Raylene Arko, owner of a residential and commercial cleaning business in Fishtown, has had a fair share of experience with cancer. Her father died of lung cancer that metastasized to his brain. Her grandmother died of breast cancer. Her mother is a 13-year breast cancer survivor.

So Arko has seen the toll a cancer diagnosis can take on a family — how everyday tasks can become a burden.

"Seeing how sick my dad was and how my mom was taking care of him [and] taking him to his treatments, we had to focus on the doctors' appointments and his chemo appointments, so there wasn't much time left to make sure the house was clean," Arko said.

"With my mom, fortunately, she [only] had to get radiation, and she was still able to work, but she was still tired, so seeing how cancer brings you down …  just by having your house clean is just such a big relief, a weight off your shoulders," she said.

So Arko decided to use her business to lend a hand to women with cancer by offering complimentary home-cleaning visits.

One of those clients, Andy Sealy, 38, of South Philadelphia, has always been an independent woman. After her parents' divorce, she lived with her sister during high school. She became class president and applied to colleges and for student loans — all on her own. Consequently, she had a hard time asking for and receiving help when she learned last year that she has metastatic breast cancer, which has spread to her spine and right hip.

As she searched online for resources to help cancer patients — applying for Social Security disability benefits that gave her student loan forgiveness, for instance — she also found the offer from "Keep It Clean with Raylene," Arko's cleaning company.

Initially, when Sealy found out she had cancer, “I didn’t want to burden anybody with the whole news and having to deal with it [because] it’s my problem,” she said. “The mental part of it, processing it and learning to accept help, that was the hardest part for me.”

Arko’s service “is helping me, and I’m still doing pretty well,” Sealy said. “I can’t imagine what it would do for somebody that’s bedridden. It’s the worst when you’re not feeling good and you can’t get out of bed, and people are coming over, but you don’t want them to come over because the house isn’t as you would want it. Her taking that off of your plate is a huge bonus. It’s invaluable.” 

Raylene Arko, owner of Keep It Clean with Raylene.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Raylene Arko, owner of Keep It Clean with Raylene.

In 2009, Keep It Clean with Raylene teamed with a Texas nonprofit called Cleaning for a Reason, which organizes free housecleaning in the U.S. and Canada for women in cancer treatment. The service started when founder Debbie Sardone, who also owns Buckets and Bows Maid Services, received an inquiry from a potential customer, a cancer patient who hung up after saying she couldn't afford the services. From then on, Sardone decided, her business wouldn't turn down any woman undergoing treatment, and Cleaning for a Reason was founded around 2006.

Since then, the nonprofit has recruited more than 1,200 maid services to donate time and has served more than 30,000 women, according to its website. Cleaning for a Reason lists four participating companies in Philadelphia, including Keep It Clean with Raylene, and four others in the suburbs.

So far, Keep It Clean with Raylene has helped clean the homes of 38 women with cancer. The company offers two complimentary cleanings per client.

"If you're going through something like chemotherapy treatment, you are less able to do things that you were able to do before," said another Keep It Clean client, Emily Hearn. "I really didn't have the energy to clean for the most part; it just was so nice to have it taken care of."

Hearn, 51, who also lives in South Philly, was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2015 and underwent chemotherapy and other treatment throughout 2016. A social worker at Penn Medicine, where she received treatment, referred her to Keep It Clean.

"It's also just the feeling of being cared about," Hearn said, "even though I didn't know her or her agency personally, just the feeling that people are coming in and helping at a time when you really need it."

Hearn, who's been cancer-free since February 2017, retained the company's paid services for a while after the free cleanings, which is an option for all patients.

Arko hopes more women with cancer in the city will hear about the service and reach out.

"The personal satisfaction that comes from assisting local women and seeing them appreciate what we do … it's a privilege to be able to put a smile on someone's face," Arko said.