By Steve Blanchard - October 25, 2021
Just a few years ago, Jenn Dillard, Marilyn Masick, Robin Hesselink and Zaleena Zikria had never met. But in early September 2021, the four women took a trip of a lifetime together to Mfuwe, Zambia, in Africa, where they took safaris to observe wildlife, enjoyed local cuisine and shared stories of their experiences and survival.
All four women have metastatic breast cancer (MBC) and met through the support system for “thrivers” undergoing treatment at Moffitt Cancer Center. The idea for the trip started with Dillard, who was working as a consultant for a nonprofit in Mfuwe when she discovered a lump in her breast and was diagnosed with stage 4 MBC in early 2019. She returned to work in Africa in October 2020, and pitched the idea of a trip to her fellow members of the MBC support group and MBC book club.
“Visiting someone who lives and works in a particular place gives you an experience most visitors don’t get to see,” said Dillard. “It was an absolute pleasure sharing my unique lifestyle, work, home and slice of heaven with my MBC sisters.”
Through the book club, the women have bonded over more than just literature. They’ve also learned about each other’s families, individual treatments and setbacks with MBC. They can now add the shared experience of an African adventure to their list of things that make them friends for life.
The three other women were immediately interested in Dillard’s plan, and after taking the appropriate precautions to travel safely — COVID-19 vaccinations and permission from their respective doctors — set out on the trip of a lifetime.
The women shared their individual experiences in their own words.
‘Every day on safari was different’
Marilyn Masick was diagnosed with stage 4 MBC just two years after learning she had triple negative breast cancer in January 2017.
When we were planning our safari, I had no idea that it would be such an emotional and visual experience. It was emotional because the animals live so naturally and their well-being is always considered. It was so visual because the natural scenery of the river and hills and where there were trees, like the mahogany, created a large meadow of beauty.
Every day on safari was different. We were surprised one day to have a “bush” breakfast cooked and served along a wide part of the river. Omelets cooked to order with stuffing of our choice and fresh coffee and tea. And, oh yeah, grilled buttered toast. The entire experience was indescribable in many ways.
The country itself is English speaking with a native Zambian language. I found all people I met to be pleasant, friendly and seemingly happy with their different ways of life. Zambia is a country which is economically stable and very interested in, and demonstrative of, climate control. It seemed to me they were far ahead of us in many ways. Maybe smaller ways than in the U.S., but not less important.
Healthy food was readily available at restaurants. We really enjoyed the many vegetables and fruits and we were fortunate to have home-cooked food every day at our lovely rental house — complete with elephants on the lawn, I might add.
We went to the Elephant Nursery where they care for orphaned elephant babies. The small elephants acted gleeful as they went through their daily activities and were taught how to socialize with each other. They came in lonely, scared and in despair. But acclimation was part of the planned day and we watched it happen with a new baby that had just arrived.
William Shatner, of “Star Trek” fame, recently went to the real space beyond that he conveyed on TV. Shatner said, "No description can equal this." I feel that way about Zambia and the safari experience.
I have taken long flights before and been to 40 countries, so I had a lot to compare it to. Making the trip with others in the same Stage 4 position that I am made the whole experience better. The pandemic had prepared us to take care of ourselves. Our camaraderie made us all know we could do it.
A time to reconnect
Jenn Dillard was diagnosed with stage 4 MBC in early 2019.
The bond we share as metastatic breast cancer sisters is so incredibly powerful because we are the only ones who really understand what it feels like to live with this disease day in and day out. It has been difficult during the time of COVID-19 to connect with each other in person. This trip allowed us to spend time together in a natural place, celebrating life, soaking in the beauty of Africa, sharing hope and joy and honoring our commitment to continue living a very high quality of life.
I whole-heartedly enjoyed hearing the squeals of laughter, joy and wonder come from each of my metastatic breast cancer sisters when they encountered elephants bathing themselves in the mud in a wallow right behind the house we stayed in. This is something magical to me, so to have everyone experience it alongside me was wonderful. The hushed quiet of our group when we approached a group of resting lions for the first time in our safari vehicle will always live on in my mind and we were lucky and blessed to see them in their natural habitat on several occasions.
This group embraced everything about Zambia — they loved the food, they made friends with everyone they met and they woke up really early each day to see the animals during the cooler part of the day when they are most active. When my sisters drove up in their safari vehicles to discover that we had prepared a bush breakfast for them in South Luangwa National Park made for an experience of a lifetime!
Every time I step outside of my home, or onto a plane or land in a new place, I experience life changing and affirming emotions and feelings that remind me how important and precious life and friendship are. I am grateful for the many opportunities I have had to travel the world. And sharing an experience like this with my metastatic breast cancer sisters was an absolute gift. I believe in many ways that travel is a very important part of my “life source” – that fire deep inside of you that keeps you going. I look forward to many more travel adventures with my metastatic breast cancer sisters.
A time to forget about cancer
Robin Hesselink was diagnosed with Stage 4 de novo metastatic breast cancer in 2017.
Travel is one of my greatest joys in life. I’ve visited 56 countries and counting, and an African safari has always been on my bucket list.
As an MBC thriver, it’s even more important to me to try to make the most of life while I’m feeling well enough to do so. When I’m traveling, even if just for a short time, I forget about physical pain. I don’t think about cancer and I just live in the moment. When my friend and MBC sister Jenn Dillard told us she was returning to Zambia to resume her conservation work in October 2020, I knew I wanted to visit as soon as it was safe to do so.
