Camp Koru Gave Me Back my Long-lost Belly Laugh

Kelly and Tonia, Athletes 4 Cancer's Executive Director, smile for the camera after Kelly finishes her big run.
Kelly and Tonia, Athletes 4 Cancer’s Executive Director, smile for the camera after Kelly finishes her big run.

By: Kelly O’Malley-McKee

When I was declared cancer-free, my worries and fears didn’t magically go away. While my friends and family were celebrating that I was finished with cancer and getting back to ‘regular’ life by working again, I felt more alone than ever.

Gone were the days of hosting epic St. Patty’s Day parties. (I didn’t invite close friends over for dinner anymore.) Gone were the days of laughing out loud with co-workers at the lunch table. (I ate alone at my desk.) Gone were the days of happy hours with friends. (I didn’t even reach out to the amazing people who supported me through my treatment.)

I had endured stage 2B IDC breast cancer at the age of 36: four months of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, dozens of medications, hormone treatment, radioactive scans, uncontrollable pain and lots of side effects.

Those things were behind me, yet still with me. I was dark and miserable and lost and fearful. I didn’t know who the real Kelly was, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to.

These feelings were with me as I entered the lodging facility for Camp Koru Snow in March 2014.

Trying a new sport with a new body was intimidating. I was frustrated. I cried. I wanted to quit many times. But one day, it finally clicked. Nalu, a camp counselor, noticed I was having trouble with my turns on the bunny hill. “Just curl your toes!” she shouted. I tried it, and it worked! From there, it was smooth sailing—at least on the bunny hill.

On my final day, I tried the real run. I was terrified of this uncharted territory. People were zooming by and I was getting pissed off and intimidated. Nalu coached me along the way. At some point, I lost control and started down a black diamond route. “Heels! Heels! Heels!” shouted Nalu, encouraging me to stop.

Nalu pulled me back out of the abyss and back onto the easy run. My legs were tired, and I needed to stop a few times. But the next thing I knew, I was at the bottom of the hill and the feeling of celebratory accomplishment and pride overwhelmed me to the point of tears. “I can’t believe I did it!” I remember crying to Nalu. “Thank you so much. This is an amazing moment.”

After a week with the camp staff and fellow young survivors—supporting each other on the slopes, connecting individually, laughing over meals and sharing in our nightly circle—I found a new family. I discovered strength, hope, confidence and courage I thought was lost. I was even reacquainted with my long-lost belly laugh.

Most importantly, l started to like Kelly again. My Camp Koru experience gave me the push to take the next step in a post-cancer life, and I will be forever grateful to those who gave me this opportunity.

[Editor’s Note: Kelly is fundraising to send another young survivor to Camp Koru through our Alive365! Campaign. Help her here!]

How Cancer Camp Made Me a Better Artist

Written by Bri Sabin

I have been a participant and a volunteer staff for cancer camp, and the experiences all have led to tangible personal growth for me. Much of that growth has been related to my self-confidence and the way I interact with others, but along with that has been my growth as an artist.

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Camp Koru offers an art table, where supplies are made available for open-ended artistic endeavors. It was at that art table I ended a four-year stretch of keeping my lifelong love of art at arm’s length and started painting again. Last fall, I opted out of a traditional career path in order to pursue my love of making art. The following are some of the things I learned from my time so far with Athletes for Cancer that have made my art more daring, more engaging, and more satisfying to make:

The soul speaks many languages, many have no words at all. It’s hard enough for most of us to fully express ourselves with words alone. When you add chemo brain to the mix, there are times it feels nearly impossible to talk about how we feel, what we have been through, what we hope for. Thankfully, there is a plethora of other ways to get it all out. Music, adventure sports, creative high fives, theatre, photography, pantomime,  dance, painting, sand sculptures, and on and on and on. When you put your soul into something, you find you are speaking clearly without having to speak at all.

