So, cancer camp doesn’t sound especially fun, especially when I tell you that our meals were mostly gluten-free, dairy-free, and sugar-free. Oh, and there was no booze. And I was sore, terrified, and completely out of my comfort zone at times.
AND IT WAS THE BEST THING EVER.
The Overlook Ranch in Estes Park, Colorado set a majestic backdrop for a week-long adventure this summer. Life slowed down for me that week as I temporarily set aside the daily obligations of a working, single mother. I hit my reset button and got enough rest each night, exercised each day, ate delicious, healthy meals, and emotionally engaged with some amazing individuals.
The First Descents Program gave me the courage to discover what I am capable of accomplishing, humility in the presence of so many strong individuals who recounted their years of struggle, and vulnerability to connect with people in much more meaningful ways beyond our common ailments. We had camp names like Paco, Princess Bear, Shaman, Cricket, Dexter, Dawg Pound, and Pow Pow. Buttercup, Peanut, Big Papi, Bumble Bee, CK, and HD. Scooter (Rooster), Queenie, Ice Cream Sherpa, El Rio Gordo, Huckleberry, and Pyro. Pistil, Spearmint, Rocky, Hans, Meetball, Indy, Again, Patches, and Hollywood. And I was Bumble. We left loved ones at home, pushed the pause button on treatment, and abandoned our everyday lives for a week to experience something incredible.
I challenged myself doing something completely new that I had never tried before and turned out to be pretty good at it. I sat around the campfire with my group as we vocalized gratitude for the day and the positive actions of each other. Little did I know, that first day of climbing as we all stood together watching “The Great American Eclipse of 2017,” yelling at the clouds to move out of the way, we’d share an incredible bond and get matching tattoos by the week’s end.
Programs like this are so important to young people with cancer. I can’t tell you how many times I heard from others how nice it was to be surrounded by people their age who ‘get it.’ Having cancer at cancer camp means you’re normal! And it means you’re not alone. Being a member of a supportive community that stays in touch even after the program ends is priceless. We were shown that eating healthily can make us feel better. We were physically challenged which made us feel stronger, even in bodies which sometimes don’t feel like our own.
Here’s my highlight reel:
- Meeting Buttercup – walking arm in arm though Rocky Mountain National Park’s Bear Lake; her in a purple tutu and crown and me in a moose hat, sharing all things inappropriate and cracking each other up
- Sharing something deeply emotional with someone, then having to ask their real name because we only know each other’s camp names
- Literally waking up to a mountainside view
- Giggling, snuggle parties, and late night talks like we were all 12 again
- Ending each day with a campfire
- Giving shout outs to each other
- Huckleberry and Pistil for being vulnerable and giving us grace while we learned to see the world a little differently
- Watching Cricket read my writing, which made her laugh and then cry
- Getting matching mountain tattoos with my new friends on my birthday
- Learning new songs and singing them all together
- The food! Fish tacos grilled kebabs, thai, avocado pudding – All hail CK!
- Feeling healthy! Low/no sugar, high fiber, low gluten, low/no dairy, no soy, no booze, getting to bed at a decent hour and getting up early
- Overcoming fear and climbing, belaying my ass off, repelling, and multi-pitch climbing
- Doing yoga with Queenie mountainside
- Dining all together at the really long picnic table
- Watching my new friends overcome fear and push through personal obstacles
- Celebrating my birthday with people I just met, who made it so lovely! I got a card with a unicorn, a purple tutu and birthday hat to wear for the day, a signed placemat at the picnic table. I got silly stringed and I screamed as I walked up to the ranch then was surprised by everyone waiting there with decorations. Everyone sang happy birthday to me as apple crisp with a candle was delivered to the table. I even got to pick my favorite yoga sequences that morning!
- Being so incredibly moved by Huckleberry’s quiet strength, their soulful vocals punctuating the day. The song they sang humbly about being born and everyone around you is smiling and you’re crying, and to live so when you die, you’re smiling and everyone around you is crying. This was in the dark of night, standing around a wheel barrow filled with water which carried our paper cups-turned-lanterns with little flames burning inside, representing those who could not be there with us. To feel that in the moment and have the courage to put it out there so freely, it’s as if they had no choice; their beautiful, soothing voice needed to find our ears
- Feeling like I was living in a gallery every day being treated to these stunning views
And here’s what I’ve learned:
- You’ll be photographed like a celebrity if you’re wearing a moose hat in the mountains
- Really amazing friendships are formed when you allow yourself to be vulnerable
- Celebrating your birthday with strangers is underrated
- You can accomplish more than you think you can when people believe in you
- Campfire shout outs should be applied liberally in life
- Make time for things and places and people that make you happy
- You CAN climb mountains while wearing a tutu and birthday hat if that’s your thing