 130 scheduled in 2013.
In addition, For Pete's Sake recently received the largest donation in its history, a $175,000 home in Florida, from the Murabito family of southern New Jersey. While the Murabitos never received a trip from FPS, they realized the value of the organization after their three-year-old son, Johnny, passed away during a trip to Florida in 2005. The house, which Schankweiler says will allow the organization to double the number of families it can send to the Sunshine State, will be called "Johnny's House" in his honor.
"It's a huge gift, a monumental piece for us," says Schankweiler. "It's one family's commitment to making the world a better place. It hasn't been easy for them, but look at the good that's come out of their personal journey."
Asked to take a moment and reflect on her journey, from the life-changing moment of her husband's diagnosis to the inspiring donation of the Murabitos' home, Schankweiler says she has learned to see the good in a world where it's sometimes hard to find.
"We look around and see pain and suffering and ask why," says Schankweiler. "I'm so thankful for the hundreds of people in our communities who have rallied to make the world a better place, and it's inspiring to see what good is in this world."
For Pete's Sake depends primarily on financial contributions from donors. Those interested in donating or getting involved with the organization can visit www.takeabreakfromcancer.org to learn how.