For many people with cancer, getting the best care means getting to a large city. A major barrier to this: the cost of travel. Although health insurance usually covers the costs associated with the care itself, each patient foots the bill for gas, flights, lodging and food.
Average cost of one night in a U.S. hotel room: $120.72. Factor in dining out and transportation and the price tag can be overwhelming, especially for patients who face months of treatment. The reality of traveling for cancer care may make them think twice, no matter how highly recommended the treatment.
Some hotels offer medical-stay discounts to help ease the burden, but despite the lower rates, patients may have a difficult time paying the bills. Amie Sanders, a stay-at-home mom who has breast cancer, underwent treatment at Roper Hospital in Charleston, South Carolina, a two-hour drive from her home in Barnwell. She used a medical discount of $120 per night the first two times she stayed in Charleston, where the average nightly cost of a hotel room runs from about $150 to $300-plus.
“After that, we had pretty much blown all the money we had,” Sanders says. Searching for affordable options so she could continue treatment led her and her husband, Gibby, to Hotel Keys of Hope.
TURNING THE KEY TO AFFORDABILITY
Hotel Keys of Hope offers patients with cancer deeply discounted or free hotel rooms close to the treatment center where they will receive care. Extended Stay America created the program in 2013 to support the American Cancer Society’s (ACS) Hope Lodge program. More than 30 Hope Lodges throughout the country provide free accommodations for patients but have a limited number of rooms. That is where Hotel Keys of Hope steps in.
“One of the options that has dramatically increased the number of solutions we’re able to provide is the Hotel Keys of Hope program and our partnership with Extended Stay America,” says Richard Wender, M.D., chief cancer control officer of the ACS.
Extended Stay America has a tiered fee structure based on patient need. Someone who can afford a modest fee will get a 25 percent discount. If that amount is tight, they can get a room for $19. If that is still too much, they are offered rooms for free.
“The key to surviving cancer is getting access to treatment,” says Terry Atkins, vice president of marketing communications at Extended Stay America. “Probably one of the biggest barriers to getting access to treatment is the cost associated with it. You find people who are already potentially financially insecure, and then they may have lost their job because of the illness, can’t work or whatever the case may be. They’re in a really dire situation.”
Shane Caldwell understands this well. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina, and frequently travels the 230 miles to Duke University Cancer Center in Durham, North Carolina, for lung cancer treatment. He and his wife, Renay, appreciate the choices in the tiered system.
“We made the decision not to accept the room for free because we feel there is always someone else who needs that rate more than we do, but we do appreciate the significantly reduced rate,” says Renay. “Our rate is $19 per night, and that’s what we’re comfortable with.”
COMFORT TO ACCOMPANY THE CARE
Extended Stay America, which has properties in 44 states, welcomes children under age 18 who are accompanied by an adult. The hotels are pet-friendly, too. “A lot of people find comfort in bringing their dog or cat,” Atkins says.
The rooms offer basic kitchen facilities — a fridge, microwave, dishwasher, small appliances and kitchen necessities. This amenity allowed Sanders to bring her two children, who were 6 and 8 years old when she started treatment, and was especially appreciated because her son has food allergies. “Eating breakfast out is very tricky. He is allergic to wheat, eggs and oats — pretty much all of your traditional breakfast foods — so it was nice to be able to take a gallon of milk and a box of cereal or have little things for them to eat,” she says. “My husband is diabetic, so keeping sugar-free drinks and bottles of water — those are big deals for us.”
Having a kitchen is also important for patients who have low tolerance for the smells of certain foods — a side effect of some cancer treatments that can make restaurant outings challenging, says Pam Daniels, whose husband, Jerry, traveled to Emory University in Atlanta to undergo treatment for diffuse large B-cell lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. “You can make what you know doesn’t make the person sick and doesn’t have an odor that is irritating to them. It’s so easy to get malnourished at this time,” she says.
Patients and their families also can save money by making meals in the room rather than dining out for every meal. That becomes especially important for patients whose stay time lasts as long as several months.
William Sampson took advantage of the program while undergoing 30-plus treatments for prostate cancer at the Radiotherapy Cancer Institute in Duluth, Georgia, staying Monday through Friday each time. “They took good care of me,” he recalls. “Whatever I asked for, they accommodated me, and staying there took the burden off me and my family. It helped a lot.” Sanders quickly learned that having three specialists on your team can create a challenging schedule. Her plastic surgeon could see her only on Tuesdays or Thursday; her breast surgeon was available only on Wednesdays and Fridays; and her oncologist, on Thursdays or Fridays.
“It takes a good tank of gas to get to Charleston and back, so it was such a help to be able to go there and stay,” Sanders says. “It really did make a difference when we began to stay over. The first time we stayed, the nurses said, ‘Oh, my gosh, your blood pressure is so much better this morning. What’s the difference?’ It was that we didn’t just drive for two hours in horrible Charleston traffic.”
HOW TO GET HELP
Although Extended Stay America offers the hotel rooms, it does not administer the program. All registration is handled through the ACS’s National Cancer Information Center (800-227-2345). This central system eliminates the need for patients to call individual hotels to book rooms and, at the same time, vets patients to ensure their eligibility.
Eligible patients must have a permanent address, be traveling for a cancer-related medical appointment and be in need of lodging near their treatment center. They also must be able to take care of their personal needs or travel with a companion who can assist them.
According to the ACS, patients often learn about Hotel Keys of Hope through a health care professional, such as a nurse or social worker. They also can find details on Cancer.org.
The assistance goes beyond booking rooms. “There may be other ways we can help,” says Elaine Mathis, senior program manager at the ACS. “Our representatives will talk with them not only about lodging but [also about] other resources, such as transportation or cancer information.”
In 2017, Extended Stay America donated 10,000 free rooms, 10,000 rooms at $19 a night and 20,000 at a 25 percent discount. The program allowed thousands of people with cancer to get access to treatment and saved them close to $5.5 million dollars in hotel costs, according to Extended Stay America.
“This is a financial burden for anybody,” Daniels says. “When you add on top of that what you’re going through physically, anything like the Extended Stay that removes some or part of that and gives you a place to stay for a little longer time rather than just one night — that’s a big benefit to myself and any other patient with cancer.”
Sanders couldn’t agree more. “I would not have gotten the treatment I needed without that program — I really wouldn’t have,” she says. “We could not have made the same decisions. I would not be where I am at now.”