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 traveled to the city of Cartagena to celebrate Alicia’s bachelorette party . They wandered the streets of the Caribbean port city, taking photos in front of brightly colored murals and spending hours relaxing in mud baths. Although 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 had visited 10 countries together. When Maria was diagnosed in 2018, she didn’t let her illness stop her from pursuing her job as a registered nurse who sometimes took on travel assignments, or from jumping on a plane or in a car to explore places like Atlanta, New York and California.
“She didn’t talk too much about her cancer journey because she was really that person who wanted to come across as the strong big sister, the strong older cousin, the strong mother, the strong daughter,” Alicia said. Tambe. “It wasn’t until she traveled that she felt relief and was able to escape it all.”
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 her are disproportionately affected 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 of 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 American non-profit organization Fight Through Flights, which works to empower and support the healing of black women with breast cancer as well as breast cancer survivors. To give these women a break from the daily stress of illness, the organization provides selected candidates 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 support themselves during this diagnosis. For some women it’s ‘Am I paying a bill or am I taking care of my family?’ said Esther Tambe, who in addition to being executive director of Fight Through Flights, is also a dietitian. “It’s stressful. Some just think they can’t go on with 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, offers women a two-night hotel stay in the United States plus certain expenses, and Staycation Serenity brings a curated wellness experience to a woman’s home. They also have Room to Breathe, a night in an American hotel that can be used as needed.
“When we talk about breast cancer solutions, we often leave out, ‘what can we do for these women now?'” said Alicia Tambe, chair of the organization’s board of directors who also works in technology and is the founder of Luxe A Travels, which curates luxury travel experiences. She says that while Fight Through Flights offers nutrition counseling and wellness services, that’s only part of it. “The journey itself is wellness,” Alicia said. “We notice that all of these women love being able to get away from it all, getting away from it all and having that opportunity.”
So far, 75 women have participated in Fight Through Flights travel experiences. They are between 20 and 70 years old and are in different stages of breast cancer. Women are selected on file. Once chosen, the women decide on their destinations and experiences, whether it’s relaxing in a hotel tub after chemotherapy, celebrating treatment anniversaries, or booking stays with tastings and private chef makeovers. Many of these women, Alicia Tambe says, tell them they don’t even realize they need a break until the opportunity arises.
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A disparity in results
Although black women are no more likely to get breast cancer than white women, they are more likely to die from it, with death rates around 40% higher.
There are several reasons for this, says Dr. Jade Jones, an assistant professor at Emory University’s Winship Cancer Institute in the department of medical oncology. Black women are less likely to have regular breast cancer screening mammograms and are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer at a later stage. They are also more likely to have no health insurance or be underinsured. Black women are also more likely to get the very aggressive triple negative breast cancer and breast cancer often strikes at an earlier age.
Jones works with a diverse group of black women with breast cancer at her clinic in Atlanta. “A lot of my wives will say, ‘When I’m done with chemo, I’m going on a trip,'” Jones said, adding that she always encourages them to do it in a safe way. “If there’s something they want to do, if there’s a place they want to go, [I say] do it because those moments of joy and peace really refresh them and I think the mental part of it helps them do their treatment.
Jones saw the impacts of the trip 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, then one every year since, until the pandemic disrupted their routine. For her mother, Jones says, traveling after her breast cancer was diagnosed and treated was healing, both physical and spiritual. It also reignited her positivity about life. A good quality of life, including emotional and mental well-being, is just as important as cancer responding to treatment, Jones says.
“Being able to travel is not necessarily on the list when people [think] patient care,” Jones said. “Having patients be able to access it, I think that could be an additional additional support.”
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The healing power of relaxation
Fight Through Flights not only focuses on people in the midst of their battle with cancer, but also recognizes that travel can be a balm for those who have been 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 well-deserved vacation from her busy life. Now cancer-free for nine years, Smith underwent arduous treatment. As a result of the care process, her husband even had stress-related health issues including two strokes.
In April 2021, they left Atlanta for the weekend to celebrate his birthday. They had massages and a romantic dinner, rode their 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 daily stressors and just focus on our well-being,” said Smith, who in 2015 founded the nonprofit The Survivor’s Nest. “During and after cancer care, it’s easy to get stuck in fight or flight mode. Fight Through Flights came onto the scene to offer our community a different take on letting go and living!
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Fight Through Flights will likely open the next round of applications for their travel experiences later this year. Sign up for their mailing list and check back here on their website for more details. In the meantime, they held their first international retreat in late April in Belize, bringing together black leaders from breast cancer organizations who have also lived with the disease. The goal was to think about collaborative efforts to have a stronger impact on the black breast cancer community, while providing these women with rest and relaxation.
Alicia and Esther Tambe also continued to travel together even after Maria passed away. They redid their first trip together in October 2019 to Jamaica. When they originally planned the vacation, they weren’t sure if Maria would join them as well.
“I think we continue to travel because it was something we did and loved,” Esther said. “The travels didn’t stop for us.”