Cancer Camp Reunion

This is the story of three, thirty-something girlfriends from Denver. Let’s call them Harry, Lloyd and Elle. They had wonderful marriages, adorable children and flourishing careers. You might say they had it all.

And then they all had breast cancer.

First to be diagnosed was Lloyd. Months later, Harry. After Harry, it was Elle.

Shortly after her diagnosis, Elle found a bracelet that said, LIKE A BOSS. She thought of her daughter and decided that would be her mantra for facing this disease. So the three friends got their forearms tattooed and the “Breast Friends” were born. From what it sounds like, they had a good time while confronting an experience, I would describe as the opposite of a good time. I recall a story of them sitting on Lloyd’s front porch laughing hysterically at the terrified expressions of passersby – three bald, young mothers watching their children play outside as if nothing about them was unusual.

img_1865Elle had a crazy idea that the three of them should go to a week-long surfing camp with First Descents, an organization that takes young adult cancer survivors on (FREE) adventure trips.  So, the three of them signed up. Then, Elle got really sick. Then, she died.  She was 36 and left behind two beautiful babies and a husband. Harry and Lloyd spoke at her memorial saying how she would be their lighthouse.

Harry and Lloyd knew they had to go surfing to honor Elle and so they joined thirteen other cancer survivors in California in September 2016. Their residence for the week – Pigeon Point Lighthouse. The universe works in poetic and mysterious ways.

1476993212Some of the most definitive moments of the week were not those spent conquering waves, but were when Harry and Lloyd spoke of Elle. They brought some of her ashes to be spread at the lighthouse and at Cowell’s Beach where we learned to surf. On the last day, our entire group was in the water, sitting in a circle on our boards, having a moment of silence for Elle, when a harbor seal popped its head out of the water. Call me crazy, but that was Elle and she got her wish – she was surfing in the water with her friends.

This past weekend, my husband and I voyaged to Denver for Easter. I was looking forward to visiting a new city and Rocky Mountain National Park, but I was most excited to have dinner Saturday evening with Harry and Lloyd. Over big bowls of ramen, we laughed and reminisced about our week of surfing with First Descents. Talking about the other campers, the funny moments and the mandatory nicknames (hence the story behind two comedic girls called Harry and Lloyd). We talked about how we loath being labeled as brave or courageous, after doing what anyone else would have done in our situation. We talked about people in our lives who have been recently diagnosed – children, mothers, friends, young women.

The injustice of cancer is mind-blowing and reminded me of a quote in Susan Sontag’s, Illness as Metaphor:

“Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

And by having been citizens of that other place, Harry, Lloyd and Mitten (that’s me), decidedly agreed that because of cancer, we are all better people. And that to best honor their friend and the others we’ve lost along the way, we are obliged to be grateful, compassionate and out living our lives to the fullest, every day…like a boss.

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If you’re interested in learning more about First Descents, check out their website at www.firstdescents.com. Or if you’d like to financially contribute to the Like A Boss Team, click here. To date, Harry and Lloyd have raised over $13,000 – enough to send six other survivors to a week-long camp. Click here to read about my week with First Descents.

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2017: Overcoming Addiction & Being Present

It seems like many people were happy to bid adieu to 2016. As for me, not even the disappointment of a surprise surgery, putting my dog to sleep and the election outcome could trump the train wreck of my 2015, so I’m going to declare the year pretty darn awesome.  I travelled to the Dominican Republic, Mexico, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland and Spain where I walked 258 miles to fulfill a dream of completing the Camino de Santiago.  In April, I preformed at the Bluebird Cafe in a production called My 2nd Act: Survivor Stories from the Stage. In July, I spent the month in Michigan completing 200 hours of yoga teacher training.  Then in September, I went to California and learned to surf with fifteen other cancer survivors through an organization called First Descents.  And in between all those adventures, I published several blogs, articles and wrote nearly everyday.  So, yes, I’d say 2016 was not so bad.

 

Of course, I’d like to continue and increase the adventures in 2017, so I spent some time thinking about my goals for this year.  I realized setting and accomplishing SMART* goals has always come easy for me, but what I want more than anything is something not so measurable.

Somewhere around when I got an iPhone, I developed an obsession to anything connected to my device.  The internet, social media, streaming TV, etc.  Then while I was going through treatment my addiction intensified because I would spend my days in bed watching the iPad. Now that I’m well, I can see the addiction has gotten out of control.

What bothers me most about my problem is how it distracts me from the activities and people I truly care about. It eats at precious time I could spend writing, doing yoga, reading, hiking, running, etc. and it steals my attention from my husband, friends and surroundings. Ultimately, I hope addressing this addiction will allow me to be more fully present in my own life, which is what I want more than any check box next to a goal.

One of the many life lessons cancer taught me is the only guarantee we have is the present moment – the one we are in right now.  I’ve realized in addition to my device addiction, I spend a lot of precious time reliving traumas of the past and the “what ifs” of the future.

