When you or someone in your home is battling cancer, housework quickly drops on your list of priorities.

The people at Merry Maids understand this-and they're doing something about it.

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For several years, the local business has provided free residential cleaning services for women undergoing cancer treatment as part of its affiliation with non-profit organization "Cleaning for a Reason."

Those who qualify receive two, whole-home cleaning sessions about a month apart, said Dawn Hanson, manager of Merry Maids in Grand Forks and Fargo.

The national Merry Maids company recently expanded the offer to anyone who is battling cancer, such as men or parents of children with cancer.

"It is awesome," Hanson said of the Cleaning for a Reason initiative.

Dealing with cancer "is a hard time for everyone," Hanson said. "Cleaning is the last thing you get done."

To date, about 20 cancer patients have been helped through the Merry Maids offices she manages. Clients range in age from late 20s to 70.

Hanson knows the kind of stress women with cancer face.

"They are running to treatment appointments and doctor's appointments," she said. "They say, 'I do a little bit, and I'm so tired.' "

Having a pair of maids come in and clean the home relieves at least a portion of their burden.

"It's a weight that's been lifted off them," said Beth Waxler, a cleaner for Merry Maids in Grand Forks. "They're grateful. I know I would be.

"It's something so simple, but it means a lot to people."

Grateful for support

That's true for Pamela Kalbfleisch and her husband, Jan Gierman, who live in rural Mekinock, N.D. Gierman is undergoing cancer treatment.

The couple has employed Merry Maids for more than five years, Kalbfleisch said. And not long ago, she received a call from Hanson with the free house-cleaning offer.

"They contacted me, out of the blue," she remembered. "It was a particularly bad day for me. When your spouse has cancer, it's tough."

After the call, she "felt so much love and caring," she said. "It meant the world to us. It's nice to have one less thing to worry about."

Kalbfleisch, who teaches communication at UND, said Merry Maids sets itself apart with this program.

"You don't see a lot of organizations doing something like that."

Her husband "has been fighting cancer for two years, and I'm trying to help him," she said.

The challenge they're facing "makes it difficult to do everything. Cancer is a beast."

The maids who come regularly to their home "are definitely part of our support system," Kalbfleisch said.

"It's nice to know people care," said Gierman.

Launched in Texas

Cleaning for a Reason was launched in 2006 by Debbie Sardone, a Texas cleaning business owner, Hanson said.

Sardone received a call from a prospective client who needed housecleaning service but couldn't afford it, because chemotherapy and radiation left her unable to work. The woman said she might call back when she could afford it and hung up.

In the days before Caller ID, Sardone was unable to get back in touch with her but she told her staff that day "that the next time a woman battling cancer called our office needing help with her home, if she couldn't afford it, we would just give it to her completely for free," she told TODAY.com.

Years later, Sardone shared the story while speaking at a national convention of cleaning professionals. The many listeners who approached her after the talk and expressed an interest in adopting a similar policy in their communities sparked her decision to start Cleaning for a Reason.

The program has grown to include partnerships with 1,200 cleaning services around the country.

About 33,000 women cancer patients have received free house-cleaning services, valued at more than $11 million, Hanson said.

The individual cleaners, who are paid for their work, "get a lot out of this too," Hanson said. "They love doing it."

Hanson has been working to spread the word about Cleaning for Reason by providing brochures at facilities such as the Altru Cancer Center and staffing an information booth at the recent Altru Healthy Living Expo.

The client who qualifies receives services that range from $180 to $500, depending on the size of the home, she said.

Hanson has met women "who don't want to take advantage" of the program, she said. "They'll say, 'I have two bedrooms I don't use; I don't expect you to clean them.' But we do."

A clean home is important to these clients because "people are stopping by to see them, to see if they can help," Hanson said.

Not only does having a clean, presentable home benefit the client, the health effects are critical too, because the immune systems of cancer patients are often compromised.

It lifts the spirits of the recipient and the maids.

"We love doing this," said Waxler. "It makes people happy, and that feels good."

"There's so much negativity in the world," she said. "To help so much is really a blessing."