Kids at this summer camp go in heartbroken but come out stronger than ever.

Liz Eddy was only 9 years old when she lost her father to cancer, but it wasn't until she reached college that she finally let herself grieve.

"I pretty much ignored it completely and tried to go back to normal life," said Eddy. "There isn't a simple recipe for grief."

Over time, of course, grief snuck up on her, and she had to face it. That's when she heard about Experience Camps — weeklong not-for-profit summer camps designed to help kids cope with the death of a loved one, free of charge.


Experience Camps campers with dog mascot. All photos courtesy of Experience Camps.

The camps were started back in 2009 by Sara Deren, whose husband ran Camp Manitou, a boys' camp in Maine. That first summer they had 27 campers, and now they have almost 400 in three different locations across the country.

Eddy volunteered to be a counselor at Experience Camps back in 2013, and she now serves on the camp's board of directors. Like 90% of the campers, she simply can't stay away.

Experience Camps give all the kids (and counselors) the chance to deal with their emotions and grief in their own time, in their own way, while surrounded by other people who truly "get it."

"Most of the kids they know haven't had someone close to them die, and it makes them feel different and alone," wrote Deren in an email. "Being at a camp like this shows them that they are not alone, gives them an opportunity to talk about their person who died, and release some of the weight they carry around with them."

Campers hanging out.

In everyday life, there's often a lot of pressure to keep grief hidden, Eddy notes, even when around family members who are experiencing it too. "[The campers] don’t want their families to hurt anymore," Eddy explained.

At Experience Camps — where there's an underlying understanding that everyone is struggling with similar feelings day-to-day — that pressure seems to melt away.

When the campers aren't working through their grief, it's also just a great camp filled with summer activities and lifelong friendships.

Human pyramids are always fun.

And there's nothing better than bouncy water toys.

One of the boys camps during College League (like color war).

Anyone who's been to camp knows how quickly bonds can form there. Whether kids are doing mundane things, like brushing their teeth, or exciting things, like learning to water ski, camp friends become their second family. For kids who've experienced a great personal loss, their camp family is often the only group of people with whom they feel comfortable being completely vulnerable.

Eddy recalled one instance were she saw a bunch of boys having a great time on stand-up paddleboards. They told her later that the excursion prompted them to go back to their bunks and show each other pictures of the family members they lost over laughter and tears. The boys ended up a whole lot closer for it.

The camps emphasize that the best way to cope with loss is often through finding a balance between grief and joy.

"It's OK to grieve for someone and still find happiness in life," Deren wrote over email.

The camp offers sharing circles where campers can talk openly about their feelings with clinicians and share memories of lost loved ones, but that's not the only place for "breakthrough moments." These moments are just as likely to occur during a rousing basketball game or while walking through a field after a bonfire.

"You just don’t know when [grief is] going to come out, but the most beautiful thing is everyone is open and aware and ready to listen,” said Eddy.

Camper and counselor on luau night.

One night, Eddy was walking back to her bunk after the final bonfire of the week — a time when many kids finally open up — with a 9-year-old girl who had been closed off most of the week ... until that very moment.

"She looks up at me and says, 'I didn’t cry,'" Eddy recalled. "I started to go into mom mode saying, 'No. it’s okay! You don’t have to cry. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel anything!' And she stopped me and said, 'No, but you don’t understand. I feel her. I feel my mom in my heart.' And we both immediately just start crying in the middle of this field."

At the end of the summer, campers leave Experience with the tools they need to continue working through their feelings as they grow into adulthood and to help others do the same.

Remembrance stones for people who've passed.

Campers learn there's no one magic way to get through grief, that everyone processes it in their own unique way, and that the feelings that go along with it are going to change over time. They leave knowing there will be great days and terrible days, but that they've got a support system that will always be there for them when they need it most.

It comes down to a story the counselors tell the campers about an invisible string: Even though they can't see it, this string ties all the campers and counselors of Experience together and acts as a constant reminder they are never alone.

Check out a video on Experience Camps here:

This article originally appeared on August 27, 2015

Oh, society! We have such a complicated relationship with relationships.

It starts early, with the movies we are plopped in front of as toddlers.

Keep Reading Show less

This article originally appeared on August 27, 2015

Oh, society! We have such a complicated relationship with relationships.

It starts early, with the movies we are plopped in front of as toddlers.

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."