Sunday, September 22, 2013

CancerGirl Goes to Cancer Camp

During my summer vacation, I went to sleep-away camp. I left my familiar palm trees, fog, and hipsters of the Bay Area for the mountains, thunderstorms, and cowboys of Colorado. Each day, I woke hoping that I was up earlier than my cabin mate so I could get a few moments in the bathroom before the morning’s activities. Each night, I went to bed, hair smelling of campfire, exhausted from a day well spent in the wilderness. The entire experience was exciting, challenging, and, ultimately, made me feel as though I were thirteen. In fact, I’m thirty-four and teach thirteen-year-olds. And, my camp experience wasn’t a traditional coming-of-age, independence-testing kid’s camp, but an all-expenses-paid, week-long outdoor adventure for cancer survivors.

I heard about this “camp” from a young survivor email thread that I signed up for when I went to my first and only support group meeting two years ago. At the time, I was going through radiation therapy for stage II breast cancer and just couldn’t listen to other cancer patients bemoan the horrible pain they suffered years after their own radiation therapy or the cancer that one woman ended up developing after her treatments. Support groups are wonderful if patients can glean a sense of community and shared experience. I ended up feeling scared and depressed. The email about camp sparked my interest because it wasn’t just sitting around and lamenting our diagnoses and treatments, it was actually getting out and doing things I’d never done before. And, let’s be honest, a free vacation. If I could get a week in Colorado from having cancer, why wouldn’t I go for it? A few weeks before I got the email about camp, my boyfriend, with whom I was living, broke up with me. The relationship had been passionate but difficult. When it finally imploded, he kept saying that he just couldn’t deal with the fact that I was a cancer patient--the medical bills, tests, and the chance, though very slight, of recurrence. The last few days of the relationship he just kept repeating it as though it were his mantra. “I just can’t deal with the cancer. I just can’t deal with it.” The information about camp caught me at a time when I needed to be around people who would accept that this was a part of my reality, people that weren’t scared of it, that didn’t look at me as damaged.

Originally, it was about being somewhere that I fit in. It eventually evolved into a symbol of doing something new and bold, reclaiming independence and happiness after cancer and the end of a negative, draining relationship. So, I sent in my application, my doctor sent in my medical application, and, a couple months later, I was accepted. When I would tell friends about my upcoming trip, I mentioned that I was especially excited to go horseback riding and, if I came away from Colorado with a cowboy, I’d be okay with that, too.

The night before the flight, I felt a little apprehensive about not knowing exactly what I was in for and who was going. The people that run the camp like to keep things fairly mysterious. They give you a list of what clothing and accessories (hat, gloves, bug spray) to bring and keep you in the dark about pretty much everything else (lodging, location). The only thing I knew about the other campers were their email addresses. So, I decided to reach out to them. I sent out a group email introducing myself and telling people what I’d be wearing and, if they saw me waiting at the gate, to come up and say hi. The next morning, I arrived at SFO at dawn and anxiously looked around at everyone waiting to board the flight to Denver. Every person traveling alone prompted me to question if they were a camper too. And, as a single woman, I secretly hoped one of them would be a cute, young single survivor.

The first camper who approached me was an older woman wearing a scarf on her head and a warm smile. She sweetly thanked me for my email and introduced herself. During the two and a half hour flight, I came to learn that she has had metastatic endometrial cancer for the last eleven years and has received chemotherapy treatment for much of that time. In our time at camp, we never used our real names. We all had nicknames. Hers was Lucky.

