Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Camp is where the HEART is!

When I am away at camp, I take on a completely different personality. It's my "camp persona". There's just something about camp and being around the kids that transforms me into Peter Pan - and I never want to grow up. I love it and I hate it all at the same time. I love the high I get... because I can let go and be my crazy self... without feeling incredibly nuts (because everyone expects me to be a bit nutty at camp). The kids let their guards down too which I absolutely love.

The one thing I hate about it is that I can't switch back and forth between "crazy camp Tracy" and "normal, clever, business person Tracy". It's one or the other... and crazy camp Tracy is a lot more fun. Luckily I don't often need to be normal at camp so it's all good. It's exhausting though... and I'm thankful it's just for a week because it's hard work!

This was my first year at CanTeen National Camp. I was super excited to be a Volunteer and get the chance to see how camp here might be different from Ooch back home. Of course Camp Oochigeas is a two week summer camp for children ages 6-18 whereas CanTeen is for teenagers aged 14-24 so there will be obvious differences. One of the main differences is that Camp Ooch is staffed entirely by volunteers... and for that reason, the organization can use funding to make camp as pleasant and healthy as possible for the volunteers and the campers. The food was always pretty amazing at Camp Ooch... because kids with cancer need a balanced diet. I'm not saying CanTeen wasn't pleasant or healthy, but the standard wasn't quite as high.

CanTeen staff are paid to be at camp (what a fantastic job!) and they have a handful of volunteers. For this reason, the budget is a lot tighter and funding has to be used for necessities and transportation. CanTeen National Camp brings teenagers from across the country together which means flying most of them to the site. That's gonna cost a lot of moola! Let's not forget that Camp Ooch is the only camp in Ontario (or is it Canada?) that offers on site chemotherapy... and is strictly for kids with cancer. So even kids in the middle of treatment can still make it to camp. CanTeen is for survivors, patients, siblings of patients and survivors and bereaved siblings. I love the concept of BOTH camps. I couldn't choose one that I liked better. They are both critical to the support and development of kids who are affected by this killer disease.

When I was diagnosed in 1985, both Camp Ooch AND CanTeen were both starting up on opposite sides of the globe. Ooch was started in Toronto and CanTeen in Australia. Unfortunately, I was diagnosed in the early stages of the whole "support network" so I missed out. I didn't discover how wonderful Camp Ooch was until I was 16... but that was only two weeks during summer. CanTeen is a year round support network which meets once a month. I really could have benefited from that.

As an adult, I benefit. I get so much out of being a volunteer - which is why I feel so blessed. While I was away at camp, I got to meet most of the campers and I learned a little bit about how cancer has affected them. It humbles me each and every time and this is what propels me to do it. I know that I am lucky to be alive but I often take my life for granted... and volunteering reminds me to be grateful. When I was sick, I was given experimental chemo. I was part of a clinical trial. I WAS the clinical trial. The list of side effects was long - deafness, brain damage, lung failure, kidney damage, chronic depression, infertility, memory loss, death... yet here I am 24 years later with what I'd consider minor issues. But I have NEVER been offered support or counselling. I've dealt with it all on my own. This is why I am so strong. Support would have been nice... but I never knew it was out there. I am just happy to be alive.

For this reason, I can really bond with these kids (I call them "kids" but I realize they are actually young adults - but I think of us all as "kids" so I use the word loosely. In this photo I am transforming a senior CanTeen member, Sean, into Seana for the Marty Casey concert). There is a camaraderie between cancer survivors... it's a private club... and you have to have had cancer to get in. I've had co-counsellors at Ooch who have had "cancer envy" because they can't get into this club. CanTeen is a little different because there are siblings there as well. Frankly I wish my own siblings had more support when I was sick. I know it was hard on them - in some ways I think MY cancer affected them worse than it affected me. I got all of the attention... they were left at home alone while our mom took me to Toronto every month for chemo. They just wanted life to get back to normal. It was a really tough time for our family. It would have been great if they had some support. Maybe we'd all be a lot closer now. In this aspect, cancer IS contagious. My whole family had cancer but I was the only one who got flowers and was excused from school.

As an adult, I can clearly understand what these "kids" are going through. I can understand what the families are coping with. I realize that things aren't always what they seem. Behind closed doors, people fall apart, they say terrible things they don't mean, they find ways to cope which might not be healthy and they feel helpless. Then when the chemo is finished and life is supposed to return to "normal", there is residual guilt, possible addiction and often unresolved resentment. This is why there's CanTeen... and this is why I am so passionate about it.

Needless to say, I had an amazing week at camp. I was in my element. I was reminded just exactly why I survived. This is what I was born to do. I'm a camp junkie. The week was jam packed with activities and games. I met some amazing people - both staff and campers - who will surely become lifelong friends. Oh and I got to meet Marty Casey - the runner up for INXS Rock Star who came to camp and ran a song writing workshop with some of the kids! He was such a nice guy. Most importantly, I know that by being there, I was a mentor to at least one or two campers who needed a little hope... and that's exactly what this is all about.

Unfortunately I injured myself on day three. I was doing a synchronized swimming routine and I thought the pool was deeper than it was... and I jumped in really hard. I got a hairline fracture and contusion of the calcaneous. Ouch. I didn't let that stop me though and I hobbled along for the rest of the week. It could have been much worse! It is going to be about 6 weeks before I can walk properly. If kids can go to camp while on active chemo - I'm not going to let a little fracture stop me! What would my Ooch friends say?

"You only fail if you fail to try"... a motto I live by every single day.


Tania said...

It was such a privilege to be there that day Tracy. So cool to have met you and the "kids" and all the other most excellent peeps at camp.


T xx

Monica said...

Is it strange to have cancer envy? Your experience sounds marvelous! Well... except for the hairline fracture part. Get well soon!