Trent Ernst, Editor
Quick. If you knew you were dying, how would that affect your life?
Okay, so we all know, in some corner of our mind that we won’t live forever. But we are experts at taking our knowledge of our own mortality and locking it away in a dark room in the back of our minds.
But what would happen if someone came along and unlocked that door? Brought out the spectre of death and began parading it around your mental house? What if, say, you were diagnosed with brain cancer? How would that affect your life?
Maybe you’ve come face to face with your own mortality, and you know the answer to that. Because it’s a hard thing to deal with, to get around. Everywhere you turn, it’s there.
And yes, I know, a diagnosis of cancer doesn’t immediately mean death. It used to, and you can still feel the wind stir as the angel of death begins to circle. A diagnosis of cancer changes everything. It changes how you live, how you think, how you react. Everything is now viewed through the prism of that diagnosis.
Now, let’s take this thought experiment one step farther. How would it affect you if you were ten years old? 12? Six? If you were still a child?
My daughter got cancer half her lifetime ago, yet she still talks about it as if it was a going concern, and in some ways, it is. Cancer is not something that you are ever fully free from, even if it never comes back. It is a burden you bear for the rest of your life, and when you are only six years old, that burden can be nearly impossible to bear.
This is where Camp Goodtimes comes in. It has two missions, which are, at first glance, might seem to be in opposition to each other. Firstly, it is a place where kids can safely explore who they are now, after their bodies have betrayed them or failed them or perhaps simply changed. For some, operations have changed how their bodies work, or how they look. Perhaps they haven’t been swimming since the operation, because they now have scars, or because they lost a limb to cancer. Here they can explore how those changes affect them and maybe discover they’re not as limiting as they might have first thought.
Secondly, surrounded by cancer survivors and families whose children have cancer, it gives them a chance to forget about their cancer for a while. For many of these kids, they are the only person in their peer group who are dealing with cancer, so they can feel isolated, or outcast, or simply just different. By gathering together with other kids who are dealing with the same issue, suddenly, it is not something that is different and unusual, it is the norm. And for a few days, they can just be kids at camp with other kids at camp. “It’s a chance not to think about their diagnosis,” says Camp Director Shannon Hartwig, “but about what they are going to have for lunch.”
Not everyone at camp is a cancer survivor. There is a strong emphasis on family at these camps. Every second camp is a full family camp, and even for the kids’ camp, siblings are welcome.
Everything that happens at camp is designed to build up the kids’ confidence, to make them feel loved and honoured. To give them the freedom to be kids, while at the same time equipping them with tools for life in the outside world.
For people who are familiar with outdoor camping programs, the experience is not unlike any other camp, and that’s the point. There are some differences, true. Instead of having a camp nurse, the Med Shed is staffed by a team of specialists who can deal with both your usual camping emergencies (scraped knees and hornet stings) as well as dealing with cancer-related issues.
And, as a pre-requisite for attending, everyone must prove that they are fully immunized against measles. The reason for this is many of the kids are actively dealing with radiotherapy or chemotherapy, and their immune system is not functioning properly.
But on the ground? The experience is very much like any other summer camp program you’ve seen. There’s swimming in the lake (the camp is on the shores of Loon Lake in the heart of the UBC Research Forest near Maple Ridge), as well as canoeing, a climbing wall, a dining hall, and both a low and high ropes course.
And for these kids and their families, whose worlds have been turned upside down, Camp Goodtimes is an oasis of normality, a week of sanity in a world that seems to have gone insane.
It for these kids, for this chance of respite for them and their families, that I ride.
Editor Trent Ernst will be riding with Cops for Cancer’s Tour de North in September. Fort St. John. To donate, visit http://bit.ly/trentrider .