Childhood Cancer Awareness Month
Childhood cancer is so unnatural.
It is abrupt and changes the lives of the patients and their families instantly. Children should never be burdened with the pain, fear, and the uncertainty of a cancer diagnosis. September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month which allows us to not only bring attention to childhood cancers, research and alternate treatments, but also to the various things happening that counteract these terrible diseases that can affect our youth. While my family has been lucky enough to not be afflicted with any childhood cancers, we have definitely been touched by it.
My life changed forever the summer of 2007 when I joined my sister as a volunteer for a week at an overnight summer camp for kids with cancer and their siblings called Camp Sanguinity. My first take upon hearing about this camp was how sad it must be. A bunch of sick, pale, bald kids wandering around sounds heart wrenching! I was quickly put at ease during my first counselor training. Each returning counselor shared stories ranging from side-splitting laughter to tear-inducing respect. I couldn’t wait to collect my own stories.
Camp Sanguinity is a week long overnight camp held every July. It (and the dozens like it across the US) provides a respite from all the havoc that cancer brings. Parents and caregivers are blessed with a much needed break and there is no cost to the families to send their children to camp. Patients are provided with a safe and loving environment where they are free to try new (or old) activities that most “sick” kids would not be allowed to participate in. The camp is filled with accommodations to help enable children of all abilities in over a dozen different activities. Camp Sanguinity is special because it is open to patients AND their siblings. Siblings finally get to meet other siblings and patients their age, allowing both sides to better understand exactly what each are going through. The week of camp is fast, but powerful. Anyone who has been to a sleepover summer camp remembers it for years to come. It really is a magical experience, what transpires at this camp for kids with cancer and their siblings, reaches far beyond that of an ordinary summer camp.
Camp has allowed me to be privy to important and meaningful moments in kid’s lives. Challenging themselves to overcome fears, pushing themselves out of their comfort zones, finding a new hobby or interest, and making friends who understand the cancer journey only scratch the surface of what the camp experience provides. I do not take my opportunity to be a part of something so beautiful lightly. I am beyond grateful to my husband, parents and in-laws who all take turns holding down the fort with my own kids so I can come back year after year.
2018 marked my 10th year as a counselor at Camp Sanguinity and the stories abound.
The most resilient, positive, and courageous people I have ever met are the patients and their siblings at this camp. Somehow, these kids find the silver lining in their disease and most of them talk about doctor’s visits, hospital stays, and even surgeries with an almost flippant tone.
They know those things do not define them, but are simply something that has happened to them. Of course there are kids with aggressive cancers that their bodies weren’t able to fight off, but there are so many more that came through the other side. I haven’t met one childhood cancer survivor who doesn’t think they aren’t better for it. Siblings are often slow to share stories, feeling that it isn’t theirs to tell, but their experiences pave the way to creating some of the most empathic, supportive people I know. Most of them want to grow up to be pediatric oncologists, nurses, or child life specialists.
Being around these kids is life giving.
I would like to say that I continue to volunteer at Camp Sanguinity because the kids really need me. It is quite the opposite. I am a better person for knowing all of them. I think of them often. I pray for them. I want to bottle their courage, resilience, and tolerance and dole it out. I want to hug their moms for being brave enough to let them get on a bus two hours away for six days to let strangers watch over them. I hold my healthy babies extra tight when I get home and I count the days until I go back next year.