Parents with late-stage cancer share one last family adventure

CNN Hero Jon Albert
CNN Hero Jon Albert

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CNN Hero Jon Albert 03:06

Sarasota, FL (CNN)Back in 2002, cancer wasn't on Jon Albert's radar. He and his wife Jill had successful careers and busy lives, caring for their two young children, Jake, 9, and Jamie, 7.

That all changed when Jill found a lump in her breast. Told the cancer had been caught early, she was given a 97% chance of survival. But several months later, she learned the disease had spread.
CNN Hero Jon Albert
"The cruelest part of cancer is the emotional pain," Jon Albert said. "Jill would cry herself to sleep in fear that Jake and Jamie would forget her. But we took advantage of that window in which we knew that the battle was being lost to rack up the memories."
Going through treatment, they noticed how many other families with young children were in the same situation -- facing the same fears and concerns.
    "I had an epiphany," he said. "What about giving these families positive time away, together as a family?"
    By early 2006, Jill's condition had worsened, so Jon left his job to spend more time with her and research setting up a nonprofit.
    That November, the family hosted a kickoff celebration for the Jack & Jill Late Stage Cancer Foundation, named for the nickname friends had given them as a couple. Jill attended in a wheelchair, along with Jake and Jamie, then 13 and 11. It was their last outing as a family.
    The next morning, Jill had to be admitted to the hospital. She died 12 days later.
    "They say that people tend to hang in there for certain milestones, and I'm convinced she did," Albert said.
    Today, the nonprofit helps families battling late-stage cancer by arranging trips -- which they call "WOW! Experiences" -- that let them spend quality time together.
    Most vacations involve traveling to one of the foundation's partner resorts or hotels, where families receive special attention. The group also arranges special VIP activities during the trip, like going to a major league sports practice or helping feed animals at the zoo. Everything -- travel, meals, activities -- is free.
    "We take families from driveway to driveway. We don't want them to lift a finger," Albert said. "The only thing we haven't figured out how to do yet is pack for them."
    The group has so far helped more than 1,000 families. Every trip is different, but the goal is always the same: "We are trying to give each family their own unique treasured time together," he said.
    Most of the patients have passed away within a few months of their trip. For Albert, that makes his work all the more bittersweet.
    "I couldn't save my wife's life, but I can do this," he said. "When a mom or dad says to me that 'I can die in peace knowing that my children will always have this,' it's all worth it."
    CNN's Kathleen Toner spoke with Albert about his work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
    CNN: How many families do you help throughout the year, and how are they selected?
    Jon Albert: We treat, on average, 100-125 families a year. We work with families where the mom or dad has two-to-eight months to live, generally, and they're about to leave behind their children, at least one of whom is under 18.
    Families have to be "prescribed" to us by their oncologists, who validate the medicinal impact of getting away, laughing, smiling -- and that's why we do it. Once we get the prescription, within three to eight weeks that family is going on their trip. This is a gift for the parent who is sick, for the caregiver and for the children. We are adding value to (their) life down the stretch.
    The Chase Family's recent 'WOW! Experience' included watching the NY Yankees batting practice at spring training in Florida, a highlight for baseball fans Scott (center) and his son, Ben, 12.
    CNN: How do you determine where families go on their trips?
    Albert: We don't say, "What's your dream trip?" because they're all going to say Orlando or Hawaii, and while we do that, we take advantage of a whole palate of opportunities. So, you can nickname the foundation "Make a Choice" because we typically give them three to four choices and they decide.
    We send families to resorts, beaches, mountains. They go to the big cities, to dude ranches or on cruises. Their real wish is time together, and you can create cherished, treasured memories in Seattle, San Antonio, Sarasota or Savannah. It's not where they go, it's that they go.
    CNN: What kind of impact do these trips have on the families?
    Albert: The core of our work is the memories because, ultimately, they become our greatest inheritance. So, on every WOW! Experience, we always have a private photo session with a photographer and we also encourage the families to take a bunch of pictures. After their trip, we are rewarded by the voicemails and handwritten notes we get from family after family, and we even have a section on our website chock-full of these messages and pictures.
    We give every family their own photo book. And talk about truly treasuring those books -- when we hear that (someone) has passed away, invariably they'll tell us that they were sitting around as a family in those final few hours looking at the photo book. So yes, we know the impact. We see it -- and I know it in my heart.
    Want to get involved? Check out the Jack & Jill Late Stage Cancer Foundation website and see how to help.
    To donate to the Jack & Jill Late Stage Cancer Foundation, click the CrowdRise widget below.