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Housing for NYC Cancer Patients Gets Designer Upgrade

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"My cancer's been around, essentially," cracks Nicole Osborne. "It gets around." She's referring to the rare breast condition diagnosed three years ago, when she was 33; her cancer also brought her from Texas to New York City for a current course of treatment. "I wanted to be here with the doctor who is a superstar in that," she explains of the Sloan Kettering physician treating the latest metastasis, this time in her hipbone.

While in town, Osborne resides at Hope Lodge, an American Cancer Society housing program with 31 residences for cancer patients scattered across the United States. In seven years of operation, the property has hosted 11,500 people, at no cost to them personally. "When you're thinking of being in New York City for your cancer treatment, it's scary enough. And then you have to think about living here. So we are completely free to everybody who stays here," notes Karen Radwin, the facility's executive director. "It's home away from home."

Hope Lodge rooming houses provide secure environments where outpatients can stay with their loved ones and interact with other guests. But the original facilities didn't entirely suit residents, particularly when it came to the kitchen: there was an inaccessible microwave, a countertop too shallow to host group meals, and a lack of storage and organization solutions, which often left the room cluttered. Nor did the space foster positive interactions between residents and volunteers. In June, one volunteer, Sandy Diamond, suggested a renovation of the space and brought in interior designer Guillaume Gentet to tackle it.

High-end designers are increasingly joining the fights against various diseases. DIFFA, the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS, produces a massive Dining By Design event where creatives and their sponsors fashion table installations for a lavish gala. Favorite thrift store chain Housing Works produces Design on a Dime, where designers fill 64 rooms with highbrow collections of discounted lifestyle items, all to benefit housing programs for people with HIV and AIDS. The proceeds from a showhouse produced by Holiday House, another nonprofit, fund breast cancer research.

At Hope Lodge, private and corporate sponsors covered the costs of the project, which Radwin approximates at $150,000 fair market value. The renovation is relatively small: the kitchen's footprint remains the same, and only a non-load-bearing wall was removed to expand the area for new fittings. Even so, the speed of the project—demolition began on September 2nd and Hope Lodge celebrated the project's completion this week—is an impressive feat in New York City. Even more remarkable is that all the materials and labor were provided pro bono.

"We're a hotel for people who need a home during cancer treatment," explains Radwin. So, unlike most hotels, "this is more residential than it is commercial." The project clearly comes from the mind of a residential designer: it is imbued with a quirky sense of personality not often seen in hospitality projects. Designer Gentet approached a ceramic supplier with whom he's working on a product line, and all the flooring was provided gratis. The pattern is a large-scale basketweave in steely gray, which lends a modern sensibility to a traditional motif. New stainless steel appliances, including two warming drawers, particularly excite Radwin. And pink cabinetry was sent in a hurry from Italy, as it's the designer's signature color. Gentet feels that pink reflections cast a healthy, flattering blush on all skin tones, so it's no surprise that this kitchen is clad in pale dusty rose. (A quarter of Hope Lodge's guests come to the city for breast-related healthcare, and pink is also the designated color for breast cancer awareness.) "I didn't want everything to be disconnected, so I took some of the colors of the upholstery, the pale grays from the sofas, and I put them on the walls," Gentet says. In order to create a serene atmosphere, he resolved to "make it look like it was all done at the same time." Beneath the colorful sleek surfaces is the functionality of a commercial kitchen.

Those who apply for a room at Hope Lodge are accepted based on factors such as urgency, financial need, and the capacity of Hope Lodge itself. The scheduling system is like a game of Tetris, trying to fit in new guests when current ones are slated to leave. It often doesn't go according to plan. Radwin is dismayed by her impression that at any given time, only about twenty percent of the need is being met. And the number of deserving parties will only continue to increase—the ACS projects that over 1,665,000 new cancer cases will be diagnosed this year alone. Over time, each of us is liable to encounter cancer in close quarters.

When asked about other housing options besides Hope Lodge, present guest Osborne says there weren't any. "In a lot of ways it really is life-saving. Not to sound cheesy, but there are definitely people who, had they stayed at their places at home receiving the care they had, would not be doing as well. And I feel that way."

Kathy Avila, 63, is on the other side of the fence: a sarcoma survivor with a medical background, she knows the battle all too well. "My doctor told me that I am cured, " she reveals, a smile audible through the telephone wires. "They don't use that word freely." Avila credits the supportive Hope Lodge environment in which she spent most of 2012 for giving her and her spouse more than a place to rest their heads. "It would be more depressing, I think, to go home every night after the treatment. By the time you get home it's late, then you try to eat something, and then what? You're looking at your husband, he's looking at you, and that can be very depressing, just…alone."

She recalls the kitchen functioning as a central gathering place. "That's what we used it for; just to see a familiar face, or see who was sitting there and talk to them," she remembers. "Cause that's really a form of counseling, talking to other people."

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