(CNN) — When their sister Maria died from breast cancer in 2019, Alicia and Esther Tambe were determined to honor her in a way that would truly encapsulate the person she was.

As they began researching, the pair quickly learned that there was a history of breast cancer in their family and that Black women are disproportionately affected by the disease. In fact, Black women have a 41% higher death rate from breast cancer than White women, according to the American Cancer Society.

The more they researched, the more committed they became to finding an avenue to help support Black women living with breast cancer, as well as as breast cancer survivors, while incorporating one of their late sisters’s biggest passions — travel.

In August 2020, they co-founded Fight Through Flightsa non-profit that aims to empower and support the healing of Black women living with breast cancer and those who’ve survived the disease, by providing free wellness retreats, travel experiences and access to resources on mental health, nutrition and fitness.
“We don’t know everything about breast cancer,” Alicia Tambe, who is a lawyer, as well as the founder of a travel company Luxe A Travels, tells CNN Travel. “But we do know what made Maria happy and the different ways she coped with different things.”

Supporting healing

Esther and Alicia Tambe in Lisbon, Portugal, with their sister Maria (far right), who died from breast cancer in 2019.

Esther and Alicia Tambe in Lisbon, Portugal, with their sister Maria (far right), who died from breast cancer in 2019.

Courtesy Esther Tambe

Describing their sister as a “frequent flier,” Alicia and Esther Tambe say that being able to get on a plane and visit new destinations, as well as attend regular Zumba classes, played a major part in keeping her spirits up.

The trio traveled together frequently over the years, visiting places in European countries, such as Portugal, and these remain some of their most treasured memories of Maria.

“It’s something we loved doing together and something we 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 pair had to be creative when designing their first retreats, as it “wasn’t safe for everyone to get out there together.”

They decided to focus on individualized programs, creating the Staycation Serenity, which provides those who may not be able to leave their home or do not feel comfortable doing so with a vacation-style experience, and Roadtrip to Recovery, where the women have the opportunity to “take a drive or be driven somewhere close to home, but far enough to escape your day-to-day routine.”

The aim of the programs, which come with virtual therapy sessions, personal training and nutrition sessions, is to present a break from the daily stress of the illness and an “opportunity to just heal and get away from it all.”

“We see it as a way to escape, a way to rejuvenate and recharge,” says Esther Tambe, who is a registered dietitian.

“For people who were traveling prior to their breast cancer diagnosis, it’s a reminder to continue with the things that bring joy, and for others it’s a way to open up new hopes of joy and new experiences in their life during their diagnosis.”

Alicia and Esther Tambe say they made a decision early on to include breast cancer survivors, so that they could “feel celebrated” as well.

Bonding experience

“Sometimes you don’t get to celebrate your milestones,” says Alicia Tambe. “You can go into survivorship, but you’re always living in a ‘what if’ or ‘what if it comes back.’

“And I think that’s the hardest adjustment of getting back to your normal routine. You’re a new person, regardless. It’s just really important to explore your new self.”

It’s also a chance for survivors to tell their stories “and just keep the flow of information and hope going,” says Esther Tambe.

In 2021, breast cancer survivor Dr. Alexea Gaffney Adams attended Fight Through Flights’ Family Affair Leadership Retreat, open to Black Women leaders of breast cancer organizations, in Belize.

Adams, who underwent a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy after her diagnosis in 2018, decided to apply after seeing the online program.

“I had great plans in my own personal life to begin to travel more before I got sick,” she tells CNN Travel. “And the pandemic immediately followed that, so travel was off the table for me.”

For Adams, the Belize trip was not just a chance to travel again, but an opportunity to bond with other Black women who’d been through or are going through similar experiences.

Esther and Alicia co-founded the non-profit organization Fight Through Flights in 2020.

Esther and Alicia co-founded the non-profit organization Fight Through Flights in 2020.

Dotun Ayodeji Photography

“Once you’ve had breast cancer, it feels like it’s impacting everything,” she says. “So, we were talking about dating and relationships. Conversations that you cannot have with someone who has not had this experience.”

She explains that being able to take time for herself without feeling as though “it was taking away from something else” felt like a huge gift.

“I was able to travel without guilt,” adds Adams. “I was able to rest, recharge, restore and heal without it being a burden to my family or to my household.”

When they weren’t having massages, meditating, going on walking tours, swimming with sharks, snorkeling and doing 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 stresses that her treatment is ongoing — she’s currently having hormone suppression therapy and also receives monthly injections in order to reduce the risk of recurrence.

“People think that because you’ve finished chemo and radiation, and your hair has grown back that you are done, and you aren’t,” she says. “The battle is really just the beginning.”

Since returning from the Belize trip, she has stayed in touch with the other women who participated, and is grateful to have been able to build such strong bonds with women with similar experiences.

Over 75 women have taken part in Fight Through Flights programs, which are all application-based, according to Alicia and Esther Tambe, who say they’re keen to expand and add even more programs to their roster.

The programs are mainly funded by donors, although Fight Through Flights has received grants from organizations like the Black Travel Alliance.

Creating new memories

According to Esther and Alicia, the prospect of travel and adventure helped to keep their sister's spirits up.

According to Esther and Alicia, the prospect of travel and adventure helped to keep their sister’s spirits up.

Dotun Ayodeji Photography

“We’re just so, so grateful, because this can happen to anyone,” says Alicia Tambe. “And just seeing how everyone deals with breast cancer in their lives has just been extraordinary.

“We just came out of our retreat and we all sincerely left with a sisterhood.”

Both say they’ve learned a great deal from those they’ve met through the organization, and being able to talk to these women about their experiences with breast cancer has helped them to navigate their grieving process.

“We see parts of her [Maria] through a lot of the women — they share some of the same interests,” says Esther Tambe.

“And just being able to know that through it all, we were still able to connect and help others with their healing during their journey has been a very helpful experience to have.”

In the three years since Maria’s death, Alicia and Esther Tambe have continued to travel together, along with the rest of their family, and recently visited Grenada and El Salvador.

While the dynamic is definitely different now, they hold their memories of their sister close, and are extremely thankful to be able to embark on new travel adventures and experiences together.

“We just really appreciate the travel time,” says Alicia Tambe.”There’s moments where you’re like, ‘If Maria was here, she would love this.’

“But I think it’s just about creating new memories, and seeing where life takes you.”

Top image: Courtesy Alec Adam Tzul