In 1997, when our children were all grown up, my husband Dick and I moved from the suburbs to Cambridge, right near many Boston hospitals. We bought a condo with an extra bedroom, and we shortly thereafter read about Hospitality Homes in the paper. Getting involved with them seemed like a great way to do something useful with the space.
We’ve been hosting people for more than 15 years now, and every individual and family is different. We’ve celebrated with some, cried with others, but it’s always meaningful. We love having people from all over the world stay at our home. One couple from Italy stayed with us while their baby was being treated at Boston Children’s Hospital. When we traveled to Italy on vacation they returned the favor. It felt like we were visiting old friends.
Several of the families who have stayed with us were seen at Dana-Farber, so I saw the impact that a cancer diagnosis can have. But when I found out that what I thought was a kidney stone was ovarian cancer, in 2005, it still hit me like a ton of bricks; I was now a Dana-Farber patient myself.
Suddenly, I had a whole new perspective about what people have to go through. I was lucky; I was able to sleep in my own bed with my family, neighbors, and friends by my side throughout my treatment. I couldn’t imagine dealing with cancer or another disease in a strange place, so Dick and I have worked to make our home welcoming to everyone.
We don’t push people to tell us their situation, but we’re there to listen if they want to share. I don’t hide my own status as a survivor, and request other cancer patients as guests – especially those with ovarian cancer. In several cases I’ve had mini One-to-One Program sessions with patients facing the same disease as me.
Dick and I both volunteer regularly at Dana-Farber as well, and serve on the Patient and Family Advisory Council there. We’ve been married nearly 50 years; I know my cancer could come back at any moment, but I don’t waste my time worrying. Our experiences and how we share them with others make it possible for them to feel more comfortable during a difficult time.
Hundreds of people have stayed with us, from singles to families of five or six. We have made plenty of friends and exchange Christmas cards with about a dozen families. People ask why we open our home up to strangers, but I don’t think there are many real strangers left in the world. Life presents itself in so many forms, and these experiences are what open our eyes to reality.
Anne Tonachel is a retired preschool teacher and longtime Dana-Farber volunteer. With her husband, Dick, she is also a host with Hospitality Homes, which provides free lodging to families traveling to the Boston area for treatment at 29 local hospitals and medical centers including Dana-Farber.