When Alicia and Esther Tambe lost their sister to breast cancer, they started an organization to celebrate one of her great loves: travel.
One of the last trips Alicia and Esther Tambe took with their older sister Maria was to Colombia in the summer of 2018. They went to the city of Cartagena to celebrate Alicia’s bachelorette party. They strolled the streets of the Caribbean port city, snapping pictures in front of brightly colored murals and spending hours relaxing in mud baths. Though Maria was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, she insisted on joining the festivities.
Travel had always brought the three sisters together: over the years, they’d visited 10 countries together. When Maria was diagnosed in 2018, she didn’t let her illness stop her from continuing her work as a registered nurse who sometimes took on travel assignments, or from hopping on a plane or in a car to explore places such as Atlanta, New York and California.
“She didn't talk about her cancer journey too much because she really was that person who wanted to come off as the strong big sister, the strong older cousin, the strong mother, the strong daughter,” said Alicia Tambe. “It's not until she traveled that she felt relieved and was able to escape from all of that.”
After Maria passed away in August 2019 at the age of 40, Alicia and Esther searched for a way to honor her memory. While researching their sister’s illness, they learned that Black women like themselves are disproportionately impacted by breast cancer. They also found many organizations that support Black women with breast cancer through prevention, advocacy or research. But they felt that something was still missing. So they decided to take a different approach, one that celebrates the joy travel brought to their late sister and is rooted in their favorite shared moments.
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In August 2020, Alicia and Esther co-founded the US-based nonprofit Fight Through Flights, which works to empower and support the healing of Black women living with breast cancer as well as breast cancer survivors. To give these women a break from the daily stress of the illness, the organization provides selected applicants with free travel experiences and wellness retreats as well as mental health, nutrition and fitness resources.
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“Not everyone has the resources to take care of themselves during this diagnosis. For some women, it's ‘Do I pay a bill or do I care for my family?’” said Esther, who apart from serving as executive director of Fight Through Flights, is also a dietician. “It's stressful. Some just feel they can't continue to live life because of the things they're going through. Fight Through Flights gives them that relief, that time to be themselves again, to feel empowered.”
Fight Through Flights offers four different programs for Black women with breast cancer or breast cancer survivors, often working with Black health experts and Black-owned businesses. Roadtrip to Recovery, for example, provides women with a two-night hotel stay in the United States plus some expenses, and Staycation Serenity brings a curated wellness experience to the woman’s home. They also have Room to Breathe, one night at a US hotel that can be used as needed.
“As we talk about breast cancer solutions we often leave out, ‘what can we do for these women now?’” said Alicia, board chair of the organization who also works in tech and is the founder of Luxe A Travels, which organizes luxury travel experiences. She says that while Fight Through Flights offers nutrition advice and wellness services, that’s only part of it. “Travel in itself is wellness,” Alicia said. “We notice that all of these women just love being able to escape, get away, and have that opportunity.”
So far, 55 women have participated in Fight Through Flights travel experiences. They range in age from 20 to 70 and are in different stages of breast cancer. The women are selected based on their applications. Once chosen, the women decide on their destinations and experiences, be it relaxing in a hotel tub after chemotherapy, celebrating treatment anniversaries or booking staycations featuring private chef tastings and makeovers. Many of these women, Alicia says, tell them they don’t even realize they need the break until the opportunity arises.
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A disparity in outcomes
While Black women aren’t more likely to get breast cancer than white women, they are more likely to die from it, with mortality rates that are about 40 percent higher.
There are many reasons for this, says Dr. Jade Jones, an assistant professor at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University in the medical oncology department. Black women are less likely to undergo regular breast cancer screening mammograms and are more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage of breast cancer. They are also more likely to lack health care insurance or be underinsured. Black women are also more likely to get the very aggressive triple-negative breast cancer and breast cancer often hits at an earlier age.
Jones works with a diverse group of Black women with breast cancer in her clinic in Atlanta. “A lot of my women will say, ‘When I finish my chemo, then I'm going to take my trip,’” Jones said, adding that she always encourages them to do so in a safe way. “If there's something they want to do, if there's somewhere they want to go, [I say] do it because having those moments of joy and peace really refreshes them and I think the mental portion of that helps them do their treatment.”
Jones has seen travel’s impacts in her own family. Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, after which her parents prioritized travel. They took a cruise to Spain and Italy, and then one every year since, until the pandemic disrupted their routine. For her mother, Jones says, traveling after her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment was healing, both physically and spiritually. It also reignited her positivity about life. Good quality of life, including emotional and mental well-being, is just as important as the cancer responding to therapy, Jones says.
“Being able to travel is not necessarily on the list when people [think] of patient care,” Jones said. “Having patients be able to have access to that, I think could be an extra added support.”
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The healing power of relaxation
Fight Through Flights isn't just focused on people in the middle of their fight with cancer but also recognizes travel can be a balm for those who have gone through the stress of cancer and come out cancer-free. For April Smith, a Fight Through Flights trip to Hilton Head, South Carolina provided a much-needed holiday from her hectic life. Now cancer-free for nine years, Smith underwent an arduous treatment. As a result of the caretaking process, her husband even experienced stress-related health issues, including two strokes.
In April 2021, they left Atlanta for the weekend to celebrate her birthday. They had massages and a romantic dinner, rode bikes on the beach and relaxed by the pool. Smith says they were able to reconnect with their inner children, with huge benefits for her mental health.
“It came at a time when we needed to escape our everyday stressors and just focus on our well-being,” said Smith, who in 2015 founded the breast cancer nonprofit The Survivor's Nest. “During and after cancer care one can easily get stuck in fight or flight mode. Fight Through Flights has come on the scene to provide our community with a different viewpoint, which is to let your hair down and live!”
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Fight Through Flights will likely open up the next round of applications for their travel experiences later this year. Sign up for their mailing list and keep checking back here on their website for more details. In the meantime, they hosted their first international retreat in late April in Belize, bringing together Black women leaders from breast cancer organizations who have also lived with the illness. The goal was to brainstorm collaborative efforts to have a stronger impact on the Black breast cancer community, while also providing these women with rest and relaxation.
Alicia and Esther have also continued to travel together even after Maria’s passing. They took their first trip together again in October 2019 to Jamaica. When they originally planned the holiday, they didn’t know if Maria would also be joining.
“I think we continue to travel because that was something that we do and did love,” said Esther. “Travel hasn't stopped for us.”