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Offering comfort during cancer

Melody Biehl, left, joins Bennye Rushton in a guest room Rushton will offer to patients who have been touched by (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Melody Biehl, left, joins Bennye Rushton in a guest room Rushton will offer to patients who have been touched by (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

October is breast cancer awareness month. But cancer survivors like Melody Biehl are always aware of the insidious disease that claims more than 40,000 women in the United States each year.

“I got my very first mammogram at 41,” she recalled. Abnormalities spotted in that procedure led to a needle biopsy. The result: breast cancer. Biehl underwent a surgical biopsy and then a mastectomy. Though she’s been cancer-free for 12 years, she’ll never forget the arduous, emotional journey she traveled – nor the caring people she met along the way.

In a breast-cancer support group called “Because,” she met Faye McLain. “Faye had a double-mastectomy but was doing really well,” Biehl recalled. “And then she got this rash – she was diagnosed with inflammatory breast disease.” McLain died in 2002. Biehl said, “She was such an inspiration to me.” Biehl became involved with the American Cancer Society as a co-coordinator for the Reach to Recovery program, and served as chairperson for the Spokane Relay For Life. Yet she wanted to do more.

In 2004, she founded Because There is Hope, with the goal of providing comfortable lodging for women who travel to Spokane for cancer surgery or treatment. Though the American Cancer Society helps find hotel accommodations for out-of-town patients, hotels were not what Biehl had in mind. She wanted something warm and cozy. She wanted a house, and she wanted to call it “Faye’s House” in honor of her friend.

“I believe God placed the idea in me,” she said. Times are difficult for nonprofits, and the organization hasn’t been able to purchase a home. However, for the past two years Biehl has provided lodging through a network of volunteer host homes.

“Right now, we have seven host homes,” she said, and lodging isn’t limited to those dealing with breast cancer. Male cancer patients and family members of those being treated are also welcome.

The patients and the homes are matched through a screening process facilitated by the American Cancer Society and Because There is Hope. Volunteers who open their homes include single women, families with young children and some like Bennye Rushton, who count themselves as unlikely hosts.

“I live alone,” she said. “And I like that.” But when she heard about the need for host homes at a fundraiser called the Cinderella Tea, she said, “A little voice told me, ‘You know, you can do that.’ ” But Rushton had a lot of reasons for not opening her home. “I’m not a nice person in the morning,” she said with a chuckle. “And what if they’re (the patients) allergic to cats?”

Yet that nagging internal voice wouldn’t go away. One year after attending the tea, Rushton called Biehl and offered her home. In October 2007, she welcomed her first guest. “I was absolutely terrified,” Rushton recalled. But her fears proved unfounded. Rushton said of her guest, “She fit right in and was so easy to be around.”

Since that time she estimates she had about a dozen guests. One of them was Moses Lake resident Becky Simonds. The 44-year-old was undergoing radiation treatment for a spinal tumor. Simonds said, “Physically, there was no way I could have driven back and forth every day.” The radiation left her nauseated and weak. “Bennye was marvelous,” Simonds recalled. “She really accepted me and didn’t make me feel like an intruder.”

Biehl is conscientious about not over-taxing her host homes. Consequently, returning patients may stay in several different homes. Simonds said she received a warm welcome at each home. In fact, when her birthday fell during one of her treatments, her host home had a small celebration for her and gave her a gift. “I wouldn’t have got all of that care if I’d stayed in a motel room,” she said.

Breast cancer survivor Janelle Beaucheming discovered Because There is Hope at the Susan G. Komen luncheon. “I really wanted to do something to help others going through this,” she said. “Others had helped me and I wanted to give back.”

But she has two small children. “I thought, who’d want to stay in a house with two small children?” Still she felt compelled to offer her home. To her surprise, Beaucheming discovered many guests find the normalcy of family life comforting. She said, “It’s heartbreaking for me to think about someone going through treatment and then sitting alone in a hotel room.”

Biehl is grateful for the support of the Spokane community. Even the mayor has offered her home. “I’ve used Mayor Verner’s home two times,” Biehl said.

But the ultimate goal is still Faye’s House – a single home to welcome those in need. To that end, Biehl recently quit her day job at Glen Dow Academy to devote herself full time to the cause. “This is a new adventure,” she said. “It’s a big leap of faith, but I’m spreading my wings and flying.” She paused, remembering her inspiration. “Faye would be so excited.”