Cathy Backus has never been diagnosed with breast cancer, but she knows well the physical and emotional toll that the disease often takes on those who have.
“When you’re hit with breast cancer out of the blue … you’re completely shell-shocked and you go into this fight-or-flight mode and you just (try to) survive. You’re just trying to get to the next step of the process,” she said.
Backus, a longtime Summerlin resident and travel industry executive, founded Send Me on Vacation in 2012. The nonprofit organization, based in Las Vegas, organizes, funds, awards and leads trips to exotic locales around the globe that are designed to help breast cancer survivors “rejuvenate and heal their minds, bodies and spirits” following treatment for the disease.
According to research published in a 2016 issue of the medical journal Psycho-Oncology, 82 percent of women with early-stage breast cancer exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after being diagnosed and before beginning treatment.
Backus, 64, witnessed firsthand the positive impact that a vacation can have when she traveled in 2006 to a Mexican beach resort with her best friend, Pam Horwitz, a two-time breast cancer survivor.
“(Horwitz) came back renewed, revitalized,” said Backus. “She said, ‘I feel like the waves took all of the anxiety and fear and stress out to sea with them, and as I was sitting in sun, it felt like I was baking goodness and warmth back into me after all of the cold chemo.’”
Backus returned from that trip determined to help other breast cancer survivors enjoy similar experiences. She and her husband, Las Vegas attorney Leland “Gene” Backus, went to work establishing Send Me on Vacation. (Horwitz now serves on the organization’s board and chairs its survivor committee.)
While hospitals and cancer care centers typically offer “wonderful programs” for breast cancer patients, Cathy Backus said, resources for survivors can be scant. Patients often suffer from dramatic physical transformations that can result from breast cancer surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
“It’s a terrible cycle,” she said. “At the end, they’re left so destroyed.”
However, when survivors “change their lives, they change the lives of everyone” around them, Backus said.
In the past six years, Send Me on Vacation has sent about 500 women on getaways. Backus attends and personally oversees each trip, which usually includes 20 survivors.
Using her travel industry connections, she has gotten hotel accommodations, cruise ship staterooms and airfares donated for the trips, which cost about $1,000 per person. Most of the funds are raised through events that Send Me on Vacation hosts in eight countries around the world.
Beginning next year, Backus said, it will rely more on private and corporate donations to raise the majority of the $100,000 required yearly to cover the costs of its five annual trips.
The organization is affiliated with hospitals, cancer care centers and international nonprofit organizations, which refer survivors to it. Vacation recipients are selected via an application process (accessible at www.sendmeonvacation.org) that has women pen an essay about why they believe such a trip will help them heal.
Survivors were previously required to have experienced financial hardship as well. However, that requirement was dropped last year to make the program accessible to more women.
“We’ve never turned down anyone who qualified (for a trip),” Backus said.
Three years ago, Send Me on Vacation began offering its signature getaway, called A Mermaid’s Journey, that features a multiday, guided meditation workshop and concludes with a “phototherapy shoot,” which has participants styled from head to toe as a mermaid.
“They release all of that pent-up anger and fear” via meditation, Backus explained. “And then they use the archetype of a mermaid to find their inner beauty, strength and grace.”
A former Las Vegas resident, Heidi Lamprecht and her family relocated to Washington state in 2013. Two years later, at age 34, the mother of two was diagnosed with stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma. She underwent a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and 30 rounds of radiation treatments and also battled PTSD.
Lamprecht, who learned about Send Me on Vacation while researching online for survivor support systems, participated in A Mermaid’s Journey when she traveled with the organization in 2016 to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
The weeklong trip “was fantastic,” said Lamprecht, who especially enjoyed meeting fellow survivors.
“I never had to explain myself,” she said. “We were all there and we all knew we needed something, so we had that as a sort of camaraderie.”
Earlier this year, she traveled to Cancun, Mexico, through Send Me on Vacation’s Mermaids and Angels empowerment and mentoring program, which pairs new vacation recipients with past participants.
“I realized just how much of a tribe I needed to create in order for me to keep moving forward and healing,” Lamprecht said. “Being able to go on vacations and help other women do the same thing is what helps me get up in the morning.”