Cancer — and its treatments — can be incredibly stressful. That’s why the non-profit organization Kick Cancer Overboard raises money to send those affected by the disease on a weeklong cruise.
The four-year-old charity was founded by DonnaLyn Giegerich, a cancer survivor, and her friend and business partner, travel agent Ted Friedli. Raising money through fundraisers and sponsorships, the organization has sent 80 cancer patients and their families on two Royal Caribbean cruises to Bermuda. The next is slated to leave New Jersey in March 2015 on Quantum of the Seas.
Giegerich was 43 when, seven years ago, doctors told her she wouldn’t live to see 50. She had Leiomyosarcoma, rare cancer with a one-in-four million chance of survival.
But Giegerich, now 50, rejected the diagnosis. She underwent surgery, pushed through radiation and chemotherapy, and emerged stronger than ever. She ran a half-marathon with mere stubs for hair, and competed in the Mrs. New Jersey pageant wearing a bikini that showcased the 18-inch vertical scar slicing her body. (She finished as first runner-up.)
Now in the survivor category, Giegerich wanted to help others. But how? Friedli came up with the idea of sending folks on vacation. Playing off the idea that Giegerich was now a pageant queen, he reached out to Royal Caribbean International, a company with which he had long had a good rapport.
“There are a lot of support services out there …but nobody was providing people going through the ravages of treatment a fun fest at sea,” Giegerich said. “Because they do have fun. Some people think, ‘Oh, cancer. Cruising. It must be such a sad group of people.’ I say, ‘These people have a clear idea of the fragility of life and they have the time of their lives.'”
Cruises are given to those who would be unable to afford such a luxury on their own. Passengers, who travel in a group of 40, dine and have cocktails together every night and there is also an opening night kick-off party. Giegerich, a certified yoga instructor, also teaches classes to interested parties. On Sunday, there’s an all-denomination service to bless the cruisers.
Typically, the charity will pay for the person affected by cancer and a friend or family member.
The cruises can provide crucial lasting memories, not only for the patients, but for their entire families. During one trip, a family of five — mother, father and three children — squeezed into one cabin. After the father’s death, his family let Kick Cancer Overboard know how much the trip had meant to them.
According to Giegerich they said, “This is one of the nicest memories we had as a family before the end of my father’s life. We can’t thank you enough.”
Kick Cancer Overboard has no paid staff and its only bill is for liability insurance. The bulk of its money comes from a sponsorship by the New Jersey Marathon. Volunteer runners collect pledges to raise money. The organization also holds small fund raisers throughout the year.
Giegerich said she’d only taken a cruise once before starting Kick Cancer Overboard. Now she and her husband, who also beat a cancer that doctors said should have killed him years ago, enjoy their time at sea, meeting new people and forming tight bonds over shared experiences.
“People say old friends are best friends and that may be true, but never lose an opportunity to meet somebody and make them a close friend for life,” Giegerich said. “There really is no time to waste.”