Summer adventure camp inspires cancer patients
VAIL — As kids pack up and head to sleepaway camps for outdoor adventures, arts, crafts and a little Kumbaya, some of Shaw Regional Cancer Center’s patients have left their families, friends and doctors behind for a week of adult summer camp in the idyllic setting of the 7 W Guest Ranch in Sweetwater. There, overlooking the Flat Tops Wilderness and Castle Peak, Epic Experience hosts six weeklong sessions of outdoor experiences for adults of all ages who have been diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives.
In the summer, campers, referred to as “cancer thrivers,” enjoy whitewater kayaking, horseback riding and hiking. Winter campers snowshoe, cross- country ski and build snow caves. The goal behind the program is to encourage participants to recognize that cancer is a part of their story, but it does not define them.
Shaw Regional Cancer Center in Edwards is a sponsor of Epic Experience, with funds raised at Pink Vail directly benefiting enrollment fees for countless participants who pay nothing for the weeklong camp.
“We’re proud to support this local camp that nurtures many of our own patients,” said Doris Kirchner, president and CEO of Vail Valley Medical Center, of which Shaw Regional Cancer Center is a department. “Epic Experience is an extension of Shaw’s holistic approach to cancer care, which goes beyond the impeccable medical treatment we provide and includes fitness, nutrition, counseling and other survivorship programs.”
A trip of a lifetime
This summer, six Shaw patients participated in Epic Experience, including Carol Scherling, aka “Toto.” All Epic Experience participants are given a nickname at the outset — Scherling received hers because of her roots in Kansas, where she grew up.
A Breckenridge resident, Scherling was diagnosed with Merkel cell carcinoma in December 2014 and finished her final radiation treatment at Shaw in March 2015. Margaret Brammer, the social worker at the cancer center, recommended Epic Experience to Scherling. The program partners with cancer centers, including Shaw, as well as comparable cancer centers in Utah, Washington and California. Its founder, Nancy Ferro, aka “Mama Lou,” designed the camp to provide “adventure therapy” to those affected by cancer after she and her family went through her son’s fight against brain and testicular cancer in 2007.
“Once cancer comes into your life,” Ferro said, “it’s going to be with you forever. Camp helps people find a new normal. Our campers come away from Epic Experience feeling fuller, knowing it’s going to be okay.”
Campers arrive with little expectation and some trepidation. The specifics of day-to-day activities aren’t shared ahead of time.
“I’m an introvert,” said Scherling. “So taking the chance and the challenge to come up was tough, sharing at campfire time has been tough. But sharing my story and hearing about other people’s stories and what they’ve been through has helped me cope with mine.”
David Parker, dubbed T.C. for his love of the Minnesota Twins, was also a Shaw patient. A Steamboat Springs local, Parker was diagnosed with a glioblastoma brain tumor last year. He didn’t want to commute to Denver for his care, and upon meeting Shaw’s medical oncologist, Dr. Patti Hardenbergh, he was impressed and convinced that Shaw would be the cancer center of his choice.
He stayed at Jack’s Place, a cancer caring lodge for patients receiving treatment at Shaw, and took advantage of the cancer center’s complimentary survivorship programming, including nutrition counseling, fitness classes, massages and acupuncture.
David received his last treatment at Shaw Regional Cancer Center on June 8 and headed to Epic Experience on June 21. An outdoor enthusiast, he found healing in the setting and getting back to the activities he loves.
“I was given opportunities to do things I wasn’t sure I’d have the chance to do again,” he said.
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The tragic incident left a nearby camper wondering if more could be done to remove dead-standing trees from popular camping areas.