By Donald Wittkowski
It was a carefree day at the beach in Sea Isle City for Rosene and Matt Wenger. Matt playfully splashed around in the ocean with the couple’s two sons, Cayden, 4, and Keagan, 2, while Rosene tip-toed into the surf carrying their 6-month-old daughter, Kayleigh.
“It really allows us to get away from everything and simply focus on family and friends,” Rosene said, glancing toward her husband. “It’s priceless.”
The term “getting away” had much deeper meaning for the Wengers during their Wednesday afternoon beach outing in Sea Isle. For them, it meant a chance to temporarily forget about the trips to the doctor’s office and the chemotherapy treatments associated with Matt’s cancer.
They were part of a group of six families, about 30 people in all, enjoying a one-day “break” from cancer during an event organized by a nonprofit organization called For Pete’s Sake Cancer Respite Foundation.
Normally, For Pete’s Sake and its sponsors team up to send cancer patients and their family members on weeklong trips to the Jersey Shore and other vacation destinations.
On Wednesday, though, For Pete’s Sake invited some cancer patients and their loved ones to Sea Isle for a quick sojourn at the 46th Street beach to help ease the emotional and physical challenges caused by illness.
“They get to share some fellowship and friendship,” said Marci Schankweiler, the founder and chief executive officer of For Pete’s Sake.
The name of the organization was inspired by Schankweiler’s late first husband, Peter Bossow Jr., a former Sea Isle lifeguard who died of testicular cancer in 1999 when he was just 30 years old.
Marci Schankweiler, 49, grew up in Sea Isle as Marci Kuttler, the daughter of Mariann and Herb Kuttler. The Kuttler family has owned the Maryanne Pastry Shoppe in Sea Isle for 50 years.
During her youth, Marci worked in the pastry shop, while Bossow was a Sea Isle lifeguard. They went to dances together in town, attended the senior prom, fell in love and got married.
Seven months before he passed away, Pete and Marci traveled to the Caribbean islands of St. John and Nevis during a trip paid for by their friends and family.
“It was Pete’s idea to go away, to leave cancer behind and to celebrate,” Schankweiler recalled. “He told me, ‘Cancer can’t destroy the love in our heart and the warmth in our soul.’’’
During the trip, Pete and Marci came up with the idea of creating For Pete’s Sake to give other cancer patients and their caregivers a “respite” from the disease. Since its founding in 1999, the organization and its sponsors have helped nearly 8,000 people.
Rosene and Matt Wenger, of Lititz, Pa., learned of For Pete’s Sake from their friends after Matt was diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia in January 2017. They contacted the organization the next month to see if For Pete’s Sake could help them cope with Matt’s cancer, Rosene said.
“You think that you’re in this alone. But you’re really not,” Rosene explained of how For Pete’s Sake came through for the couple.
In June 2017, the Wengers enjoyed a weeklong vacation in Sea Isle courtesy of For Pete’s Sake. The trip proved extra special because the week before, they learned of Rosene’s pregnancy with their daughter, Kayleigh.
“It was quite a surprise,” Matt said, smiling, of the pregnancy.
Making a three-hour drive from their home in Lancaster County, the Wengers returned to Sea Isle again on Wednesday – this time with their third child.
Matt Wenger, who is 35, noted that his cancer has been declared under control now, after he underwent a series of chemotherapy treatments. He credits his 34-year-old wife for saving his life.
Rosene insisted that he consult with a doctor when he first started feeling ill. Following blood work and a call from an oncologist, the decision was made to begin chemotherapy treatments almost immediately, he said.
Hairy cell leukemia is a rare, slow-growing cancer of the blood in which the bone marrow makes too many B cells, a type of white blood cell that fights infection. The excess B cells are abnormal and look “hairy” under a microscope.
Matt Wenger said he is feeling “pretty good” now. On Wednesday, he noted that the most serious thing that was bothering him was a sinus infection. He hoped the seashore’s salty air would clear his sinuses.
While growing up, Wenger would vacation in Sea Isle and other Jersey Shore towns with his parents. He expressed his gratitude to For Pete’s Sake for allowing him to return to Sea Isle with his wife and children.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “It has been great. They’re a wonderful organization.”
Cancer patients between the age of 24 and 55 are nominated by a member of their oncology team for the vacations. For Pete’s Sake and its sponsors pay for the trip, handle the travel arrangements and also give the families some spending money.
“We believe travel is transformative, and addresses the emotional and psychosocial impact of cancer on not just the patient, but also the caregiver and the patient’s children,” the organization says on its website. “Our program is a complement to traditional cancer treatment, and an FPS respite vacation can play a crucial part in the patient continuum of care.”
Donna Black, 53, who has lived in Sea Isle for 35 years, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2015. In October 2017, she and her 60-year-old husband, Paul, enjoyed a weeklong vacation in the Caribbean paradise of Punta Cana sponsored by For Pete’s Sake and its travel partner, Apple Vacations.
Black said the vacation allowed the couple to temporarily escape the stress of cancer. It rejuvenated her both emotionally and physically, she added.
On Wednesday afternoon, Black joined with the other cancer patients and their family members who relaxed on the 46th Street beach during the one-day outing.
“Here, I feel a camaraderie,” Black said. “It is a break. It’s OK to acknowledge cancer. I feel it’s a safe place to talk about cancer.”
Black undergoes chemotherapy treatments every three weeks. Every 12 weeks, she has CT scans to check her abdomen, pelvis and chest. Determined to continue with her fight, she noted that her cancer has not spread.
“I don’t let it bring me down,” she said.
The beach outing was the first of two events this week in Sea Isle connected with For Pete’s Sake.
Sea Isle’s annual Captain Bill Gallagher 10-Mile Island Run on Saturday will partner with For Pete’s Sake to raise money for the organization. The race also honors Bossow.
The Sea Isle City Beach Patrol encourages individual runners and teams to support For Pete’s Sake by making a donation when they register for the race. In addition, the Sea Isle Beach Patrol Lifeguards Association will donate $15 for every runner who raises $250 or more to support For Pete’s Sake.
For more information on the For Pete’s Sake Cancer Respite Foundation, visit https://takeabreakfromcancer.org/