This beatifully written account of the Camp Sunshine experience is a vivid description of the impact of camp.
When I was seven years old, I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia, a form of blood cancer. Thankfully, my cancer was discovered a very early stage, and I quickly attained full remission. I had to proceed with a customary 2.5 year chemotherapy treatment protocol, however, in order to ensure that the cancer did not return, and during this time, my life looked a lot different than most other kids my age. I still went to school, but I often fell behind because I missed class frequently due to illness or doctor’s appointments. I spent a lot of time in the hospital, where I learned to make the most of things.
I actually grew to enjoy staying at the local children’s hospital, due to the plethora of activities, playrooms, and people to spend time with. At the hospital, I was constantly making new friends, creating art projects, ordering lots of room service food, and other shenanigans. (Don’t get me started on IV pole racing! My mom hated it. The nurses tolerated it. We, the kids, LOVED it.) I got “cancer perks” (The Fault In Our Stars, anyone?), like getting to make a wish. (I went to London when the 6th Harry Potter book came out. It also happened to coincide with the week that I was officially off-treatment!) But one of the greatest gifts that cancer gave me was Camp Sunshine. Camp Sunshine is a camp for kids with cancer, located in Georgia. Once a kid receives a cancer diagnosis, he or she is eligible to attend camp every summer until they turn 18 or graduate from high school. Camp Sunshine became a very important part of my life. The community I was a part of at camp helped me to know that I was not alone. Many of the experiences I had were shared by other campers, who were at various stages of their journey. Some campers were recently diagnosed. Others were in the thick of their treatment. Many were off-treatment, and were able to share their experience, strength, and hope with the newer campers.
Although there were many joys during this time in my life, there were also many sorrows. (For example- Remember that great wish I made, to go to England? I also lost my hair one last time during that trip, and I vividly remember how itchy my head was the whole time we were there.) And these sorrows continue, even to this day. While surrounding yourself in a community of people with shared experiences can help you to cope, it also opens yourself up to heartbreak.
Loving someone with a serious illness is not easy. Now, imagine being immersed in a community in which literally every single person has (or had) a serious illness. From a very young age, I have known children who became very sick. Many of them died. This is the reality of the world that you live in when you are a sick kid.
I was aware of my mortality from a very young age. When my mom got the call from the doctor to confirm my diagnosis, I remember asking two questions: ‘Will I die?” and “Will I lose my hair?” (As I stated before, I was given good odds from the beginning, so the answer to the first question was, “probably not.” The answer to the second question was, “probably yes.”)
It’s remarkable how quickly you can be immersed into a whole new world in a time of crisis. We soon met many families (both at the hospital and at Camp Sunshine events) who were going through cancer treatment. Sometimes, their kids didn’t make it. This was just a fact of life for me.
At Camp Sunshine, they hold annual memorial services for the members of the camp family who passed away in the previous year. Small children usually do not attend, but teen campers and counselors are welcome to attend on a voluntary basis. I remember vividly the first year I chose to attend the memorial service. One of my former cabin mates had died in the previous year, and I wanted to honor her, so I attended the service.
It was simple and beautiful, hosted in the giant treehouse on campus. After an opening reading, those who knew the campers who died in the past year were welcome to share memories of them. For a while, we would reminisce together, and a small box of heart-shaped beads with a hole in them was passed around the room. The beads were meant to symbolize the hole in our hearts left by our loved ones who we had lost, and could be worn on our camp friendship bracelet (we get a bracelet and a hug every year when arriving at camp) to keep them close to us.
After the service was over, we started walking back to the cabin, and I could hear laughter gradually building in the treehouse behind us. That was an important moment for me. It helped me to realize that even among great sorrow, there is joy. The campers and counselors went from crying together to laughing together, reminiscing on the good times they shared with each other and our departed loved ones. The memorial service quickly became one of my favorite parts of camp.
I think that, in a way, this experience is part of what led me to choose hospice work as my career. I learned that even among great suffering, great joy can exist. There is always hope, even if that hope might look different than it once did. When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I had recently read Pollyanna, and was constantly searching for “silver linings’’ in every situation. This was an important coping mechanism for me, but it also helped me to develop a lifelong attitude of recognizing the good things in any moment, no matter how small they may be. It is my goal as a hospice worker (and more generally, as a human being) to provide hope to those who need it most.
As a former cancer kid, they prepare you for your procedures, but they don’t warn you that for the rest of your life, people that you know and love will die too young, too soon, too suddenly. They don’t tell you that a few times a year you will get bad news from friends who were ok for over a decade. They don’t prepare you for your friend who beats cancer multiple times, only to die years later because so many of her body systems are so worn out from fighting that they just can’t keep her alive anymore. They don’t prepare you for the friend who would grow up, have kids, and then lose her battle to a relapse, leaving her beloved children behind. They don’t tell you how unfair this world can be.
I am not scandalized by death. It is an important part of life, and something that each of us will have to experience when our time comes. I believe that there is something beyond this world, and that death, while a great sadness for those of us left behind, is a new beginning. Although I grew up around sickness and death, I do not consider this period of my life to be particularly traumatic. I do, however, consider it to be an integral part of my worldview- something that has shaped how I perceive pretty much everything. It has taught me the beauty of caring for others, and of being cared for by others, but also that the cost of caring is often sadness and grief. What a small price to pay, though, for the joy of having loved another person. In my experience, there is always something good, even in the darkest of times, and the cost of caring is always worth it.
This piece is dedicated to all the former campers and counselors of Camp Sunshine who have passed away.
Sunshine is forever. We love you. We honor you. We remember you.
Genevieve is a board certified music therapist and clinical mental health counseling student. She writes about mental health, healthcare, lifestyle, faith, and the arts.
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