Four other campers found me at the airport and all were at least twenty years older than me. Now, I understand that cancer survivors are typically older than I am, but I couldn’t help being disappointed that there weren’t any younger people. When we landed in Denver, we met up with our “counselors” who were easily recognizable dressed in full kayaking gear. Once all eleven of us--eight women, three men--gathered together, I realized that even though I was still the “baby” of the group, there were a couple survivors only ten to fifteen years older. We all tried to make quick introductions as we made our way to the luggage carousel. Okay, I thought, now who is going to be my best friend at camp. The night before I had visions of finding a young woman with similar experiences to mine who would be my camp buddy, and we would stay up late talking about our love lives and the other campers. In reality, I didn’t have any kindred soul sister moment. When I found out that one of the survivors, nicknamed Peaches, was taking the same medication that I have been taking for the past two years, I jokingly called us the Tamoxifen Twins. She just flashed me an awkward, forced smile. Okay, I thought, this one’s not going to be my camp bestie. So, the search continued, and I felt as if I were a new student trying to make friends on the first day of school. It soon became clear that the San Francisco survivors lived up to the city itself. There were many unique characters including a tattooed seventy-five-year-old woman who finished chemo years ago but continues to shave her head and told everyone to call her Veedub.

After we got our luggage, we made our way to the converted short school bus, which turned out to be our chariot for the week. I sat by myself for the three and a half hour ride, chatting with other friendly campers at lunch, but not yet feeling like I met my kindred spirit.

When we arrived at camp, the volunteers and river guides were waiting for us, ready to show us to our cabins and introduce themselves. They all had nicknames too and didn’t accept any of our real names. I soon became known as Annie Oakley because I said I wanted to get my cowgirl on (to me, the water activities were secondary). A frantic brainstorming session of nicknames ensued. I ended up turning to the man on my left, a forty-something first-grade teacher who just finished treatment for metastatic colon cancer, who was having a hard time coming up with a nickname. Inspired by his mohawk, I suggested Hawkeye. He turned to me, flashed a broad smile, and said he liked it. And, right there, became my camp bestie. Being that many of my closest friends are gay men, it seemed fitting that we would find each other. And, even though we didn’t get to room together, we still talked about our love lives and the other campers, and he ended up being the best wingman a cowgirl could ask for.

Across the lawn from the main ranch house was a row of adorable one- and two-room log cabins, each with its own bathroom, and outfitted with bunk beds, framed paintings of horses and cowboys, and a wood stove. It was love at first sight. If someone were to ask me to describe the perfect little sleep-away camp cabin, I couldn’t make it as perfect as these were. And quickly, my cabin mate was assigned, Peaches, my Tamoxifen Twin. Oh well, I thought, if nothing else, we can bond over our side effects.

That night, we went to the main ranch house for dinner and started to get into the routine of communal meals and the nightly campfire. Everyone involved in the camp made it feel like a family. All the river guides worked for MasterChief’s river adventure sports company and the rest of the volunteers knew the founders of the camp well. It’s amazing how quickly you can reach out and make meaningful connections with people when in a new environment where you don’t know anyone. Trust is given and taken freely, and making yourself vulnerable to the group somehow seems safe. When everyone has been through an experience as devastating as cancer, it makes it easier to open up. I look very healthy, so, usually, people looked shocked when I tell them I am a cancer patient. There was no shock at camp, only recognition. No matter what your cancer, you share that bond.

The beginning of the week was filled with building our kayaking skills, or, in my case, getting some. We practiced our “wet exits” that involve flipping over in your kayak, hugging the kayak with your upper body, pulling the strap so that you can release your skirt, pushing yourself out of your kayak, and swimming to the surface. For me, this was a fairly terrifying, claustrophobia-inducing proposition. And, though they encouraged us to practice our “wet exits” until we felt so comfortable that it became fun, I did one very embarrassingly fumbly wet exit and vowed to do all in my power to stay upright for the week.

I could spend hours writing about the scary nature of learning how to paddle while tackling rapids or watching the elation on other survivors’ faces as they became confident that they could ride a horse or enjoy the river. And, during our last campfire, I lied and said my favorite moment of the week was the sense of accomplishment that I experienced when I realized that I could adequately steer my kayak through four-foot waves. And, with the exception of one afternoon of succumbing to trepidation and using a “ducky” (an inflatable kayak), I conquered the class II rapids with my river kayak and did indeed stay upright.

However, ultimately, my favorite moments didn’t involve facing danger and living to tell about it or riding Little Joe, a beautiful, spirited horse, with whom I made friends and rode. It was getting to spend time with one of the guides who is also a cancer survivor. His nickname wasn’t Cowboy, but that’s what I’ll call him because that’s how I think of him.

