We Talk About Cancer, But We Can Still Make You Smile: Testimonials from Camp Koru

By: Tonia Farman

For each one of you who has ever given a dime to Athletes 4 Cancer, thank you. It has transformed lives. Here’s a quick reminder of what you’ve done. 

 I see your donations at work every time a survivor stands up on a surfboard with their post-cancer body; every time a survivor plucks up the courage to share their cancer story around the campfire; every time I read testimonials from Camp Koru alumni.

KORU_TKraftLeboe_AO0W2910-LRReading testimonials from our camps makes me smile, cry (with happiness) and laugh. I hope it will do the same for you. Here are some of the latest testimonials we’ve received from our 2015 camps:

I was feeling stuck in a rut after treatment. Going to Camp Koru tossed me out of that rut into the ocean! The supportive community that was around me helped me to relax deeply and challenge myself! I returned home feeling peaceful, invigorated, and loved. –Star

Everything about Camp Koru is beautiful. Beautiful Maui, the ocean, the surf, and the people who exude a beautiful, peaceful, positive healing environment for the campers. The best thing about Camp Koru is there’s no pressure. No pressure to share stories, until you’re ready, no pressure to surf if your body achy. As an introvert, I felt comfortable in my own skin from the minute I arrived. That doesn’t happen often. The staff is laid back, witty, and caring. The food is out-of-this-world. Life long friends were made, sleeping under the stars, on a beach in Maui. How much better can it get? Camp Koru was a time for me to heal, reflect, and finally move forward from my cancer diagnosis and treatment. –Mino

I met so many incredible cancer survivors and cancer survivors at Camp Koru.  Their friendship is what I value more than anything else. –Scuba

I made some lasting friendships, thrilled to the stunning natural beauty of Maui, got to surf and SUP and try some new things, and was surrounded by love and support and understanding for a full week. It was invigorating and rejuvenating, and it gave me strength to move forward. –Ripley

Koru was the positive force I needed to help me through treatment for triple negative breast cancer. As a surfer, I was crushed to be out of the water over a year and, though I barely had strength to stand up with lymphedema at 5 weeks post-surgery, having the help and support of the Koru Camp 6 Ohana fellow survivors was an essential step. –Koa

IMG_1176 (2)Thank you to all the donations, support, guidance counselors, and all those who helped make this trip become such a life-altering trip. I now have upwards of 20 new friends thanks to this camp. I would do anything for them and welcome them to my home as part of my family. –Renegade

I attended Camp Koru’s surf/SUP camp in Maui. What an amazing experience! It’s been a dream of mine to learn to surf and travel to Hawaii, and I never thought a cancer diagnosis was the thing that was going to bring me there. It was a truly unique experience to be able to live out this dream with other survivors who I was so inspired by. Since having this experience it has impacted my life by gaining strength and inspiration from other survivors to continue to live life to it’s fullest. –Flora

These words are proof that Athletes 4 Cancer is achieving what we set out to do: help survivors reclaim their life after cancer! We’re feeding souls and giving inspiration and healing. It’s truly incredible.

You can support us by making a donation here.

Athletes 4 Cancer brings on Survivorship Program & Outreach Coordinator

mindyMindy Buchanan sent me a text message early one Saturday May morning asking if I still had the position of Program Coordinator still open at Athletes 4 Cancer. I did – it was going on 4 months still unable to find the right person. I wasn’t sure why she was asking, and surely didn’t understand why so early Saturday morning. Well, it just so happened that the grant for Mindy’s position at OHSU Knight Cancer Institute’s Adolescent & Young Adult (AYA) Oncology program was about up and Mindy was exploring her options.

I had worked with Mindy for the past four years while she was at The Knight (Cancer Institute), referring patients to and from each others’ programs. It was a great collaborative relationship — Mindy would send patients to apply to Athletes 4 Cancer’s Camp Koru sessions, and we would refer survivors back to the Knight’s Adolescent & Young Adult survivorship program for ongoing support groups. I knew our participants were in good hands at the Knight, and the Knight’s support of Athletes 4 Cancer’s camps was a huge boost to our program credibility.

Mindy was the wizard behind that AYA Oncology program, with strong support from one of the leading AYA Oncologists in the country, Dr. Brandon Hayes-Lattin, leading Psychosocial Researcher, Dr. Rebecca Block, and AYA Pediatric Oncologist, Dr. Sue Lindemulder. Mindy’s outreach models for academic medical centers have been replicated by several AYA programs around the country. Mindy also has a presence within the national AYA Movement as the chair of the networking sub-committee, and planning committee member for the National Critical Mass: The Young Adult Cancer Alliance Conference.

As you can see…. she’s kind of a big deal.

So when Mindy asked if she could apply for my Program Coordinator position at Athletes 4 Cancer that Saturday morning, I asked back… “When can you start?”

