When thinking of a cancer support group, many would picture a group sitting in a circle, taking turns telling their stories. The purpose of any support group is for people who are in the same situation to get together and share their coping strategies in an effort to not feel alone.
One cancer support group is taking it a step further and changing lives in the process.
In 2004, Maple Ski Ridge co-manager Karen Doyle’s life took an unexpected turn. At the age of 39, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Right away, she began looking for groups that could help her get through this challenging and stressful time in her life.
“I was looking for different outlets. I had tried groups at the hospitals and things like that and found them to be very depressing, and just walked away from those getting absolutely nothing and feeling worse than when I walked in,” Doyle said.
One day, Doyle was browsing the Susan G. Komen website and happened to see a link for Camp Braveheart, an oncology camp for women.
“It mentioned horseback riding and whitewater rafting,” she said. “Not just, sit down with me and cry.”
On the last day of Doyle’s radiation treatment, she got on the bus and headed to Camp Braveheart.
“It was scary, you don’t know anyone, you are going through this tremendous part of your life, and you get on a bus with a bunch of women,” Doyle said.
But she said it was the best thing she has ever done.
Camp Braveheart offers women fighting cancer a variety of different weekend retreats, such as rafting down a river, relaxing on a beach or tackling high ropes. Doyle’s first experience was on one of the less physically challenging retreats.
“I felt like I wasn’t alone. For the first time, I felt like I could talk to people. It wasn’t with pity that they were looking at me. They were truly understanding, encouraging and supportive,” Doyle said. “You could talk to them about anything … how medication worked to hair loss, makeup, lack of sex life or too much of a sex life, or how family reacts to you differently. They understood that.”
Doyle explains that even with a supportive family, “your family still treats you differently, and they get that, they just get it.”
The camp is open to all women facing the diagnosis of any type of cancer, not just breast cancer, and can be as physically challenging or as soothing as each woman chooses.
“You can make the weekend as busy or challenging as you want,” said Eva Simpson, a staff member at Camp Braveheart. “It’s unbelievable the strength that the women undergo and overcome fears.”
Simpson said that through the exercise activities, as well as wellness education and social interaction, the organization helps to increase self-esteem and confidence, in addition to helping address the fears that women face during and after treatment.
“We have women who are currently in treatment, women coming out of treatment that attend, and we also have campers that are survivors 10, 15, 20 years out,” Simpson said. “It really gives it a powerful essence for those women to bond with.”
Camp Braveheart was started 13 years ago when three women, all newly diagnosed with cancer, met at a similar breast cancer support group just outside of Rochester.
“Just being away from it all and with folks dealing with the same stuff was very healing and very positive,” said Karen Haag, one of the three co-founders of Camp Braveheart. “That fellowship was a real powerful experience for us.”
Haag said they wanted that same experience to be available to women in the Capital District.
“We didn’t want the retreats to be ‘cancerish.’ We didn’t want them to be clinical or cold. We wanted them to be full of love and laughter and about support, friendship, stretching our limits, finding reserves of strength and courage that maybe they didn’t know they had before” Haag said.
Each year, close to 500 cancer survivors attend the Camp Braveheart retreats, which are offered from May to October in Lake Luzerne, Shelter Island and The Pocono Mountains.
Sherry Huzar, a Camp Braveheart staff member, said it’s not just about challenging yourself on the high ropes or horseback riding.
“The All About Me weekend in August is very pampering,” she said.
Campers do need permission from their doctors to attend, and Simpson said an oncology nurse is always at each campsite if needed.
Doyle said the experience was a lifesaver for her.
“Just ask my family what I got out of it. They said I came alive. I was talking nonstop about it. The women were inspiring. It makes you sit back and say, what I went through is nothing compared to what they went through, and yet they are still out there living full lives, “ Doyle said. “There is life after cancer.”
Huzar said the goal is that the women “walk away with a feeling that they can do anything they want, they are not limited and that they have a whole new family. It’s a sisterhood.”
Help and have fun
When Karen Doyle and her sister, Kate Michener, the Special Event Coordinator at Maple Ski Ridge in Mariaville, were contemplating which organization to support with this year’s Fall Festival and Car and Tractor Show, it didn’t take them long to settle on Camp Braveheart.
“There are so many organi-zations out there fighting for the cure, and that is so important, but (this is) a place where women can go to be together and share their stories,” Michener said. “Karen came back reenergized and she made some fantastic friends that she stays in touch with and continue to be a part of their life.”
This is the second year Maple Ski Ridge will support the organization.
“Not everyone can afford to go, so when we choose to donate, that is one of our favorites because of the good work they do for survivors” Michener said.
The 6th annual Maple Ski Ridge Fall Festival, Craft, Car and Tractor Show will feature more than 40 local crafters, the car, truck and tractor show, hay maze, wagon rides, chairlift rides, tractor pull, pie eating contest, a cupcake bakeoff, a family 3K run, music and food.
“We hope that people bring their blankets and just plan on staying the day,” Michener said.
Doyle said she has had a full recovery and is doing very well.
“It’s been nine years. I just go see my doc once a year now,” she said.
Doyle said although it has been a number of years since she has attended a retreat, she can always count on her Braveheart friends.
“If I called and said ‘I need to have coffee,’ they would be right here near me. I’m a Braveheart, and that’s what kind of people they are. They will support you through anything,” she said. “The doctor saved my body, it was Bravehearts that saved my life, soul and spirit.”
Maple Ski Ridge’s Fall Festival will take place Saturday, Oct. 12, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the ski area at 2725 Mariaville Road in Schenectady.
For more information about the festival, visit mapleskiridge.com, and for more information about Camp Bravehearts, visit www.braveheartscamp.org.