“I can’t. Fluffy is a vegetarian,” S. says vehemently when I wonder whether she is going to get sausages at breakfast. She looks me sternly in the eye to make sure I understand. “Of course,” I say, nodding, giving Fluffy’s patchy fur a stroke.
S., who is about 10 years old (and whose name is abbreviated for anonymity), gives me a nod, apparently satisfied that I am now up to date on Fluffy’s dietary restrictions. She smiles to herself as she takes Fluffy, the small stuffed Dalmatian dog puppet, off her hand, and places her (Fluffy is a female, I have been informed) lovingly on the table. S. begins to eat her potatoes and eggs happily. A vegetarian breakfast, fit for a vegetarian Fluffy and her vegetarian person.
Cheerful voices ring through the dining hall as campers and counselors alike settle into their seats. There is a certain energy here, and it is an energy I have never felt before. It is bright, crackling with life, almost tangible, and more vibrant than anything I’ve ever known.
I cannot name it at the time, but I will realize by the end of the week that what I feel is the spirit of a community of cancer survivors, of all ages, communing in one place for one week of wholesome, good, fun.
That was in the summer of 2019, my first year as a volunteer at the only summer camp in Hawai‘i for childhood cancer survivors ages 7 to 17. The campers come back year after year, and when they age out, they continue to come back as counselors, staff, and leaders. Established in the 1980s, it is essentially a summer program for cancer survivors run by cancer survivors. Camp is a near-perfect week, complete with sunshine, the beach and pool, a zipline through the trees, water balloon ambushes, arts and crafts, food fights, s’mores, a dance complete with disco ball and DJ, late-night campfires, and eating all the junk food you can fit into your mouth.
I am not a cancer survivor myself, but humbly label myself a friend and ally of the community. The week I spent volunteering at this camp, meeting so many wonderful people from all walks of life with unique experiences with childhood cancer, was one of the best and most enriching I’ve ever had.
There is something absolutely and uniquely invigorating about this place, and you can tell everyone feels it, too – it is a place for cancer survivors to be with others who truly relate to them, where they do not have to feel alienated or different because of their diagnosis. Worries and fears seem to slip away completely for one whole week. The only goal of the week is to simply…be. To exist, and to exist joyfully, taking comfort in the midst of friends, family, and friends who have become family. In a word, it feels like magic.
Although I cannot speak to what it is like to have cancer, I have learned from their experiences what an immense mountain it is to climb, to say the least, especially at such a young age. It breaks my heart to consider how much pain, fear, anxiety, isolation, and grief they, and so many like them, have had to endure thus far in their very young lives. It is an ordeal most people may not ever encounter, let alone at such a young age.
Fast forward one year later, to June 2020, and I am starting an internship with the cancer research center associated with my university. I am still here now, almost a whole year later in April 2021, which brings me full circle to where I am today, writing this story. My experience with cancer survivors largely informed my decision and drive to seek out a position at this research center. My work here has enriched my perspective on cancer survivorship, as well as given me a different way to interface with the survivor community, through research.
As a research assistant here, I work on a project looking to improve quality of life and well-being in the general cancer survivor population. From volunteering at the summer camp, I have seen firsthand how important it is for survivors to maintain a quality of life that is fulfilling to them, which is why this project has been resonant with me personally. I have learned that dealing with the psychological and emotional burden of diagnosis and treatment, as well as learning to cope with all the life that inevitably comes after it, is not a simple nor straightforward process.
In addition, in September 2020, I shaved my head completely bald in a fundraiser for an organization that funds childhood cancer research. I received immense support from the lovely people at my cancer summer camp, many of whom also gave me all kinds of great tips on how to take care of my newly bald head (lots of sunscreen, they said), as well as friends and family. It was neat to see yet another side of cancer survivorship – fundraising and advocacy – and hear the stories of others with their own unique stories of cancer.
I feel that it is a privilege to have had such involvement with the cancer survivor community in many different ways – through volunteering, advocacy, and most recently, research. It has become increasingly apparent to me that the beauty of this community lies in the fact that it is so rich, diverse, and dynamic. I am constantly in awe of the way cancer survivors support, validate, empathize with, and understand one another in a way non-survivors will never be able to. I may never be able to fully comprehend what the cancer experience is like without having gone through it, but what I can say is that I will always do my best to ensure that I am an ally to survivors in any way possible, to the best of my ability – even if it means making sure that not a single sausage finds its way to Fluffy’s plate, ever.
By Celine Arnobit