August 28, 2017

Hi everyone! Today I am posting on behalf of YI NET Member Diana Withrow, who is sharing her experiences of volunteering at a pediatric oncology camp.


For the past six nights, I have slept on a bottom bunk and awoken to the view of the Shenandoah Valley out my window. I have shared a space smaller than my bedroom with five people – my co-counselors and three 11- and 12-year-old survivors of childhood cancer. For the girls, it was their first time at Camp Fantastic, an NIH-affiliated weeklong overnight camp in Virginia exclusively for children affected by cancer. Within hours of their arrival, one had declared, “Camp Fantastic is AWESOME” in Sharpie on a quilt square she was decorating while waiting to check in with the medical staff. Within days, the three had declared themselves best friends. On the second last night of camp, they all performed solo vocal performances to a cheering crowd at the talent show and took turns hugging each other as they stepped off stage. And as they got on the bus home, they exchanged contact information through tear-blurred eyes.

Camp Fantastic is one of nearly 130 camps for children with cancer in the United Stated and Canada, together serving over 35,000 campers and their families. In my five years volunteering at oncology camps, I have seen many of the benefits that camp provides to campers and their families. As an epidemiologist who works largely with administrative data, I have also benefited from seeing first-hand the population whose lives we hope to improve with our research.

My commitment to oncology camps is strong – I could spend pages trying to convey all that I have witnessed and learned from my time there. But today, two observations strike me as most important to share with you.

  • Cancer harms long term. Oncology camps do not only cater to patients on active treatment, but continue to serve campers into young adulthood and as they transition to counselors. The resilience and strength of the survivors is immediately clear as you walk through camp. Unfortunately, hearing loss, limited mobility, visual impairment, amputation and signs of graft vs. host disease are also evident. Depression, anxiety, behavioural problems, learning deficits and fertility issues reveal themselves over time. While late effects and survivorship research have been gaining attention and funding in the last decade, there is nothing quite like 150 or more pediatric cancer survivors standing around a flagpole, or lining up for meds before dinner, to illustrate that there is more work to be done.
  • Camp heals long term. While camp can’t necessarily heal the physical side effects of cancer, I am certain it helps children and families cope with them. At camp, kids are no longer defined by their cancer. Instead, they can choose an identity they prefer for the week – theatrical, athletic, or artistic. It was through a conventional camp in my childhood that I learned that despite dreading Physical Education class, and often being last picked for teams at school, I could win a windsurfing award at camp. That little construction paper award gave me the confidence to embark on other athletic pursuits as I grew. For kids whose experience at school has inevitably been affected by the “otherness” of their cancer, these confidence boosters and opportunities to overcome challenges and fears can be doubly important. The therapeutic value of camp goes so much further too – through camp, patients, survivors and their families build a community of support that continues to serve them long past remission. Young children who have not had a chance to go to school learn those key kindergarten skills of sharing and taking turns. The list goes on.

I can’t help but take a reflective tone when trying to convey why oncology camps mean so much to me, and to many people I know. But most of all, of course, camp is FUN. It is a bright spot in an often dark journey. To see us in action, I invite you to check out the highlights reel from Camp Fantastic 2017 on Youtube. If you’d like to get involved as a volunteer, feel free to contact me (I’m @d__with on Twitter), SpeciaLove (the organization that runs Camp Fantastic) or the Children’s Oncology Camp Association International.

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