HOUSTON - There is new hope for cancer patients who travel to Houston for world-ranked care, but have trouble finding long-term affordable housing.
The American Cancer Society and MD Anderson are working together to build Hope Lodge Houston. It will be the largest facility of its kind in the country, offering free accommodations for 62 patients and their caregivers.
Cancer survivor Jamie Gross knows first hand of the need for the facility here in Houston.
"I was in college and having the time of my life and that came to an abrupt halt," said the cancer survivor. She was 20 years old and about to start her sophomore year at The University of Oklahoma when she started suffering from back and should pain. Her mother made her a medical appointment and doctors discovered a tumor. She was diagnosed with a rare form of Ewing sarcoma.
"Our doctor in Oklahoma told us I have not seen this before. I don't know how to treat it. You have to go to Houston," said Gross.
More than 100,000 patients a year from all over the world travel to Houston to receive medical treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center.
"We have many patients that come from outside the United States and from around the United States. We are considered the best cancer hospital in the world because of the tremendous capabilities that our physicians bring to the care of each patient," said Dr. Ronald DePinho, Chief Executive Officer of MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Finding affordable housing during long treatments in Houston can be a major problem for many cancer patients, according to the American Cancer Society.
"People going through cancer treatment -- that is enough of a challenge. They shouldn't have to worry about, 'How am I going to pay for a hotel room?" said John R. Seffrin, Ph.D., chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society.
Gross and her mother stayed with an aunt about 30 miles outside of Houston while she underwent her first six rounds of chemotherapy at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Halfway through her year of treatments, her aunt was transferred to San Antonio. They had no where else they could afford to stay with other medical expenses piling up. So after five hours on a machine for stem cell treatments, Gross and her mother would make a daily drive back to San Antonio.
"I was so ill. It was just really difficult," said the cancer survivor.
The drive became too difficult and they became desperate about where they could stay because not being in Houston for treatments was not an option, according to her mother.
"We talked about staying in our car in a Medical Center parking lot and not letting anyone know," said her mother, Sharon Mears.
"Having a place to get violently ill and realizing you are losing every bit of your hair and needing to cry all the time and needing to sleep but not getting comfortable anywhere is really difficult. So the idea of doing all that in the back seat of a car was not one I was looking forward to," said Gross.
They were able to get in the American Cancer Society's affordable hotel program before they had to resort to sleeping in their car, but it was still tough to come up with even a little money and they were not alone.
"Our local office here gets 50 to 60 calls a month from people looking to ask us to find a room where we can stay while my loved one gets her cancer therapy," said Seffrin.
Hope Lodge Houston will offer free rooms on a first-come, first-serve basis on an acre and a half of land donated by MD Anderson Cancer Center for cancer patients undergoing treatment and their caregivers.
"Cancer affects the family and so this Hope Lodge of Houston will provide opportunity for the patient and their family to come here and achieve superlative care," said DePinho.
It will be the 32nd Hope Lodge built around the country and it will be the largest, giving patients a dose of hope when they need it the most.
"It will give families such a peace and it will mean the difference of having continual fear and that is what is was for us, fear of where we would be staying," said Mears.
Gross said she isn't sure she would have survived if she could not stayed in Houston for her last six treatments.
She is now a wife and mother of a 5 year old and working as a clinical researcher back in her home state of Oklahoma. Both she and her mother work with the American Cancer Society to help raise funds for Hope Lodge Houston.
"It will give families such a peace and it will mean the difference of having continual fear and that is what it was for us. A constant fear of where we would be staying," said Mears.
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