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Open up and be vulnerable. Let them see your scars. Port scars, shingles scars, surgical scars, all the places your spirit tore and was stitched back together or left to heal on its own over time. Announce when you are scared, when you are frustrated, when you are filled with joy. Push past all your hang-ups, all the boxes you live in, all the ways you guard yourself. Put your story on the table. Tell the gross stories, the strange stories, the bodily function stories, the loss stories, the giddy pleasure stories, the gallows humor stories. Let go of what other people think about your stories. Someone outside your inner circle may need to hear what you have to say. Offer something of yourself to others so you can make room for their stories.

Close your mouth and open your ears and eyes. You have lived and you have a lot to share, but the same is true of the world around you. Turn off your inner monologue, set your own stories aside, and pay attention to the stories being told. Connect with friends, strangers, the pulse of the city, the rhythm of the ocean, the opera of a storm, the whispers of the trees. Really hear what’s being said. Take it in. Ask questions. Turn a conversation into a an interview for “Most Interesting Person in the World Magazine,” with the other party being your cover story. The things you will learn and the connections you will make will be significant.

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Embrace silence, quiet, and pregnant pauses. Prolonged silence can channel new pathways of creative thought; quiet can lead to clarity; pregnant pauses and awkward silence can say so much more than the words not being spoken. All are important to human connection and artistic endeavors, but our own anxieties, eagerness, or misunderstandings about communication can cause us to undervalue such moments. Likewise, the “empty” areas in a piece have as much to say as the places one fills with detail or line or color.

Take breaks. Stretch. Eat a snack, hydrate, and reapply. It’s amazing to paddle out and catch waves over and over and over, and it can be wonderful to sit at the drawing table for nine hours at a time, but you need to be nice to your body or you will get hurt. No matter what you are doing, you will do it better if you stop every once in a while to stretch well, refuel with something healthy, drink lots of water, and put on more sunscreen. Okay, maybe sunscreen isn’t necessary for painting indoors, but it doesn’t hurt to use a stretch break to also sweep eraser crumbs off the desk, walk the dog, or wash the dishes. You will come back to it reinvigorated and ready for more.

Challenge yourself. Push through discomfort. Standing up on that first wave, pushing past the crux on a climb, talking about things you are used to choking down; all of these take strength of will and a little faith in yourself and those around you to get to the next level. Similarly, sticking to what I am already comfortable with artistically tends to yield unsatisfying results. Taking on the challenge of improving my technique or learning a new discipline may be more difficult, but the reward of finally getting the hang of something new is a rush of small victory endorphins and another set of vocabulary with which to communicate. It’s okay to suck. You probably won’t stand up on your first wave, but you can’t get to headstands and tandem rides without trying until you nail it. Every painting won’t be a masterpiece…in fact, maybe none of them will be. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the trying, the little victories, the culmination of hard work and patience that leads to a breakthrough.

Art heals. Enough said.

 

What could be better for healing for a cancer survivor than surfing, music, art?

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Changing Fate partners with Athletes 4 Cancer to put ukuleles in the hands of Camp Koru participants for healing through musical art.

CHNGNF8.org, or “Changing Fate”, is a nonprofit organization whose sole purpose is dedicated to providing cancer survivors and their caregivers free access to the tools they need to communicate what it means to survive, through art. Athletes 4 Cancer inspires life renewal through the healing powers of outdoor adventure in the ocean and the mountains. Together, the two organizations are uniting their gifts of survivor empowerment to impact 60 young lives at Athletes 4 Cancer’s Camp Koru in Maui, Hawaii, starting next week.

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Changing Fate reached out to Athletes 4 Cancer with their 1,000 Ukes of Light campaign, which seeks to put a ukulele in the hands of cancer survivors and their caregivers, as a means to promote wellness, healing, and self-expression. Recognizing that surfing and ukuleles go hand-in-hand, Changing Fate found Athletes 4 Cancer’s Camp Koru Surf & SUP Camp for Cancer Survivors to be the perfect home for ukuleles to help change lives.

Changing Fate donated 30 ukuleles to Athletes 4 Cancer’s Spring camp program, and hopes to donate 30 more to their Fall camp program.

