Where Kids Can Be Kids… And Cancer Takes a Back Seat

Cancer camps for kids provide fun and camaraderie for children facing down a cancer diagnosis.

By Dana Rowett

As summer approaches, kids around the country find themselves fantasizing about the camaraderie and fun that images of summer camp evoke: campfire circles and dining hall songs; river rafting and mountain biking; arts and crafts and drama skits; horseback riding and canoeing. In the past, a cancer diagnosis might mean an end to a child’s dream of attending summer camp. Boy, have things changed.

Research supports the positive emotional, physical and spiritual benefits of camps and retreats for cancer patients. When patients are able to express themselves in an open and supportive environment like a cancer retreat, they often learn problem-solving skills that reduce stress and improve their quality of life. The advocacy community has answered the call to create these supportive environments for kids with an amazing variety of camps and a generous outpouring of funds that make summer camp a dream come true for many children facing some of their darkest days.

The result for kids who have confronted cancer: An almost unlimited choice in activities and locations for camps or retreats in any season of the year in any part of the country. The activities offered are incredible and the opportunity to share experiences with people who have gone through similar trials is unique. Most importantly, say those who have been there, is the opportunity they provide kids to actually be able to forget about having cancer for a while.

Who can attend cancer camps and retreats?

Anyone who has ever been diagnosed with cancer can attend a cancer camp or retreat. Participants might be years into remission or be actively battling cancer and qualify to attend. Each applicant’s specific medical situation is evaluated by the camps’ staff, and, ultimately, each camp’s medical director will have the final say as to who they feel can participate—based on the applicant’s medical needs and the stage of their illness. Camp staffers want all patients who want to attend camp to be able to make the trip…they just want to be sure that they will be able to enjoy it.

What kinds of cancer camps and retreats are available?

The variety is unlimited. Camps and retreats may offer many activities or focus on one thing, like learning to ride a horse. They are open year-round in many locations throughout the country, and they offer programs that might span a weekend or a week. Some camps and retreats are geared toward specific age groups, types of cancer or different activities. The really good news is that skillful fundraising and generous donations make it possible for most of the camps and retreats to offer their programs free of charge to cancer survivors and their families.

In choosing a camp or retreat, you might base your decision on geography—selecting a camp that is easy to reach from your home—or on a specific activity or support service offered. You can decide which program is right for you. The beauty is that there is now such variety available, that the chances are good that you will be able to find a camp that suits all of your needs.

What activities are available at camps and retreats?

Children will experience many of the same activities that they would at a typical summer camp. They might learn archery or horsemanship, sail, water ski, hike, bike, raft rapids or fish. They might come home knowing how to play an instrument, act in a play or create an artistic masterpiece. Winter camps and retreats offer activities like snow skiing, snowmobiling, indoor climbing instruction and computer skills. All of these offerings can make camp a truly remarkable place for children, especially when cancer has consumed so much of their lives.

In whichever camp or retreat appeals to their particular situation, participants can choose their level of participation in each event—depending on their specific physical condition and how much the activity appeals to them. In every case, patients should be sure to speak with their physician about the planned retreat.

What are the benefits for children who attend?

Children with cancer often miss out on regular childhood activities, due to time spent in treatment and as a result of the symptoms of their illness. Camp is an opportunity for these kids to participate in regular childhood activities. And, best of all, they can take part in these activities without the common stares or questions from other kids who don’t understand what they’re going through.

Meg Omel, manager at Camp Rainbow Gold, located near Sun Valley, Idaho, says that children who attend cancer camps get to enter a “Magical Bubble.” Camp is a time away from cancer, Omel explains. “A child has a chance to just be a normal kid and for [their lives] not to be all about cancer.”

Omel says that after the first day or two, when the children become comfortable, their wigs come off, as they feel free to expose their bald heads. They feel safe, knowing that the other children at camp won’t stare or react¾they’ve usually been through treatment themselves, and the baldness of their fellow campers is nothing unique, offering instead another shared experience that bonds the group.

Another meaningful benefit of the cancer camp experience results from the friendships that develop between kids from across the country whose common experiences, fears and hopes bring them together. Campers also learn independence and self-confidence by participating in activities on their own and making decisions for themselves. Kids are able to try new things they might not have tried otherwise, in a safe and nurturing environment.

What makes cancer camps or retreats different?

Basically, the answer is “nothing.” That’s the whole point. Nothing is different except that cancer camps have a “medical shack” on the grounds and regular camps may just have a first aid kit available. Many physicians, nurses and other health care providers generously volunteer their time at cancer camps and retreats. If you are currently undergoing treatment, your oncologist or other health professional may speak directly with the camp’s Medical Director about your treatment. The application to attend camp or retreat will seek specific information about your health so that you can keep receiving the best treatment while you’re having fun at camp.

Most children and adults only make a brief stop at the medical shack to receive their daily treatment. Then it’s off to the next camp activity. You see, it’s not about cancer while you’re at the retreat or camp…it’s about adventure, fun and new friends. It’s about the Magical Bubble.

For more information about cancer camps and retreats for children, adults, caregivers and siblings, please see the listing included here.

“It is not only the kids whose lives are changed at the camp. The kids who come here have an insight that, because of what they have been through, they’re willing to share. We all leave this camp different.”

Camp Counselor, Camp Rainbow Gold

For more information please visit www.camprainbowgold.org.