We talked a little bit during the first dinner on the Sunday night when we arrived. He’s a country boy, born and raised in a small Colorado town, who is getting his Ph.D. in engineering and working these camps on the side. He was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma when he was sixteen and fought through many debilitating treatments to regain his health. We bonded over being young survivors, talked about our reactions to our diagnoses and the side effects from our treatments. He lamented that once when he parked in a handicapped spot during the worst of his treatments, he was reprimanded by an irate woman yelling at him about taking the spot from someone who needed it. He then removed his baseball cap, showed her his bald head, and told her he was weak from chemo and that’s why he was allowed to park in that spot. Then, I lamented to him that when I was at my weakest during radiation, could barely walk, and had to drive with two feet on the gas pedal, I didn’t have a handicapped sticker and had to park in the “healthy people” spots. Our relationship quickly progressed from talking about cancer to talking about my attempts at writing fiction, his doctoral work, and our families.

And, the Cowboy wasn’t just easy to talk to, he was fun. For me, the best part about being a cancer survivor is my renewed ability to find joy in the most ordinary of circumstances. If I have limited time here, I want to laugh as much as possible. We teased, flirted, and trash-talked each other through a camp tournament of Cornhole. When we had free time, we would somehow find each other like magnets. By Wednesday, I felt it--a heart-thumping, stomach-flipping crush. He tried to resist because, after all, he was a counselor and counselor-camper fraternizing was inappropriate, but, towards the end of the week, it became clear he had a crush, too. Thursday night, we went to dinner in Colorado Springs and afterwards swam at a hot springs. On the hour-long bus ride back to the ranch, he sat next to each camper and asked them about their day. When he got to me, strategically positioned in the last seat, we immediately snuggled up together and whispered to each other how much we liked being together. It was sweet, innocent, exciting--I felt like I was a middle schooler, holding a boy’s hand for the first time. In order to give us more time together, Hawkeye seated in front of me pretended to be asleep, so Cowboy didn’t feel obligated to move from my seat. I told you he was a good wingman.

That night, we waited up in the main ranch house exchanging small talk and gazing into each others' eyes until everyone went to bed, and then I tried for a kiss on the cheek. He shot me down, pointing out the security cameras and telling me that he didn’t want to lose his job. Then, he said a quick good night and went to bed. I was never more upset about a lost kiss.

On our last night, I dressed for dinner in my finest cowgirl ensemble complete with boots, belt buckle, and bandana. And, in what was my actual favorite moment of the week, he walked into the ranch dressed as my cowboy--Stetson hat, perfectly fitting jeans, the biggest belt buckle you’ve ever seen, and a pair of white snake-skin cowboy boots. I said I wanted a cowboy before I left for camp, and there was the most perfect one I could imagine. We ended up sitting together at the campfire that night and touching fingertips behind my blanket--the culmination of my sweet camp romance. When it was time to leave camp, we hugged several times, and then he was gone. And, feeling bittersweet, I went home. It got me thinking about my students at their own sleep-away camps.

People always think that being a cancer patient is one of the most devastating things that a person can go through, and it’s true. It’s challenging in every way possible--spiritually, physically, and emotionally. And I’ve always said that thirteen is the most awkward, painful time in a person’s life--your body changes, your mind changes, your friends change, everything is changing and in the most awkward, embarrassing way possible. But, being in the middle of the turmoil, these kids possess a sweet hope that one way or another they will turn out to be okay, and that somewhere in this life of chaos and disappointments, challenges and regrets, that someone will also think you are okay. My camp experience taught me that cancer survivors and thirteen-year-olds share a common bond: both are caught up in a storm, one being puberty, the other illness. They both have to actively look for moments of joy and, when they find them, truly appreciate and live in them. The biggest difference between the two is that the thirteen-year-old feels that life is infinite and the cancer survivor has an intimate relationship with their own mortality. But, maybe feeling as though you can live forever and living as if today was your last day aren’t all that different. Both a sense of immortality and mortality can inspire a person to take risks, to look for adventure, to kayak down the Colorado, or to hold hands around a campfire.