June 5 marks National Cancer Survivors Day, celebrated on the first Sunday in June every year. To mark the occasion, we wanted to share the following blog post by our beloved Head Camp Counselor Victoria Valencia, aka “Scout”! Thank you to Victoria for sharing her story with us as a great firsthand example of how important summer camp can be for children affected by childhood cancer!
Home is a lot of places to me. It’s the house I spent my childhood in in San Diego, long since sold. It is the college where I spent four years of undergrad in Salt Lake City, Utah. And as a pediatric cancer survivor, camp is home. For eight wonderful years I spent a week each summer as a camper at Camp Reach for the Sky in southern California.
I never attended camp while I was on treatment, but discovered camp a few years later during a checkup at the hospital. What I discovered that first summer was better than Disneyland.
It was a magical place where I could meet kids like me. It was a magical place where my scars didn’t matter. My cancer treatment might have been over, but my nine inch long, four inch wide skin graft scar was always there. My weakness on my left side was still with me. The feeling in parts of my leg was forever gone.
Suddenly I was surrounded with kids my age who also had scars — some large, some small, some new, and others old. Maybe not scars like mine. But together, we weren’t the weird, different kids at school — we were the majority. The effects of my cancer, even years later, always made me feel different. But for one week, I got to be normal. I was able to form bonds with kids like me, kids who understood. Yes, my treatment was over, but I was always going to be a cancer kid. And these kids got it. They were cancer kids too.
Camp gave me a peer group. It gave me a network to connect with. We played games, had a camp dance and got to swim. To other kids swimming may seem like an average summer activity, but as a child who was very self-conscious about my body and its scars, being able to swim freely was a revelation. With counselors who supported me. With kids who wouldn’t judge. So Camp was fun, but it was also the support network I needed even after my treatment was over.
My cabin mates and I stayed up late into the night chatting — some nights about Backstreet Boys, some nights swapping stories about our hospital visits. Treatment can be isolating. Even after the fact, to know that other kids were having similar experiences was important to me in understanding I was not alone and in understanding I was not strange for being different.
After that first week of camp, I was hooked and came back year after year, long after my left-side weakness had gone and my balance had recovered, at least to the best it was going to be. Why keep going to “cancer camp” long after I had healed? Because camp became my home. Because those counselors and campers became my family and extended support system, even to this day. Because the relationships I had formed there throughout the years made me a stronger person. It took a while for me to become completely comfortable with the scars and effects from my treatment. But camp helped me get there. Camp was a safe, loving, and encouraging space where I could learn to grow, and learn to love and accept myself.
Camp became, and remains to this day, even so many years later as a counselor, my respite from the rest of the world. Just like after a long day at work or school, we long to come home to our comfort zone where we are loved. That is camp for me. Camp is love. Camp is support. Camp is home.
If you know a childhood cancer survivor who could benefit from participating in camp in New England, Camp Casco is still accepting camper applications for our upcoming camp session. Find out more here!