On August 31, 2004, our family was changed forever. Our youngest daughter, Kristen Hope, then 19 months old, was diagnosed with Leukemia —cancer of the blood. That day we embarked on a journey that has taken us places we never would have imagined, and sometimes pray to forget. Childhood cancer is one of life’s cruellest tragedies, innocence is stripped away, families are thrown into turmoil, siblings are devastated, finances are uncertain, and life will never be the same again.
Outsiders reacted differently to the discovery of Kristen’s cancer: some rushed across the street to be a part of the drama….”Your daughter has cancer?” amid curious stares; some looked the other way…uncertain or unwilling to get involved; worse yet the standoffish “She’ll be okay” without concern, not realizing that we were living out a parent’s worst nightmare.
With Kristen’s diagnosis we entered a new world; where conversations of treatment time, prognosis, and blood counts were and are standard. This world has a language all of it’s own, and is not understood until lived by another. We have watched families wait for their children to die, and cried with them, and for them, as our darkest fears are lived out in the lives of others.
In one of our stays at Sick Kids, Mark spoke with a hospital volunteer, he spoke of Camp Trillium, where he had worked the previous summer. We began to read up on the Camp, and were intrigued by what we read. This was a place where our whole family could go, and spend some time away together in the summer.
We learned that Camp Trillium runs a Youth Group program in the fall- spring. We signed Alex (8) Jamie (9) and Spencer (12) up for youth group. Once a month, the camp runs an activity, at no cost, for cancer patients and their siblings. The kids had a great time at the couple of events they attended.
When the summer registration packages came out, we decided to try to attend a Family Camp at Rainbow Lake. We also signed the 3 older kids up for a 1-week residential camp at Garrett’s Island. None of us were quite sure what to expect as we pulled up to the gate. We were met by a bunch of VERY enthusiastic young people…. a race into camp, full of pit stops and craziness.
We were assigned 4 ‘special friends’, one for each child. These young adults were amazing, they went beyond what we expected to make us feel at home, and to look after our kids. The camp facilities were wonderful, the staff unbelievable, and our experience was unforgettable. Mark and I were able to spend time together, in an environment where our children were safe and well taken care of. Our kids had the opportunity to experience activities that they had never done before. In that one-week, we met new families whose life experience now paralleled our own. Some had kids off treatment, some on treatment, and sadly we met families whose children had not won their fight against cancer, but each of us had something to give and teach the other.
We were not certain how the kids would react to the camp, how much fun they would have. Alex and Jamie cried for ½ hour as we drove away, Spencer at 12 said “That was an experience of a lifetime”, and Kristen a 2.5 year old still remembers her ‘best Holly’, and cried to see her (Holly was her special friend). Mark and I had a week where we were “normal”, and that in and of itself was priceless. We had the opportunity to meet many wonderful, kind and selfless young adults, many of whom have survived cancer themselves, or experienced childhood cancer as a sibling. Two of our ‘special friends’ had survived the same type of cancer that Kristen is fighting; this gave us hope and encouragement.
The kids counted down the weeks until their time at Garrett’s Island for their 1-week camp without us. They were excited to go again, and made wonderful friends. Once again, Alex and Jamie’s tears to leave their ‘special friends’ were a testimony to the great job that is done at camp. One of the first things the kids asked was if next year they could go away for the 12-day camp.
The kids have all enjoyed camp over the past 8 years. It is still a highlight of our summer, and we are excited to be able to attend camp. Each year we are encouraged, and try to encourage other families dealing with childhood cancer.
The summer of 2012, brought me another VERY special memory. We joined a few families for a small campfire and s’mores, there was a child there – a brain tumour survivor, and sometimes the long term effects are great with brain tumour survivors. He was difficult to understand, but I watched my son leave with him, and later watched from a distance as Alex interacted with this boy, listened intently, and played basketball with him. Camp has provided many learning opportunities for our family, especially the siblings who thankfully didn’t experience much of Kristen’s hospital life. Camp has enriched their lives beyond what I can measure; they have experienced growth as individuals that I could never put into words.
Camp Trillium is a wonderful place, amid a terrible circumstance. We and many other families have benefited from this camp experience. The option for whole families and/or siblings to enjoy the camp experience is wonderful. Childhood cancer destroys so many faucets of your life; camp gave some of that back. We are grateful for the opportunity to attend Camp Trillium; we have already begun to plan for next year. I don’t think that I can fully explain the effect that going to camp had on our family, but as the saying goes “Until there is a cure, there’s camp”.