Personal statement: Camping against cancer

Monday, September 18, 2017 - 8:58pm


Courtesy of Camp Kesem at the University of Michigan


I was given the name Annaka in 1998 in a hospital in Jackson, Mich. In Palmer Commons 19 years later, I was renamed, surrounded by 100 of my tie-dye-clad best friends. To the question “What is your favorite childhood movie?” I responded with “Monsters, Inc.” As ideas were shouted at me, I zeroed in on a suggestion from the crowd: Roz. In that moment, I stepped foot into something that would fill me with joy and drastically alter the way I think about the career in oncology that I am pursuing.

The personal vendetta I hold against cancer extends far prior to my name change. It began when I saw my grandmother’s hair begin to thin for the first time, falling out in chunks until she finally decided to shave it off and put the scarves in her closet to a new use. It deepened as I later watched the fat slip from her bones, her body becoming skeletal and so delicate that even hugging her is now a task to be completed with great care. It turned into an obsession when she became too tired to lift her beloved paints to the blank canvases for which she’d planned scenes of lazy days in Ypsilanti and still-lifes of her childhood in Escanaba.

I made enemies of the cancerous cells within her; the woman whose impact on my life can conservatively be referred to as that of a third parent. A career as an oncologist became a goal to eclipse all others. Nights were spent reading articles, watching documentaries and googling unknown terms in an effort to better understand the thing I hated so much. Write-ups about immunotherapy and clinical trials dominate the favorites bar on my laptop. Dreams of patients in complete remission dance through my head when I sleep.

Camp Kesem allowed me to confront illness from a different perspective. Rather than focusing on only the disease, Kesem fights to weaken the rippling effects that cancer has on loved ones of those diagnosed. Camp Kesem is an organization, staffed by college students, that provides a free week of summer camp to children with a parent affected by cancer.

We strive to give our campers respite from holidays spent in hospitals, talk of treatment plans and nights spent worrying about their parent’s health. This support extends throughout the rest of the year as well — counselors attend important events, send birthday cards and even host camper-counselor reunions to keep in touch with our campers (and, admittedly, satiate our own camp withdrawal). Before attending camp, I saw cancer as a single entity — spots upon the scans of people’s bones, breasts and lungs to be attacked with chemotherapy and radiation. I viewed the affliction as one-dimensional, not taking into consideration the children acting as caregivers to their own parents by completing household chores, dispensing medications, cooking meals and looking over their younger siblings. That quickly changed when I met my campers.

Within minutes of meeting them, I knew that this camp meant more to its campers than I could have imagined. My girls entered our cabin with huge smiles on their faces, running excitedly into the arms of old friends and introducing themselves to campers they’d never met before. They talked about memories of camps past and eagerly wondered about the memories that would be made this year. Under this year’s theme, “The Wonderful World of Kesem,” the University of Michigan’s chapter of Camp Kesem provided 260 campers with activities inspired by superheroes, Harry Potter, pirates and Disney movies, as well as more traditional camp pastimes, like canoeing, arts and crafts, swimming and (my personal favorite) frog hunting.

I felt goosebumps dot my arms as children as young as 6-year-olds bravely spoke about their experiences with cancer, exhibiting more poise and clarity than I possess as an adult. I laughed as my fellow counselor Maple waded waist-deep into a swamp so a camper could catch a frog on his birthday. I sang and danced to songs about jellyfish, bananas and burritos. I cried when a camper told me she liked spending time with me because I reminded her of her deceased father.

Camp is a place where children who feel alone in their struggles can create lifelong bonds with other kids who share many of the same experiences, and with counselors who truly care about them. The fun we have and the connections we create allow our campers to take a week to just be kids and forget about the troubles and responsibilities that affect them at home.

Additionally, Kesem has allowed me to forge friendships with people whom I would never have otherwise. My friends can be found marching with the band at football games, hitting the lanes with the club bowling team, playing bass in rock ‘n’ roll bands, beginning careers as teachers in places as far away as Austria and working in several of the University’s many research labs. Counselors ate ghost peppers, posted embarrassing pictures of themselves and bleached their hair to raise money for Kesem. I had friends attend funerals, make blankets and attend doctors appointments for campers going through hard times. These people have shown me levels of love and compassion that I would never have known without Kesem, and have also felt the transformative power of camp reverberate through their lives.

When people ask about my favorite part of attending the University, I quickly jump to stories of kids dumping buckets of water on their unsuspecting counselors. I run at the opportunity to tell about the dreamcatcher that a 6-year-old camper made for me and delivered to me at lunch. I tear up every time I try to articulate the magic that breaks through the air when a shy child opens up for the first time.

Years from now, when I’m (hopefully) practicing as an oncologist, I’ll look back on these days and know that I will not be doing my job to the best of my ability if I am not offering support to the families of my patients. I will do everything I can to make the treatment process understandable, provide access to information about counseling services and, most importantly, let them know that their feelings and emotions are being considered throughout their loved ones’ battles. As future Dr. Saari, I will do my best to offer the highest level of care possible to my patients. As Roz, I will make sure that those closest to my patients will never feel alone.