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Tracy E. Thomas, CEO and founder of Changing Fate explains –

“These small, simple, and easy to learn instruments give the user the ability to transform themselves from victim to Survival Artist. Once those in need receive their gift of healing, we reach out to them again by providing quality knowledge, instruction, and guidance in how to play their new instrument, provided by professionals in the field.”

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Thomas is a cancer survivor himself and is lead guitarist and vocalist for the group. Whether drawing, painting, doodling, filming, screaming, pounding or strumming, Changing Fate wants to help survivors make that happen as a means to communicate their story to the world at large.

Athletes 4 Cancer runs six Camp Koru sessions each year for cancer survivors, funded solely by individual, corporate and private donations. Adventures range from surfing and paddling in Hawaii, to skiing, snowboarding and yoga in Oregon. For more information, check out athletes4cancer.org and CHNGNF8.org.

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5 Traits of an Outstanding Volunteer – Happy National Volunteer Appreciation Week

I just learned yesterday that it’s National Volunteer Appreciation Week. There is a week for everything, I know, especially in the cancer realm. But this one doesn’t discriminate — it’s a week for all causes, everywhere, and it’s detrimental to every non-profit organization’s existence.

I’ll be frank here. Working with volunteers is one of the most challenging aspects of my job. It’s also one of the most rewarding. When I experience working with an outstanding volunteer, I do everything I can to encourage them, empower them and never let them go. I pay my volunteers at Athletes 4 Cancer with 2 forms of payment:

  1. Athletes 4 Cancer tee shirts and water bottles — all of which my great volunteers have too many.
  2. Praise & AppreciationFree, and I can never give enough.

With that said, and in celebration of National Volunteer Appreciation Week, I’m sharing my top 5 traits for what makes outstanding volunteers so outstanding.

  1. Passionate enthusiasm – They love the cause, the people, the program, the event. They champion the cause in and out of the office, at events and amongst friends. Then, they harness all that love into doing great work.
  2. Professional – Serving as a volunteer doesn’t equate to slacking. The best volunteers treat their role with pride and professionalism, recognizing the organization is a business and depends on them to help achieve impact.
  3. Make no excuses – They are committed and dependable. Timeliness and follow-through are top priorities to them. When they say they’re going to do something, they do it.
  4. Selfless in their contribution – Outstanding volunteers think less about what they can get from the experience of volunteering and more about what they can contribute. This is a big one!
  5. Mission-driven – Outstanding volunteers understand our mission and the impact we aim to achieve in the world, and are dedicated to being a part of making that happen.

If you want to be an outstanding volunteer, note these five above, then talk to these outstanding Athletes 4 Cancer volunteers below about the work they do. I can’t say enough about these amazing individuals in the time and passion they have given to the work we do. There are many many more I would like to add to this list but it would take me all day. And to all the volunteers who give of themselves, THANK YOU! Social innovation, solutions and systemic change would not happen without you.

Mark Whitehead, Garret Zallen, Jenny Williams, Jon Williams, Kip Wylie, Machelle Dotson, Nikki Hollatz, Jon Price, Terese Roeseler, Richard Hallman, Jen Casto, Sarah Bahn, Rayna Morton,  Brian Wolff, Chris Aguilar, Nina Garkavi, Tamar Melen, Brianne Sabin, and many many more.

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Volunteers and participants at our annual fundraiser, Kiteboarding 4 Cancer

A4C Camp was Type II Fun

Written by Samm Newton

Ever heard of the “types” of fun? It goes like this:

Type I: Fun, fun, fun! “Don’t let it end” kind of fun.
Type II: Not fun in the moment, but upon reflection, you’re glad you did it. It builds character.
Type III: Not fun. Ever.

For me, painting is Type I. Athletes 4 Cancer camp was Type II. And you can guess what type of fun cancer is.

I was 25 and living out my quarter-life crisis on a farm in the middle of nowhere California when the hammer fell. My cancer was a rare, aggressive type of thyroid cancer. It spread to my pancreas, kidney, small intestine, colon; they took all that out. Chemo came later.

It was a support group for young adults with cancer that brought me to to A4C.