This morning I came across a perfect passage in the book, The Artist’s Way:

“In times of pain, when the future is too terrifying to contemplate and the past too painful to remember, I have learned to pay attention to right now. The precise moment I was in was always the only safe place for me. Each moment, taken alone was always bearable. In the exact now, we are all, always, all right.”

And there it is again – being present in my life as a method for coping with trauma of the past and uncertainty of the future.

I wish you all health, wealth, strength and whatever else you need to accomplish your measurable and immeasurable goals of 2017.  Also, I’d like to take this time to thank you for reading my blog. If someone you know has been affected by cancer and/or chronic illness, please feel free to share my site with them, or better yet, have them send me a message.  Below you’ll find my most popular blogs from 2016:

Waiting for Hair: The Toll of Chemotherapy – The fact that this was the number one post of the year doesn’t surprise me. When I was going through hair loss, I wasn’t able to find a lot of info on what the growing out process was like. I also did a follow-up to this post, One Year of Hair After Cancer. That has been a few months and I’m happy to report I have a ton of hair. It’s in a bit of an awkward stage right now, but whatevs, I’m happy to have hair.

Living Universal Truths on My Cancerversary – I really love this post and the seven universal truths.

Cancer Camp – Details on my week surfing with First Descents, an organization that takes young, adult cancer survivors on adventure trips.

 

*Specific Measurable Achievable Realistic Time-Based

Cancer Camp

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As featured on curetoday.com

During treatment, a fellow survivor friend raved about her experience with an organization called, First Descents (FD). FD is a nonprofit that takes young adult cancer survivors on free adventure trips. Yes, yes and yes. I liked them on Facebook, signed up for their newsletter and went on with the business of getting well.

After surgery and completing chemotherapy, I started to feel more like my adventurous self again. Also around this time, I received an email about First Descents 2016 programs which included rock climbing, whitewater kayaking and surfing at various locations throughout the United States. All of them sounded like fun, but I chose surfing in Santa Cruz, California. I’d never surfed before, but have tremendous respect for the sport. I’d equate watching surfers to watching fire – mesmerizing. The intuition to read the ocean, defy the odds of a wave and staying calm during an inevitable wipe out are all impressive and admirable qualities. Surfing and cancer don’t sound so different.

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Stunning Pigeon Point Lighthouse (and where we stayed for the week)

Arriving at the San Jose International Airport, I was immediately spotted by the other campers. The short hair and baseball hats are usually dead giveaways for us women cancer survivors. After a curvy drive over the coastal mountains, we arrived at our home for the next week – Pigeon Point Lighthouse on the Pacific Coast Highway. It was a stunning location.

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Cowell’s Beach in Santa Cruz

The next day, we arrived at Cowell’s Beach in Santa Cruz and were lead by Richard Schmidt’s Surf School. Little did we know then what a legend Richard Schmidt is in the surfing community. Surf Splendor Podcast even called his school, “the oldest and most prominent in the world.” Richard and his instructors were extremely kind, humble, encouraging and considerate to our motley crew and we all felt honored to be taught by masters. Once we got our wetsuits on and a beach quick lesson, we were let loose in the water. The first day, I struggled and never got up on my board. Surfing is hard for a strong, fit person, but it’s even harder when you’ve been taken apart and pieced back together by surgeons like many of us had been. We all kept at it and to my surprise, the next day and the rest of the week, most of us were able to get up and ride some pretty sick waves, as they say. A day of surfing was reminiscent of how you feel as a child after a day of swimming – happy, satisfied, starving and exhausted.

Some of my favorite moments throughout the week had nothing to do with surfing, but from being in a group where I could joke about cancer. This is not something I’m able to do too much in my regular life because it’s usually met with a stern “not funny” look from my husband or other family members. We all cracked up when someone made an origami fortune teller and joked that’s what doctors use to determine the number of rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. Or demanding to see a port scar as a means of entry into our living area. Laughing about having cancer flare-ups to protesting something we were about to do. Joking that if you put all our body parts together, we made up a whole person. How refreshing it is to be in the company of people who could actually understand these types of morbid jokes and genuinely laugh with you.

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The ladies with Richard Schmidt

Another powerful moment was when us girls stood in the living room revealing our scars. Mine have never been seen by anyone other than my husband and medical staff, so this was pretty big. I saw many nipple-less breasts and they saw my ginormous abdominal scar, which is the shape of a Mercedes-Benz logo (the actual surgical incision name). It was a liberating moment and I would’ve never done this with any of my non-cancer friends.

I’ll remember this experience and the stories of my brother and sister cancer fighters forever. First Descent’s motto is “out living it.” We had all been through so much, but were still here, out living what has killed others, together, in more ways than one and that was pretty rad, as they say.

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a ride'” – Hunter S. Thompson

To learn more about First Descents, check out their website at www.firstdescents.org

Read this on curetoday.comCancer Camp

Read all my articles with Cure.

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The “Minimavs” Team