Since meeting Jenn in our support group, she often talked about what a magical place the South Luangwa Valley is, and I was so excited about the possibility of seeing it in person. In early 2020, we started discussing a potential group visit and what that might look like. Traveling with MBC is no easy feat in normal times and the pandemic brought with it a lot of challenges. COVID-19 testing requirements seemed to change daily! But we were determined to make it happen and are so fortunate to have Jenn on the ground giving us advice and planning for us.
I truly wasn’t nervous at all about being in Zambia. We are all vaccinated and would be spending most of our time outdoors. The actual traveling and the long flights during the pandemic did make me a bit nervous. But I was inspired by Jenn, who didn’t let her MBC diagnosis stop her from following her heart back to Africa, so I knew we could do it, too.
I also worked closely with my oncologist, Dr. Loretta Loftus, and my primary care physician to make sure that I was taking all the appropriate precautions for the trip, and in the end, everything worked out beautifully. I’m so grateful that we were able to travel safely and the trip exceeded all expectations (which were high to begin with).
One silver lining of the pandemic was that when we were forced to move our MBC support group meetings to Zoom, it opened the group to so many others who may not have been able to attend in-person meetings at Moffitt. One of those people was Zaleena, who lives in South Florida. Even though we’d known each other for almost two years, the first time we met in person was in the Lusaka airport!
It was so special to be able to share this experience with my MBC sisters, as well as our family and friends who made the trip with us. Cancer has touched all our lives, but it doesn’t define us, and it can’t steal our joy. And I loved seeing the same joy that I felt reflected in their faces as we were having this once in a lifetime experience together.
It was really special to stay in a big, beautiful house together. It felt like an adult summer camp, only much more fun! Sitting around the fire pit at night talking about our day and sharing meals together only helped strengthen our bond.
The entire trip was highlight after highlight, but the wildlife in the South Luangwa National Park was spectacular — elephants, giraffes, zebras, lions, leopards, hyenas and countless more. I especially enjoyed our night safaris. After sundown was when the animals really started moving, and being out there under the clear African sky in total quiet among the animals was just unforgettable. Thanks to Jenn, we had the best guides who were so knowledgeable about the animals and the park, and I felt like we really got the insider’s experience.
Another highlight for me was teaching an outdoor chair yoga class for our group and some colleagues from Conservation South Luangwa (some of whom had never done yoga before). There were elephants playing behind us and it was so special to share that experience together in nature.
Jenn is known for her love of feeding people and we ate like kings and queens on our trip. All the food was fresh from the garden, prepared with love by the chefs at our rental house. I especially enjoyed the traditional Zambian cornmeal dish Nshima. In addition to our breakfast, lunch and dinner, we had “sundowners,” which are drinks and snacks every evening in a scenic location to watch the sunset. I think we all came back from the trip a few pounds heavier!
I would love to return to Africa someday, there’s so much to see and do. Travel is always a life-changing experience for me. It’s a humbling reminder that, no matter where we are in the world, no matter our differences, we’re all human beings doing our best and trying to live a good life. The people we met in Zambia were so welcoming and so proud to share their little slice of heaven with us. The trip also gave me confidence that safe travel during the pandemic is possible, so I’m already planning my next excursion!
A special time that made all the difference
Zaleena Zikria, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 MBC in January 2020
Throughout my years of living, I never thought that one day I would wake up in such a special country surrounded by amazing people, delicious food, captivating scenery, and most importantly share such a special moment with amazing friends.
I joined the Moffitt zoom support group in August 2020 and there I met with a wonderful support group of MBC sisters that gave me faith, strength and so much more. They all inspired me and provided me with courage and hope. Every minute of every moment was filled with laughter and love.
Before Jenn went back to Africa, she thought a lot about her MBC sisters and elaborated about an amazing African adventure, in which she invited all of us to visit and experience the most miraculous trip of a lifetime in Mafuwe, Zambia.
I have traveled to several countries, but never thought that in my lifetime I would be able to experience such a remarkable opportunity and go to Africa. It was an experience I will never forget and I made memories I will forever cherish. I was so excited to meet these beautiful, loving sisters that I had never met in person.
As I traveled throughout this journey with my son, Andrew, his friend Theo, and my sister, Sherry, I met Robin at Lusaka Airport. We greeted each other with hugs and embarked on the same flight to Mafuwe. It felt so surreal to finally meet this sister in my journey.
As we arrived in Mafuwe, I met Jenn Dillard with a big open arm hug and a welcome that was so pure and untouched. She was just as excited to have us there as we were to have arrived and start the journey of a lifetime. As we arrived at our rental home, we were all welcomed by two unique individuals who went out of their way and made sure we felt at home.
That evening we all had dinner and shared our crazy stories about our journey that we are all going through. When I woke up the next morning and looked outside, the first thing I saw were elephants walking in the back yard and baboons jumping from tree to tree. It was a breathtaking moment where life itself felt paused.
As we continued our journey, our MBC sister Marilyn joined us. It felt so amazing meeting another sister in person. Our traveling family now felt whole, and it was a precious moment that will forever live with me.
We visited different campsites, met locals, enjoyed delicious food, and created our own home décor. Almost every day we ventured off into morning and evening game drive safaris. It was stunning to see all the animals right next to us in their natural habitat. Each game drive was different and left a memory in my head that I will never forget.
Every evening we experienced and participated in what was called sun downer. It was a moment to recollect and appreciate the beautiful world we live in. The evening skies glowed red as the sun settled and the stars shined bright, lighting up the beautiful, calm African skies.
Never in my life have I thought I would be traveling to such a different and unique part of the world; a gem one can say, especially during the world’s pandemic crisis. Not only did this journey show me a different view, but it was a healthy reminder to stay humble and appreciate everything and everyone around you.
I am truly blessed to have shared this journey with amazing sisters and now, a new family, in which I am looking forward to our next adventure.