After some formal interviews (or pow-wows over shared visions), I am thrilled to announce the new addition of Mindy Buchanan as Program & Outreach Coordinator for Athletes 4 Cancer.  Mindy’s ten years of program and development experience will serve as a tremendous asset to Athletes 4 Cancer as we move forward to develop innovative programming for underserved areas of survivorship in young adults.

As a native Oregonian, she enjoys running, hiking, whitewater kayaking, reading, and playing with her dog. Mindy also suffers from a serious case wanderlust. If you ask her nicely, she may just tell you about her six hour round trip beer run through the Austrian countryside; singing along to songs from The Sound of Music was required.

If you apply for one of our programs at Athletes 4 Cancer, you most likely will talk to Mindy. Welcome Mindy!

Putting My ‘Old Normal’ to Rest

Samm's latest haircut.
Samm’s latest haircut.

By: Samm Newton

After chemo, I had this conversation frequently with friends:

Friend: “Your hair is so curly.”

Me (In my head): “Yeah, it’s not supposed to be this curly. I fucking hate it! You know, I don’t know how to deal with this. It took me 25 years to learn how to deal with my own hair, and then now I have brand new hair that I don’t know how to deal with!”

It was just this thing that I was kind of angry about.

Because before cancer I was one way and now I am another.

I used to be able to do this and now I can’t.

I used to like certain things that now I don’t.

This new normal isn’t what I want, I want the old normal.

The younger me, before cancer changed my life forever.

My former hair.

My former self.

My former self is idealized by a wig that sits on a high shelf in my bathroom. It is composed of about two feet worth of long, brown, wavy, perfect, beautiful, synthetic hair. Almost two years after my own hair fell out, and with a solid set of new locks growing in, I still haven’t been quite able to part with it. What if I need it again?

So there it sits, startling plumbers, guests, and occasionally, even myself, floating on its faceless styrofoam pedestal. I had picked this specific wig because it most resembled my favorite hairstyle before diagnosis, and when I remember myself in my twenties this is the hair I remember.

But recent revelations have forced me to reevaluate both the person I remember and the one I am now.

Experiences such as Athletes 4 Cancer‘s Camp Koru, where I met other young cancer survivors, helped me realize that they too struggle with reconciling their old and new normals. This has helped me learn that comparing now to then is a roadblock to personal growth after trauma. I’m not the same, and I’m never going to be the same because, yes, cancer changes you. Really though, life changes you. It changes all of us.

Honestly, if I had to choose a wig again it’d probably be different. Shorter, curlier, more like my current hair. I’ve recently noticed that my hair has started to flatten out a bit, and I feel like it’s a sign to start a new chapter after cancer. That chapter begins like this: “I can embrace it. This is the new me. This is my new normal. This is my new life.”

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.

bri 2

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.

bri 4

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.

Processed with Moldiv

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.

 

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).

jackalope&river

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.

samm.ponderosa

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. 

World-Cancer-Day-collage-1
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
World-Cancer-Day-collage-3
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?

All About Hair

Brianna Barrett is one of five Camp Koru ambassadors contributing to the A4C blog sharing her experience about life and cancer.


I refused to shave my head for a preposterously long time. In fact, I refused to shave my hair until after my treatment was over. I was this scrawny, sickly-looking person with creepy long strands of hair over my mostly-bald head. I theorized that it was still enough hair that when I was wearing a beanie or something, it at least looked like I still had some hair (I was probably wrong about this). I often wore a wig, but sometimes wigs are itchy, and you still want to feel like you’re not bald!

Brianna-during-a-California-road-trip-two-months-after-treatment

The day before I was heading to Seattle to see one of my all-time favorite musicians in concert, my friend Ryan (who never saw me without a wig or hat before) insisted on seeing what my head looked like. Then, upon viewing my disturbingly mangy scalp, he marched me into his bathroom and shaved my head himself. Turns out, I looked way better completely bald than weird-creepy-almost bald.

Brianna-on-a-date-shortly-after-her-last-treatmentThe next day at the concert, I still wore my wig as I usually did in public. I’m not sure how it happened, though I suspect it had something to do with the fact that I was right next to the stage, but a group of girls at the show started to pick a fight with me. Alcohol-induced, I guess. They were really rude to me and trying to get me to leave.

I have always regretted that I didn’t pull off my wig for just a second to show them my bald head and freak them out. I could’ve said, “Leave me alone. I just beat cancer like two weeks ago and I’m celebrating.” That would have been awesome.

So if you’re reading this and you have cancer and you’re bald, I recommend using that vacant noggin to put rude strangers in their place as needed.

Brianna-catching-a-wave-in-HawaiiBrianna Barrett is a writer, filmmaker, and artist living in Portland, Oregon. Currently, she is directing a new play, 36 Perfectly Appropriate Mealtime Conversations, for the 2015 Fertile Ground festival and will donate $1 of all ticket sales to support fellow young adults cancer patients and survivors at OHSU. During treatment, Brianna also kept a video journal about her experience.