Big sky country. Mountains as far as the eye can see. Heaven on Earth is a place called CAMP-MAK-A-DREAM, a summer camp in Gold Creek, Montana. A place for people who have been affected by cancer. They do different weeks for different things. They have a week for kids who have/had cancer, a week for teens, a sibling's week and other groups of people that cancer affects. I was eight years old when I first went. Since my brothers are older than me, they had been going to camp for a few years before I started going. They would always tell me how amazing it was every year. But I would not have believed them if I had not experienced it myself.
When I was two years old I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), which is a blood cancer. Growing up I never realized how different my childhood was compared to normal kids. I never thought of cancer as something life changing, mostly because I was too young to remember most of it. Although, I don’t remember much, do remember a childhood spent in the hospital. While other kids were learning to ride a bike and going to preschool, I was spending weeks, sometimes months in the hospital getting treatment. We raced through hospital hallways instead of city streets. We shot water out of syringes instead of water guns. I remember Doctor Lobel’s checkups. I remember getting treatment and drawing blood with nurse Chris and Laura. I am a walking memorial to their success.
Camp was a place where abnormal people like me could go and be normal. That first morning, when we got to the Detroit airport, the first stop on my way to camp, I saw all these stranger’s faces, not knowing any of their struggles or accomplishments. At that moment they were just blank faces, nobody talking or doing anything. By the end of the week though, these people and many others would be my best friends. I would know all about their life and they would know all about mine. At camp we would stay up all night laughing with talks of fears and joys, normal kid stuff, some less so. Telling stories about fun in the hospital. Stories about racing my tricycle through the hospital halls. I didn’t know it yet, but these people would become some of the closest friends I have ever had.
When we first arrived, we got off the bus to see the entire camp staff there to welcome us. Everyone made us feel at home, even though we were all so far away. Once we got situated with our cabin, it was a little awkward at first. No one really wanted to talk. Nobody knew each other. But after the first day or so people started opening up. People started sharing stories about their life, some having to do with cancer, some not. By the third day, we all knew each other and were friends. It was great getting to be around people that had gone through the same thing. While I didn’t remember a lot of my treatment, it was still a part of me, and I still felt different from normal kids. But here, I didn’t feel different. Here we could openly talk about cancer, chemotherapy, surgeries and other things, and not feel different. Even the staff understood. Everyone there had been affected by cancer somehow, whether they were a survivor themselves, going through treatment, or if they just knew a friend who had cancer. At camp, you could walk up to any person you don’t know and start talking and form a deep emotional bond. That’s what made camp so great, not just the view or the activities. The people are what makes camp amazing.
I have been going for almost ten years now. Every year is better than the last. I get to see my old friends again, and I get to make new ones. I get to have new, fantastic experiences with some of the greatest people I have ever met. I remember when some, stopped coming. I knew what that meant. But I remember them. They helped me become the person I am today. I am, other survivors are, memorials to those who lost their fight.