Monday, April 1, 2013


A cool breeze rifles my hair from the hammock under the vanilla tree just steps from the aqua blue waters of the Pacific ocean off the coast of Maui. A week ago I arrived as a newcomer to this island, and a stranger to the fourteen other cancer survivors who shared this special place with me. Now we, as well as the staff and other teachers we have had the good fortune to interact with this week are ohana – “family” in Hawaiian.

This incredible experience was provided to us through an organization called Athletes for Cancer whose mission is to enrich lives impacted by cancer through the healing power of the elements and the tenacity of the human spirit. They fulfill that mission with surfing, stand up paddle boarding and snowboarding camps for cancer survivors in Hawaii and Hood River, Oregon. Camp Koru is healing in so many ways. At the outset, just the connection with the incredible beauty of this place and its natural wonders: the water, fragrant flowering plants and the towering volcanic peaks provide a sense of peace not readily available in the fast-pace of the mainland.

For some, just being in the ocean was a new experience that required them to overcome a fear of the unknown. For others, sharing their story for the first time with other survivors was an opportunity to connect with those who have been there. Putting words to an experience that engenders such turbulent emotions is not always easy, but definitely feels safer with someone who has walked a mile in your shoes. With our scars, buckets of meds and all their assorted side effects, sometimes unusual diets, prosthetic and missing parts, not to mention the emotional impacts of facing your own mortality, we can sometimes feel like misfits among the general population. But here, we are just like everyone else, or even realize perhaps that we didn’t have it so bad, after all.

As it is National Young Adult Cancer Awareness Week (April 1-7) it is appropriate to reflect on how far we've come. Thirty, or even twenty, years ago, there were no services for young adults with cancer, and probably most oncologists wouldn't even recognize that young adults got cancer at all. Now, there are a number of programs, camps and other services for those of us diagnosed between the ages of 18 and 40.

The natural world has always been healing for me, the water especially. Just hearing the waves lapping against the shore as I drifted to sleep at night soothed my soul. Returning to camp each evening after surfing and paddling all morning and hiking or exploring coastal towns in the afternoon with aching muscles and a kind of satisfying weariness made sleep welcome and easy despite less than luxurious, though completely adequate, accommodations. The food, however, was world-class. As someone with a really healthy diet, I always give a fairly significant amount of thought to what and where I’m going to eat. It was so great to have incredible, gluten-free, veggie-laden meals with vegan options prepared for us each day by an amazing chef who volunteers his services for the camps.

Excited to paddle an outrigger canoe, I had no idea how much the blessing and Hawaiian ceremony conducted by a native before and after our paddle would impact me. With tears streaming down my face, I listened to the prayers in wonder even though I didn’t fully understand their meaning. Kimokeo’s presence alone was so powerful, and his chants, songs and blessings filled me with hope and peace.

I came to Hawaii to rest, and to learn to trust. We were each tasked with choosing a power name for ourselves during camp, and I choose Kale`le`, which means “to have faith” in Hawaiian. At the beginning of the year, I left my job of five years with a nonprofit I founded in order to serve single cancer survivors. Even though I have accepted the fact that I am a “starter,” it is still scary to take the risk to start something new, again. A six-month consulting gig ends in June, and I don’t know where my income will come from after that or how much it will be or what my work will look like.

An intuitive told me once that I was like a dolphin (an animal I have strongly identified with) confident that there would always be more fish. I haven’t quite been able to embrace that philosophy yet as fear of having enough money and being able to pay for my health insurance is ever present. Coupled with that is the fact that I am currently in the middle of a recurrence of ovarian cancer with six masses in my abdomen that aren’t causing any problems yet, but could at any time, requiring surgery. It definitely requires all my trust and faith that things will work out, that I will land on my feet, that I will have the opportunity to make a difference and serve single survivors while supporting myself in the process.