Sweeping away cobwebs in the homes of women with cancer, a volunteer finds lasting connections

Illustration by Anne Lambelet

Illustration by Anne Lambelet

The Business of Caring

by Kathleen Albertson

Eight years ago, I started working in the commercial janitorial industry. At an industry trade show, my boss came across a charity called Cleaning for a Reason, which gives free house cleaning to women with cancer. I have four kids myself, and it’s hard to keep my house clean—and I don’t have cancer. I couldn’t fathom how hard it must be to keep things tidy and organized while suffering through chemo treatments and radiation.

We immediately jumped in to help.

I went on my first assignment with one of our local maid services. As soon as we entered the woman’s house, it was clear that a cleaning wasn’t going to be enough. The patient was elderly, and her whole house was in disarray. We cleaned her home, but I decided to go back over the weekend with my daughter, and we helped her throw things away and get organized as a next step.

While we were there, I realized that cleaning and organizing was only part of how we were helping her: She was normally alone. We gave her someone to talk to and connect with. She was thankful to have her house cleaned, but also just thankful that we were there.

She was so happy with the experience that when I threw a fundraiser for the charity, she decided to go out and collect donations for the raffle.

It was a powerful first experience for me, and she is one of many patients I’ve met on this journey who have had the same impulse: So many of them, despite what they have been through, want to give back themselves as soon as they can. It’s beautiful to watch them “pay it forward” and for our work to create a virtuous cycle of help and hope.

Personally, I keep volunteering because I see myself in these women. One woman who stands out was introduced to me through a mutual friend on Facebook. I told her about the free cleaning she could receive, but at first she turned us down. I remember her saying, “Oh, please, give that to someone who really needs it.”

Like me, she also has four children. I kept thinking to myself, “If this were me, I know I would need this kind of help.” I kept at it, and we were finally able to clean her home for her. She is now a Stage 4 breast cancer patient, which means her cancer has metastasized. And yet, this beautiful, strong woman now helps me by doing volunteer work. First, she attended a wellness day with me to help more patients. When she spoke at the fundraiser, it was so touching that the entire audience was in tears.

Just as with the first patient whose home we cleaned, as these women share their stories, it helps them feel less alone. They can relate to each other’s issues and often bond immediately.

For me, I know that I have made a difference, and I have also gained lifelong friendships. I come in to clean the cobwebs from their homes, but I leave connected to their lives.

Kathleen Albertson is an account manager for Allan Industries Inc. If you would like to help give the gift of a clean home to a woman so she can focus on her health, please contact cleaningforareason.org