(CNN) – When their sister Maria died of breast cancer in 2019, Alicia and Esther Tambe were determined to honor her in a way that truly encapsulated her personality.
The more research they did, the more committed they became to finding an opportunity to support Black women living with breast cancer as well as breast cancer survivors, incorporating their sister’s greatest passion – travel.
Support for healing
Esther and Alicia Tambe in Lisbon, Portugal, with their sister Maria (far right), who died of breast cancer in 2019.
Granted by Esther Tambe
Describing their sister as a “frequent flyer,” Alicia and Esther Tambe say that being able to get on a plane and visit new destinations, as well as attending regular Zumba classes, has played a big role in keeping her upbeat.
The three traveled together frequently over the years, visiting places in European countries such as Portugal, and these are Maria’s most treasured memories.
“It’s something we loved doing together and thought we’d do for the rest of our lives,” says Alicia Tambe.
Fight Through Flights was launched during the Covid-19 pandemic, so the couple had to be creative when designing their first retreat, because “it wasn’t safe for everyone to be out there together.”
They decided to focus on individual programs, creating Staycation Serenity, which offers a vacation-style experience to those who can’t or don’t feel comfortable leaving their homes, and Roadtrip to Recovery, where women have an opportunity. “Take a drive or drive somewhere close to home, but enough to escape your daily routine.”
The programs, which come with virtual therapy sessions, personal training and nutrition sessions, aim to offer a break from the daily stress of the disease and “an opportunity to just heal and get away from it all.”
“We see it as a way to escape, rejuvenate and recharge,” says Esther Tambe, a registered dietitian.
“For people who were traveling before their breast cancer diagnosis, it’s a reminder to continue doing the things that bring them joy, and for others it’s a way to open up new hope and new experiences of joy in their lives during their diagnosis.”
Alicia and Esther Tambey say they made the decision early on to include breast cancer survivors, so they too could feel “celebratory.”
The bonding experience
“Sometimes you don’t get to celebrate your milestones,” says Alicia Tambe. “You can go live, but you’re always thinking ‘what if’ or ‘what if it comes back.’
“And I think the hardest adjustment is going back to your normal routine. You’re a new person, don’t worry. It’s really important to explore your new self.”
It’s also a chance for survivors to tell their stories “and keep the flow of information and hope going,” says Esther Tambe.
In 2021, breast cancer survivor Dr. Alexia Gaffney Adams attended Flight’s Family Connections Leadership Retreat in Belize, open to Black women leaders of breast cancer organizations.
Adams, who underwent a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy after her diagnosis in 2018, decided to apply after seeing the program online.
“In my own personal life I had plans to start more traveling before I got sick,” she told CNN Travel. “And the pandemic quickly followed that, so travel was off the table for me.”
For Adams, the trip to Belize was not only a chance to travel again, but an opportunity to bond with other black women who were going through similar experiences.
Esther and Alicia co-founded the non-profit organization Fight Through Flights in 2020.
Dotun Ayodeji Photography
“Once you have breast cancer, it seems like it affects everything,” she says. “So, we were talking about dating and relationships. You can’t have a conversation with someone who hasn’t experienced it.”
She explains that being able to take time for herself without feeling like “it’s taking away from anything else” felt like a huge gift.
Adds Adams, “I was able to travel flawlessly.” “I was able to rest, recharge, restore and heal without burdening my family or my household.”
When they weren’t getting massages, meditation, hiking, swimming with sharks, snorkeling and morning yoga, the group of women worked together to come up with ideas for upcoming Fight Through Flights retreats.
“It was everything I needed, and more,” she says. “So I’m grateful that I got to experience it and that I get to continue this work with Fight Through Flights.”
Adams insists that her treatment is ongoing – she is currently on hormone suppression therapy and also receives monthly injections to reduce the risk of recurrence.
“People think that you’re done with chemo and radiation, and your hair grows back, and you’re not,” she says. “The battle has really just begun.”
Since returning from the trip to Belize, she has kept in touch with the other women who participated, and is grateful to have been able to build such strong bonds with women who have had similar experiences.
More than 75 women have participated in Fight Through Flights programs, all of which are application-based, according to Alicia and Esther Tambe, who say they are interested in expanding and adding more programs to their roster.
Creating new memories
According to Esther and Alicia, the prospect of travel and adventure helped keep their sister’s spirits up.
Dotun Ayodeji Photography
“We’re so thankful, because it could happen to anyone,” says Alicia Tambe. “And seeing how everyone deals with breast cancer in their lives has just been extraordinary.
“We just came out of our retreat and we all really left with a sister.”
Both say they’ve learned a lot from the people they’ve met through the organization, and being able to talk to these women about their experiences with breast cancer has helped them navigate their grieving process.
“We see parts of her [Maria] Through many women — they share the same interests,” says Esther Tambe.
“And being able to know that through it all we were still able to connect and help others heal during their journey has been a very rewarding experience.”
In the three years since Maria’s death, Alicia and Esther Tambey have continued to travel together with their family members, and recently visited Grenada and El Salvador.
While the dynamic is definitely different now, they hold their sister’s memories close, and are very grateful to be able to embark on new travel adventures and experiences together.
“We really appreciate the travel time,” says Alicia Tambe. “There are moments where you’re like, ‘If Mariah was here, she would love it.’
“But I think it’s just about creating new memories, and seeing where life takes you.”
Top Image: Courtesy Alec Adam Jull