The “unofficial mayor” of the The AstraZeneca Hope Lodge was hesitant and intimidated by the struggles ahead of him until he got his bearings at free living space for out-of-town cancer patients. Leaving his wife and daughter in Hawaii to undergo prostate cancer treatment was not something he was looking forward to, but Bill Merchant soon realized how far kindness and companionship goes when dealing with people who are fighting for their lives.

“I can’t imagine going through what I’ve gone through and the added stress of commute or paying for a hotel, if you’re even lucky enough to get one,” Merchant said. “After you’re here for two weeks and you see the same folks, after a month you build camaraderie, which I never expected. You pick folks up when you’re down and vice versa. Words can’t describe the generosity of the people here. It’s not a hotel or a hospital. It’s a second home for our second families.”

The state-of-the-art facility is the answer to one of the many stressful questions plaguing cancer patients who come to Boston for treatment: Where am I going to stay and how can I possibly afford it?

For Jay Quimby, Hope Lodge Center was a Godsend. 

Hailing from Richmond, VA, Jay found out he had a brain tumor when he was 33-years-old and risked going blind as a result of the surgical procedure, which would stop the tumor. 

Understandably, he and his wife decided to hunt for better options. His radiologist recommended he visit Mass General Hospital given its well-documented success rate. Within a week’s worth of legwork, Jay was in contact with the Hope Lodge and was on his way to a home-away-from-home while he battled for his life.

“This is a great environment for an otherwise awful situation,” Quimby said. “This isn’t a dreary place or a hospital setting. The staff works with you on everything from grocery shopping to emotional support when you’re having a rough day. They put so much effort into bringing the Lodge together. We’re not doing time here.”

Located on South Huntington Street within a stone’s throw of the Heath Street/V.A. Medical Center stop on the Green Line, The Hope Lodge offers a free service to those enduring extended cancer treatment and a caregiver. The facility caters to patients who live 40 miles or more away from Boston.

At the Lodge, 40 private suites with private bathrooms, two beds and a sitting area are available as well as food and transportation without cost to the families of patients. They are hosting their key gala on May 14, which is where the bulk of their annual operating budget comes from. Otherwise, the Lodge runs strictly on donations and corporate support.

“Something really amazing happens when people first come here,” said Program Director Amanda Starkel. “We’ve had people from every state and 20 different countries stay here. They come here during an incredibly difficult time in their lives and the guests always seem to bring out the best in one another.”

The relationships fostered between the patients and Lodges itself tend to last a lifetime.

“Everyone you meet here has a positive attitude and are a positive influence on you,” said Francisco Hernandez, 19, of Ft. Collins, Colorado. “There’s not a single person who doesn’t greet you or ask how you’re doing. Everyone knows the situation you’re in and we are all in this together.” 

Hernandez endured two open-heart surgeries, lung surgeries and a biopsy in Ft. Collins before starting chemo for heart sarcoma. His oncologist studied under a doctor at Mass. General and recommended he head east to complete his treatment. He said that being in such a positive environment made all the difference in the world.

“If you get to see someone smiling while they’re going through this, you ask yourself, ‘Why can’t I?’ and it makes you feel a lot better,” Hernandez said. “This has been a second home. You don’t end up here because you have to. You’re here because you want to be. That goes for the staff and the patients. They become a huge part of your heart.”

Both Hernandez and Quimby arrived at the Lodge in March and are on their way back home in a few days.

“Going home will be amazing,” Hernandez said. “But my mother said she will return here at least once a year to cook dinner or help out anyway she can. You truly take a lot from this place and you feel compelled to help out once you’re stay is over.