A4C camp was truly a type II, character-building experience. In June of 2014, I headed to the A4C snow camp. We had the choice between skiing and snowboarding, and I thought, “I’m not cool. I can’t snowboard,” so skiing it was. Except no one told me everyone else was cool, and I ended up on the slopes not with the other survivors, but with the counselors (no offense, counselors).

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I was by myself a lot of time, feeling like I was missing out on the snowboarding camaraderie. Here I thought I might be the rock, the leader even, for everyone else to lean on. Instead, the experience forced me to examine some of my fears, emotions, and anxieties. Plus, just a lot of mental things that happen to you after cancer.

I was almost angry when I left. I was just in a really strange place.

It wasn’t until much afterwards, when I was really able to sift through everything that happened to me, that I realized what an amazing experience A4C camp was. Type II fun can be powerful.

Since camp, I’ve also met tons of other campers who love A4C and the hope it gives to survivors. I can see what it’s done for the friends I’ve made. Sometimes, I think what I’ve taken away from it is seeing the happiness of those other people. And I believe in it for that reason too.

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As my third anniversary of “no signs of cancer” approaches this April, you can find me painting artwork for A4C. Consider donating to A4C here.

The faces that kissed cancer goodbye

Yesterday was World Cancer Day –  a day we fully embraced here at Athletes 4 Cancer with images of our Camp Koru survivor ambassadors “kissing cancer goodbye.” These beautiful faces have gone through some serious physical and psychological challenges in their young lives. Some are still battling the disease and fighting for their lives. All of them are seeking or have found a new normal after cancer. Life is never the same, but you move forward.

This is the face of cancer. 

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FACES, from left to right, top to bottom : D’Lontae, Virginia; Brianne, Oregon; Jessica, New Jersey; Chelsea, Oregon; Arieana, Boston; Christina, Oregon; Lakin, Oregon; Elise, Ottawa Canada; Rhonda, Maryland.
Athletes for Cancer's Camp Koru survivors kissing cancer goodbye on World Cancer Day
More FACES: Kelley, Oregon; Lauren, New Jersey; Molly, Minnesota; Nina, Seattle; Leah, Oregon; Marnie, Oregon; Michelle, Montana; Michael, Oregon; Kristina, Maryland
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And more FACES: Brianna, Oregon; Olga, Somewhere cold; Trish, Washington DC; Rachael, Pennsylvania; Yvonne, Oregon; Rachael, Oregon; Rhonda, Maryland; Sheryl, Seattle; Steve, Oregon

World Cancer Day was started by the Union for International Cancer Control to promote a positive and proactive approach to the fight against cancer, highlighting that solutions do exist across the continuum of cancer, and that they are within our reach.

I really like their positive and proactive approach to eliminating cancer globally. Their basic points of focus should be something we all strive toward:

  • Choosing healthy lives
  • Delivering early detection
  • Achieving treatment for all
  • Maximizing quality of life

Seems simple enough, right?

Kiss Cancer Goodbye

Feb. 4 is World Cancer Day, a day celebrating a positive and proactive approach to the fight against cancer. Join the conversation and call on others to #KissCancerGoodbye after you read this uplifting message from Alyson Geary, a breast cancer survivor and past Camp Koru participant serving as the Director of Donor Relations for the North York General Foundation. 


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This photo was taken by Bear on the beach in Maui. It represents kissing cancer goodbye because I got out of bed for the first time in many months. After cancer was all done and life was suppose to go back to normal, I got hit with clinical depression, severe anxiety, and post traumatic stress syndrome. I couldn’t function.

Being accepted to Camp Koru forced me to get out of bed and deal. I really started eating for the first time in months at camp, I smiled again, and I came home and fulfilled my lifelong dream by buying a century farm, 150-year-old house. I met an amazing man, my kids are happy again, and I am back to work. I am once again “Aly” or otherwise known as “Khalessi”! Don’t screw with a warrior princess!

Camp Koru and AC4 saved my soul. I will be forever grateful for you being one of my many shovels helping me dig my way out of that dark hole.

The North York General Hospital shared Alyson’s story, proving she’s in the right role at the right time.