A 2½-year bout with cancer taught Elizabeth Fortune that sometimes the best treatment is a break.
Her husband, Griffin Coop, learned it too -- somewhere between the complicated medical terms and the doctor speak.
The couple believes so strongly in the idea that Coop, 37, a former assistant to Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, and Fortune, 40, a former supply planner at the L'Oreal plant in North Little Rock, quit their jobs to focus on sending people with cancer on short retreats.
Whether a brief sojourn to the Gulf Coast or a few days of rest at a Little Rock hotel, they want to give families fighting the disease a relaxing vacation free of charge.
"Cancer takes such a toll on your mind, your body and your pocketbook," Coop said from the couple's Little Rock living room, which became a makeshift office after they started the nonprofit Lymphomaniac Society in September.
Coop and Fortune had visited a Florida beach for several days as Fortune battled Hodgkin's lymphoma. For her, the trip was an important step in her treatment, but most cancer patients can't afford trips like that, she said.
The Lymphomaniac Society, named after Fortune's cancer support team, organizes and funds three- to four-day trips for cancer patients. The only requirements are that the person taking the trip is battling some form of cancer or has recently gone into remission.
The 4-month-old organization sent its first couple on vacation in December. Emily Rusch, a 31-year-old mother of three from Washington, D.C., visited Little Rock for four days with her husband.
Rusch, diagnosed with lymphoma, said she had a blast. She loved looking at the Arkansas River bridges from her hotel room at the Courtyard Marriott in downtown Little Rock. Between resting and visiting landmarks around the city, Rusch and her husband ate -- a lot. For the first time in months, Rusch said, she actually had an appetite.
"It was magical," Rusch said Wednesday afternoon. "I start back treatment next week, and that trip was essential. It recharged our batteries."
For many cancer patients, short vacations may be pivotal. They give the patients "permission to rest," said Harriet Farley, the social work manager at the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute in Little Rock.
Other patients may need a different escape, but all patients should find some activity outside of treatment, Farley said.
"It depends on the individual," she said. "For some, it may be rest and relaxation and a change of scenery. What's important is being in a place to feel stimulation outside of daily life."
In Rusch's case, the trip to Arkansas' capital city gave her a break from taking care of her three children. Farley said the breaks let patients focus on their own nourishment rather than the needs of people in their care.
But, "a lot of people are unable to afford treatment, much less a vacation," Farley said. "I think [Lymphomaniac] is a great idea."
'Cancer, cancer, cancer'
Fortune noticed a bothersome bump on her neck in October 2010.
She assumed it was a bad case of strep throat, until it didn't go away. Several months passed, and doctors performed a number of tests, determining that it was an infected cyst.
Fortune elected to have the cyst removed in May 2011. The tissue was sent off to a lab for a standard biopsy.
Two days after the surgery, the call came.
It was a sunny day, Fortune recalled. She was in bed recovering from the surgery. Coop was at EJ's Eat and Drinks in downtown Little Rock on his lunch break, enjoying his usual chicken wrap alone at the counter.
His wife called. He rushed home. She had Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Those few minutes that Fortune spent alone on the bed waiting for Coop to arrive are a blur.
"I just remember sitting there saying 'cancer, cancer, cancer' out loud," she said.
Doctors told Fortune to expect a quick seven months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. She was cancer-free after 2½ years, six rounds of chemo, 3½ months of radiation, a stem-cell transplant and a bone-marrow transplant involving marrow donated from a stranger in Cincinnati.
She's been free of cancer for two years and is counting her blessings.
"When I'd see other patients, I'd see how fortunate we were in our circumstances," she said. "I could've been sicker, the diagnosis could've been worse, and I could've not had the support system I had. We knew when we got to the other side we wanted to do something to help other patients."
Downcast young man
Coop and Fortune saw a lot of people suffering as Fortune underwent treatment, but neither of them can forget one young man.
They saw him almost every day during the seven months that Fortune spent recovering from her bone-marrow transplant in Houston. He couldn't have been older than 25, Fortune said.
Everyday he'd roll by in a wheelchair with his head down. The cancer in his blood was taking a toll on him.
But one day, his face lit up, and he talked nonstop about a Reba McEntire concert he attended the night before.
A few days later, he was downcast again.
In a lengthy conversation about her fight with cancer, Fortune broke down in tears only once -- while describing that young man at the Houston hospital.
"I don't know what it was about him," she said. "If two hours at a Reba concert did that for him, if we can do something like that to give people a break -- a couple of hours of joy -- then that's what we want to do."
The idea for the Lymphomaniac Society began forming during Fortune and Coop's trip to Pensacola, Fla., almost a year earlier. They spent the majority of their time in the hotel lobby reading and relaxing, but Fortune said the trip healed them, "body and soul."
While the prospect of a vacation-funding nonprofit organization for cancer patients percolated in their minds, the young man in Houston, whose name Coop and Fortune never knew, confirmed that it was a good idea.
In September 2015, the paperwork was filed, and the Lymphomaniac Society became official. With one patient's trip now complete, Coop and Fortune have several more in the works.
They have hosted a meet-and-greet for close friends and co-workers, but they are only in the early stages of spreading the word about their organization and how others can help.
The Lymphomaniac Society operates solely on individual donations and in-kind donations from hotels and restaurants.
Coop and Fortune run the nonprofit. They hope that one day the organization will grow large enough to need a full-time staff and office space.
"It can get stressful, but I don't regret the decision," Coop said. "Hearing [Rusch] had a great trip confirms everything we wanted to do."
Metro on 01/17/2016
Print Headline: Cancer victims need break, survivor says