Michelle Mo was devastated.
After three blissful years in remission, she found out in 2013 her breast cancer had returned-with a vengeance. This time it had spread to her bones, lungs and liver and was now stage IV. She had gone to the doctor ten months prior complaining of pain in her lower back but it took that long for an MRI to confirm the source of her discomfort.
“I was very depressed and very, very angry,” Mo tells PEOPLE. “If the doctors had listened to me, it wouldn’t have had as much time to spread. I just couldn’t let that go.”
She cried almost every day as she underwent additional treatments no one expected would save her life. The hardest part of the whole process, she says, was the fear that she would die and the only memories her children – Vicky, 10, and Derrick, 7, – would have of her would be as a depressed and angry woman.
Then, a social worker at Massachusetts General Hospital approached Mo with an offer that would change her life. She and her family had been nominated to receive a vacation through Leslie’s Week, a nonprofit that sends Stage IV breast cancer patients and their families on weeklong all expenses paid vacations across the U.S.
“I was very touched,” says Mo, 45, and a former bank teller who lives in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Sandra Gunn founded Leslie’s Week as a way to honor her dear friend Leslie Twohig, who died of Stage IV inflammatory breast cancer in April 2011.
“She refused to allow cancer to take her down into depression or despair,” Gunn, a former interior decorator who lives in Arnold, Maryland tells PEOPLE.
She began first by donating her own vacation home in the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee, and launched her full-scale non-profit in 2014 after she was diagnosed with breast cancer herself.
During treatment for her stage I cancer, Gunn heard the stories of the many stage IV breast cancer patients undergoing treatment beside her and felt inspired to expand her project’s reach.
“I saw these women had this warrior-like determination to live despite being terminal and yet every day brought the drudgery of doctors and chemotherapy and infusions,” Gunn, 74, tells PEOPLE.
“I wanted more than anything to give them a break from cancer just to go away with their families and have fun,” she continues. “So that’s what I decided to do.”
In the five years since giving away its first vacation, Leslie’s Week has reached 26 patients and their families – with many more vacations planned. This October, Gunn was named a 2016 L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth honoree for her dedication to helping women with breast cancer. The honor comes with a $10,000 grant to support her work and the chance to be voted the national honoree, which comes with an additional $25,000 for her cause.
“Leslie’s Week is about making memories that outlast cancer,” Gunn, who leads the nonprofit’s all-volunteer team, says. “We can’t cure these women right now but we can give them the chance to get out of the hospital and make memories of laughing and relaxing in a beautiful place with their families.”
But Mo almost didn’t get to go.
After she accepted Gunn’s offer came some devastating news. Mo’s cancer had progressed so rapidly they weren’t certain she would live long enough to take the June vacation. They told Gunn that Mo likely wouldn’t live past April.
Gunn was undaunted. The B Ocean Resort in Fort Lauderdale, Florida had donated its presidential suite for Mo in June, and there was no availability in April. A breast cancer survivor herself who had been sending stage IV patients and their families on free getaways for 4 years, Gunn believed Mo would fight for the chance to have this time with her family.
“Michelle was determined to take that trip with her family,” Gunn, 74, tells PEOPLE. “The hospital told me she’d never make it but I assured them that she would live to make this trip with her children.”
And she did.
Gunn called her a couple of times a day every day of her stay to make sure everything was perfect.
“Every day she told me I didn’t have to focus on the past, and that I was still alive and I still had time to live my life,” Mo says.
Mo took these words to heart. For the first time since her diagnosis, she says she felt able to put her anger and sadness aside and focus on enjoying each day.
“I played with my kids on the beach every day and when my son wanted to take swimming lessons I joined him even though it scared me,” she recalls. “I learned to swim and I saw the kids were so happy and I was so happy too because I did something I was really scared of and I discovered I was strong.”
This revelation stuck with Mo long after she and her family returned home to Massachusetts.
“After vacation I had totally learned how to enjoy life every day,” Mo says. “Every day I wake up is another day I get to live, so why not be happy?”
Though Mo’s cancer has now spread to her brain, she and her children continue to find ways to squeeze some vacation joy into each day – even if it’s just a simple walk in their neighborhood park.
“Now the leaves are changing and we get to see them turn new colors every day,” says Mo. “It’s beautiful.”
The frequent calls and visits from Sandra help, too.
“She didn’t just give me a vacation,” Mo says. “She taught me how to face my cancer and live.”