Hope For Kaua’i Cancer Patients

The cost of travel and lodging in Honolulu can be so prohibitive for off-island cancer patients, some consider forgoing care. American Cancer Society’s in-the-works Hope Lodge changes all of that – and it started with a former Kauai resident

One never knows which pebble thrown into the sea of humanity will cause a tidal wave of change.

For Kauai minister Gene Redden, his stone came in 2006 in the form of a letter to the editor in the Honolulu Advertiser.

He recently had overcome a bout with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and while the disease had been his main adversary, the obstacles that had come along with it were what caused his concern.

He was among the 650 cancer patients forced to travel to Oahu from the Neighbor Islands each year for their treatment. Insurance may cover treatments and doctor visits, but travel and housing expenses are not. With some treatments taking months to complete, the costs can quickly eat up anyone’s savings.

“Because of these problems, some cancer patients are forced to consider not pursuing treatment,” wrote Redden, who now lives in Alaska. “Their cancer might win because of a lack of money, housing or local treatment options. But, of all the needs, affordable housing is the one thing I am determined to resolve.”

It was his tone of resignation to the disease that caught the ear of American Cancer Society Hawaii Pacific (ACSHP) board member Dr. Larry Tseu.

“I can’t imagine if I didn’t have the money to come to Honolulu to get treatment – that is a self-imposed death sentence,” says Tseu, whose wife battled breast and lung cancer before succumbing to the disease in 2008. “That is why I am involved, because I can’t imagine not being able to come because I didn’t have the money.”

The sentiment of that letter is now on the cusp of becoming a reality as ACSHP prepares to break ground for the Clarence T.C. Ching Hope Lodge Hawaii at 251 Vineyard St., in large part thanks to the Ching Foundation’s donation of $3.5 million toward the $12 million needed to open the facility.

The lodge will be the 32nd of its kind in the country, but only the second one opened west of Texas. It serves as a home away from home for patients and their caregivers, allowing them the privacy they need to heal while providing them with a support group of others who are suffering as they are.

“When you look at the success of the Ronald McDonald Houses and what they have done for families, having a place to go when you are undergoing cancer treatments, that kind of facility is invaluable to the families,” says Larry Rodriguez, former CFO of Central Pacific Bank and ACSHP volunteer leader.

“It is not just about the cost or convenience, but the psychology of having to go back and forth, instead having someplace to go where there are other people in similar categories. That has a tremendous emotional and physical impact on people.”

The three-story, 22,300-square-foot facility will have 19 guest rooms that will be provided at no charge to patients and their caregivers. The rooms are not set up like hospital rooms but like little apartments with their own private bathroom. The one exception to the condo-like atmosphere is the lack of a kitchen in each unit, which was done on purpose to assure fellowshipping among residents.

“We want them to eat together and cook their own food,” says Jackie Young, former chief staff officer of ACSHP and breast cancer survivor. “When you are going through treatment, your taste buds totally change. It feels good to make what you like, just as you would at home, but still eating together so they can share the common experience. The experience is learning from each other and seeing that they are not isolated.”

In the community kitchen, each patient will have an individual pantry to store their food, but they will have the option when preparing food to share with their fellow residents.

The facility also is equipped with a library/resource room with access to the Internet, a fitness room, laundry facilities and a peace garden. Each floor has a sitting room for reading and relaxing. There is a covered parking stall for each room, but a vehicle is not necessary as the lodge will provide transportation to and from doctor’s visits or even to the grocery store.

“We will have a shuttle bus; it is really stressful for Neighbor Island people to come here and drive in Honolulu traffic. Cancer treatment is stressful enough,” says Young.

Testimonials have come pouring into ACSHP from cancer survivors praising the creation of this facility and how much it will mean to Neighbor Island residents.

Yisa Var was an aspiring actress from Hilo when her dreams were paused at the age of 31 when she was diagnosed with cancer.

“The first time I had breast cancer,” says Var, a mother of two boys, “I used up all my savings. When my cancer came back the second time, I went into debt. The third time my cancer came back, I lost my home. But I am alive and with my family, and that’s what matters.

“Mahalo for the strong community support in creating Hope Lodge in Honolulu for our Neighbor Island cancer patients to stay during their treatment on Oahu.”

It is this financial impact that the lodge hopes to soften. They estimate that they will be able to serve 460 patients annually, providing them with nearly 7,000 free housing nights, giving the patients a yearly savings of more than $1.3 million, which usually would come right out of their pockets.

These are costs that no one can really anticipate, and treatments, while they have expanded greatly in the past decade, often follow a meandering road with no definitive timeline.

Such was the case with Hawaii Island resident Debra-Jean Kenui, a two-time breast cancer survivor who spent months traveling back and forth between islands before finally beating the disease into remission three years ago. She remembers the struggles and pain of surgeries and chemotherapy, but it is the ancillary needs that still weigh on her today.

“I cannot begin to explain the enormous amount of stress that is placed on an outer island resident and their families to travel to Oahu,” writes Kenui, a mother of three sons. “I believe at times it hindered my overall well-being, recovery and spirit.”

This is why she has become such an ardent supporter of Hope Lodge.

“No longer will outer island residents need to cram everything into one-day trips,” writes Kenui, “which in turn will help reduce the number of trips taken and more importantly, allow more time to spend with doctors to answer important questions and concerns to better prepare them for the journey ahead.

“I believe that having a facility like Hope Lodge will enable more outer island residents to seek the specialty care they deserve, and that is needed on Oahu so that the distance will no longer be a roadblock to the success of their overall health.”

Helping out these Neighbor Island families with lodging is the next logical step in ACSHP’s desire to make Honolulu the destination when people need treatment.

“We always wanted to be a healing center of the Pacific. I believe we are moving in that direction with Queen’s as a hub and the Cancer Center taking a leadership role; they don’t have to go away to get treatment, they can stay here,” says Young.

Currently, ACSHP has raised $9 million of the funds needed to open the facility, thanks to Tseu and donation of the land by The Queen’s Medical Center. And now it’s looking for the final push to get the building open and serving the public.

“The work ahead is just getting this balance of the funding that we need, so the more we can get this out to the public about what it is and its level of importance, the better,” says Rodriguez.

The lodge is accepting donations through its website at hopelodgehawaii.org. Or, if you would like to memorialize a friend or family member, every part of the lodge, from lobby to laundry room, is up for name-recognition opportunities.

“Right now we are doing the rooms – we will get down to the trees and benches later!” says Young, with a laugh.

If you would like to learn more about the memorializing donations, call Cathy Alsup at 258-0110.

While the financial relief this will provide to families is evident, allowing the families to stay together during their battle is the real engine at the heart of the lodge.

“Even if you have the money, you need the family support that no money can buy,” says Tseu. “That is what cures people. When they have the support of family, they heal faster.”