A Montana escape for cancer survivors

Welcoming entrance to a magical place

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since I first attended a conference for young adult cancer survivors that changed my life. Twenty years since I first saw and fell in love with the mountains of Montana. Twenty years since I passed under the sign that welcomed me to the magical place called Camp Māk-A-Dream.

Nestled in the Bitterroot Mountains, there is a magical, inviting place called Camp Māk-A-Dream. It’s not like other ordinary places; it’s rather a very wonderful camp. The organization’s mission is to empower “survivors and their families to live with and beyond cancer through life-changing Montana experiences where they strengthen life skills, gain resilience and develop lasting relationships.” Camp Māk-A-Dream is cost-free, providing medically supervised, inclusive activities for individuals affected by cancer.

I’m proud and excited that the programs have expanded over the years – there are programs for children, teens, young adults, women, siblings and family.

The camp itself sits on rolling land, surrounded by mountains. There are cabins, a handicap-accessible pool, archery range, ropes course, miniature golf, art barn and main lodge, which offers a recreation room and dining hall, and more! Since campers can attend in treatment, there is a medical center and the facilities are modern, clean and accessible by all. Doctors, nurses and camp staff are available at all times.

I first attended Camp Māk-A-Dream when I was 23 years old, not long out of treatment for bone cancer. The idea of attending the Young Adult Conference (YAC) appealed to me since I was treated in pediatrics and my roommates were often teens or younger. Despite the wonderful support I received from my family, friends and even doctors and nurses, I still felt oddly out of place in my own life. I struggled with balancing being a cancer survivor with desperately wanting a “normal young adult life” even though I had no idea what that meant anymore.

Lots of fun and smiles!

I was enveloped in hugs and kindness the moment I was met at the Missoula airport. I was laughing within five minutes of meeting my cabin mates. I smiled, cried, listened, shared, belly laughed, hiked, zip lined, danced, sat under the stars and so much more during this week. I was reminded that I am not alone in this cancer journey. Never alone. I made lifelong friends in this special place, people who understand feelings and emotions without me having to explain.

I learned much about myself during my time at camp. Staring at the mountains of this beautiful country, there is great opportunity to reflect on who you are and where you want life to go. Or to simply sit and breathe in the mountain air, feeling gratitude at being alive.

I love this camp enough that I returned again the next year as a participant. Since the founders were from Michigan, there is a chapter here so I then got involved as a volunteer. I’m proud I was invited to help create a young adult survivors’ conference for those out of treatment, offering education and friendship. I spoke at events around the country raising funds for programs and a new medical center on campus. I served on the board of directors for the Michigan chapter, chaperoned young campers on flights to the camp from Detroit, was an employee for a short time, and remain a lifelong supporter. So, yes, I believe in this special place.

If you or someone you know is interested in attending one of these great programs or interested in learning more, check out the upcoming calendar season. Volunteers are also needed to help at the sessions. What a great experience!

There are many ways you can support this camp experience for cancer survivors and families. – donations are of course appreciated (the camp experience is cost free), or consider purchasing items from their wish list and attending an event. If nothing else, visit their website to see the amazing pictures of smiles, hope and beautiful views.

I often tell people that Camp Māk-A-Dream healed my soul. No, the organization doesn’t claim to heal anything, yet it was exactly the place I needed, exactly the people I needed to meet. It gave me an opportunity to step back from the craziness of life and focus on moving forward as a survivor. This special place, in the mountains of Montana, will forever hold a home in my heart.

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