Kelly Mack and her family just returned from a weeklong, professionally planned, all-expenses-paid trip to Orlando.
The best part of the vacation? "No one asked how I was doing," said Mack, a 42-year-old mother of three who spent the last year battling an aggressive and often fatal form of breast cancer. "No one knew, so no one asked. And it was nice."
Of course, 9-year-old Sean and 7-year-olds Brynn and Emily had their own favorites: The Buzz Lightyear ride at Walt Disney World. The dolphin show at SeaWorld. The Simpsons ride at Universal Studios. Swimming every night in the heated outdoor pool. And waking up each morning to see what mischief their Elf on the Shelf had been up to.
They named the elf "Pete," a tribute to the For Pete's Sake charity that sent them to Orlando.
The Plymouth Meeting-based nonprofit was founded by Marci Bossow Schankweiler, who lost her husband to testicular cancer in 1999.
Marci and Pete Bossow were each 28 when he was diagnosed. They had recently bought a home. They were just beginning their lives together, but within a year, he was gone.
One of their last, and best, memories together was a vacation to the Caribbean, where they sailed, hiked, sat on the beach, and had "frank discussions about our lives together."
After they returned, Pete Bossow insisted that his obituary include a request for donations to give other young cancer patients "the gift that we had - the gift of time, and the time to create memories," said Schankweiler, who has remarried.
For Pete's Sake has grown substantially over the last decade, but it's still mostly fueled by volunteers and small donations. It serves more than 100 patients a year - a number that's about to jump, thanks to a New Jersey couple who donated a second Florida home.
The charity serves mainly young adults and families who are battling aggressive or late-stage cancer. They have to be nominated by a member of their oncology team.
For Pete's Sake handles everything, from airfare to entertainment tickets, meals, spending money, rental cars, and activities to keep children happy on the plane. It even provides a digital camera, then downloads the pictures so the patient doesn't have to.
"There is absolutely no financial burden on these families," Schankweiler said. "If they're going to do it, we're all in."
But not every patient wants to try the Buzz Lightyear ride. Staffers and volunteers tailor each vacation to the patients' needs. Some go to the Jersey Shore, the Caribbean, or the Poconos. Some ask for quiet time with their spouse, while others want a raging good time with the whole family.
One family was sent to a cottage in Washington state, where the patient relished opening the windows to smell the fresh sea air every morning.
Staffers also work closely with doctors, therapists, and social workers to decide when the patient and their family will get the most out of the trip.
"Timing is so critical. We have to get people at the right point in their treatment schedule," Schankweiler said. "It almost has to be perfect."
About 70 percent of the patients die within two years, Schankweiler said.
For Mack, the last year has been a blur of surgeries and chemotherapy, radiation, back-to-back doctor appointments, and months confined to the couch.
Her last CAT scan came back clear, and Mack said she is slowly regaining her strength and stamina. In Florida, she said, "I felt more like myself ... than I have in a long time."
Recently, the family was getting ready to celebrate Christmas with grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles.
Last year at this time, Kelly Mack was going through the worst of the chemo, and her husband, Sean, did his best to handle Christmas and the family's four December birthdays on his own.
"To be honest, I don't really remember" last Christmas, Kelly Mack said. That makes this year extra special, "because I can celebrate still being here."
Mack said she has been positive from the beginning: "When I was first diagnosed, I promised the kids, 'When I get better, we're going to Disney to celebrate.' "