Dana McCleary can remember the precise moment her life began unraveling. It was the morning of Oct. 8, 2007, and while thinking about a colleague who had just died of breast cancer, she felt a pain in her right breast. "This has to be my imagination," she recalls thinking. "I'm totally fine."
But at home later that day, she felt a lump in her right breast, and at age 28, entered an unknown, unwelcome universe. The very next day, she saw a breast surgeon and went through several diagnostic procedures. The verdict: She had an aggressive form of breast cancer and needed equally aggressive treatment.
"It was devastating, it was horrible, but I was determined to deal with it," said McCleary, a project manager for Philadelphia Sign Co. "My mind kicked into business mode. I even kept a log of what was happening medically. It was my way of coping."
What she hadn't expected was the debilitating fatigue she would experience as she underwent preoperative chemotherapy.
It was during this period that McCleary heard about an organization offering free housecleaning services to cancer patients in treatment. Once a month for four months, companies affiliated with a national organization called Cleaning for a Reason Foundation would give women battling cancer one less thing to worry about.
All that was required was a medical confirmation that cancer treatment was underway.
At first, McCleary resisted the notion of getting housecleaning help. "I felt guilty - I was young, and I should be strong enough to take care of my own townhouse," she reasoned. But as chemotherapy sapped her energy, McCleary's cozy Delran space didn't seem as small and manageable as it had before.
"Even vacuuming can be exhausting," she said. "But looking around at a mess can feel pretty overwhelming."
Enter Raylene Arko, president of Keep It Clean With Raylene Inc., a Port Richmond cleaning service that in 2007 had become a local affiliate of the Texas-based Cleaning for a Reason Foundation.
A former real estate saleswoman and then home rehabber who offered cleaning services occasionally, Arko, the mother of two young sons, found that the "on-the-side" cleaning business was becoming quite successful.
That's when she decided to start her own cleaning company, which now has about 200 clients - mostly in Center City, Society Hill and Northern Liberties - and a staff of 14.
Arko had some deeply personal reasons for wanting to support the Cleaning for a Reason Foundation. "My own mother is a cancer survivor, and my father recently passed away from lung cancer. I've seen what the disease does to families and how it disrupts life. Doing something to help was very important to me."
The foundation was created in 2006 by Deborah Sardone, a veteran of the residential cleaning industry and president and CEO of her own company, Buckets and Bows Maid Service, in Lewisville, Texas. Sardone had long donated cleaning services on an informal basis to women in need, and she recognized the urgency of their situations.
Reaching out to her colleagues across the country, Sardone created the foundation, which now has more than 360 partners - as participating cleaning services are called - in 38 states. They pledge not only to offer free services to women in treatment for cancer of any type, but also to support the foundation with modest contributions - between $20 and $50 a month, although smaller cleaning services can pay less - to help defray its operating expenses. Since the organization's launch, 1,044 women have been helped. Eleven affiliated cleaning services are in the Philadelphia area, including Warrington-based Do You Need Me? Cleaning Professionals.
Owner Renee Rawcliffe, 53, was diagnosed with cancer last year after becoming a Cleaning for a Reason partner in 2006.
"I can honestly say that I understand what my clients in cancer treatment are going through," she said. "And I know that what I do helps them, but it also really helps me."
On a recent morning, McCleary greeted Arko with a hug. During the time Arko has worked with her, McCleary has had a double mastectomy to halt the advance of cancer in her right breast and to prevent the disease from invading her left breast.
Now that McCleary is finishing the last treatment - postsurgical radiation - she has once again welcomed the "clean team" into her home.
While there have been well-meaning friends and family members who have steadfastly supported McCleary, the cheerful and determined young woman couldn't imagine asking them to come and clean for her.
"I'm a Type A - I like to do things on my own, take charge, push on," said McCleary. "But I can't even put into words how much the help from this foundation has meant to me."
On this fall morning, with company helper Teresa Miller, Arko deftly moved through the upstairs bedroom and bathroom, living room, dining room and kitchen. Surfaces were scrubbed, appliances cleaned to a gleam, floors vacuumed or scrubbed hands-and-knees style. And McCleary just kept smiling.
"The reaction of all the patients we see is pure gratitude," said Arko. "Many times, these women also are so lonely and isolated that just having us around can be a big boost. And it's a joy for us to see how much pleasure we can bring by some cleaning and polishing."
Typically, Keep It Clean With Raylene sends two cleaners for two hours to each cancer patient, translating to about $128 worth of services. And while her company works in many homes of people not dealing with cancer, it is her involvement with the national foundation that brings her the most gratification.
Arko recalls working with a mother of five who was unfailingly upbeat, always expressing her gratitude for the housecleaning. In the course of the relationship, the patient died.
Arko still returned to the home to deliver the last of the woman's four free cleanings - and to help out the widowed husband. As she cleaned and straightened, she discovered a pile of birthday cards, carefully signed with messages from the mother for all of her children's next birthdays.