By Donald Wittkowski
For most of her life, Donna Black never knew anyone close to her who had cancer. All that changed, however, with a cancer diagnosis in March 2015.
It was her own. Her doctor told her she was suffering from Stage 4 lung cancer, the most advanced form of the disease.
“My doctor said he could not cure it, but he could treat it,” said Black, 53, a resident of Sea Isle City for 35 years.
At one point during Black’s chemotherapy treatments, her 60-year-old husband, Paul, became ill with pancreatitis and required an extended hospital stay.
They were both being treated at the same Philadelphia hospital. Paul recovered, but the stress and physical hardships associated with Donna’s illness left both of them needing a respite from cancer.
It was then that a nonprofit organization called For Pete’s Sake Cancer Respite Foundation stepped in and sent them on vacation to the Caribbean paradise of Punta Cana in October 2017. The trip was donated by Apple Vacations, the travel partner with For Pete’s Sake.
“They did everything for us, the flight, the hotel, everything. It was just amazing,” Donna Black said of For Pete’s Sake and Apple Vacations.
Headed by Sea Isle native Marci Schankweiler, For Pete’s Sake pays for cancer patients and their families to go on weeklong vacations that allow them “to take a break from cancer.”
“Our travelers take a break from what life with cancer has become with doctor visits, surgery, tests and treatment,” the organization says on its website. “Through a unique gift of time together, they create priceless magical, memorable moments, experience immeasurable joy amidst devastating crisis, confront cancer hardships together and find emotional healing, hope and happiness during an uncertain and tumultuous time.”
On Wednesday, Aug. 1, For Pete’s Sake will bring cancer patients and their families to Sea Isle’s 46th Street beach for a one-day respite at the shore. Black said she hopes to attend the event to help raise money for the organization and to express her thanks to Schankweiler and her staff.
“They’re great. They’re amazing,” Black said.
Sea Isle’s annual Captain Bill Gallagher 10-Mile Island Run on Saturday, Aug. 4, will partner with For Pete’s Sake to raise money for the organization. The race honors former Sea Isle lifeguard Peter Bossow Jr., who died of testicular cancer in 1999 when he was 30 years old.
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.
Marci Schankweiler was married to Pete Bossow, and it was his battle with cancer that inspired the creation of For Pete’s Sake.
Only seven months before Bossow died, he and Marci went on vacation to the Caribbean islands of St. John and Nevis. Their friends and family members held a beef-and-beer fundraiser to pay for the trip in the midst of Pete’s cancer treatments.
“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.’’’
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 Pete Bossow was a Sea Isle lifeguard. They went to dances together in town, attended the senior prom, fell in love and got married.
“It was a beautiful love story, actually,” Schankweiler said.
Since Pete’s death, Marci has remarried. She and her husband, Mark Schankweiler live in North Wales, Pa. For Pete’s Sake is based in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., but remains closely connected to Sea Isle.
During Marci and Pete’s trip to St. John and Nevis, they came up with the idea of starting For Pete’s Sake. Since its founding in 1999, the organization and its sponsors have helped nearly 8,000 people.
“We want to provide the tools and the emotional help, especially when people are dealing with a crisis like cancer,” Schankweiler said.
For Pete’s Sake sends cancer patients and their family members on weeklong respites to donated homes along the Jersey Shore and to other vacation destinations.
“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.”
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 pays for the trip, handles the travel arrangements and also gives the families a cash stipend.
Donna Black said she was emotionally and physically rejuvenated by the For Pete’s Sake-sponsored vacation that she and her husband, Paul, took to Punta Cana.
“They took care of every detail,” she said. “They told us, ‘You’re on a break from cancer.’ We had so much fun. We laughed so hard and didn’t think about me being sick.”
Paul Black, known in Sea Isle circles as “Captain Zig,” is the owner of the First Fish Adventures fishing charters.
Donna and Paul have dedicated themselves to raising money for For Pete’s Sake. Donna recently shared her inspirational story of battling cancer on the organization’s website, helping to raise $4,000 in the process, she said.
Her cancer treatments consist of chemotherapy every three weeks. She is also part of a clinical trial for immunotherapy, a type of treatment that helps weaken tumors to improve a cancer patient’s chance of survival.
Black, who had been a longtime smoker, has since stopped smoking. She noted there are no guarantees as she continues to fight lung cancer, but there have been some encouraging developments.
“All in all, my cancer has been held at bay. It’s not spreading,” she said.
For more information about For Pete’s Sake Cancer Respite Foundation, visit https://takeabreakfromcancer.org/