Friday, August 3, 2012

Teen Heads Up Conference 2012 at Camp Mak-A-Dream

Ahh, Home,
Let me come Home
Home is whenever I’m with you
 Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes, Home
Up From Below, 2009
I can't even begin to accurately describe the best week of my life. I spent it at the 3rd Teen Heads Up Conference which was sponsored by the Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation and hosted at Camp Mak-A-Dream in Montana. This conference was created for teenage survivors of brain tumors/cancer. Participants from previous years said it best: words can't explain the experience - you have to be there.
Participants ranged from ages 13 to 18, and mentors + volunteers were predominantly in their 20s and 30s. The presence of mentors was probably the most valuable part of this conference because they helped show us what lies ahead: a future. There is always hope. We woke up and saw it in each others' eyes every day.
There were "camp activities" like a sports and recreation outdoor area with a put-put course, volleyball court, basketball court, and endless fields. Activities included spending time on a zip line, high ropes course, being creative in the art barn, trying your hand at archery, and hiking up "The Beaut." I hiked “The Beaut” twice..once around sunrise on the third morning, and once around sunset on the last night. I couldn't think of a more beautiful way to spend my last night in Montana than sitting atop a mountain, taking in the night sky, surrounding mountains, light breeze, and a full moon in the background. Breakout sessions and workshops included touching on the topics of: dating (where my CBTF guest blog was highlighted), social cues, the high school to college transition for brain tumor/cancer survivors, short and long-term impacts of treatment.
Three of my cabin-mates are going to be high school seniors like me, and another just graduated high school. Close in age with similar interests, we all had an instant connection. After only a half hour of knowing each other, we were already laughing, hugging up a storm, and sharing our stories on the bus. It just so happens that one of my cabin-mates lives in Houston, so we're going to meet up this week while I'm there for my MD Anderson proton beam consultation! Another cabin-mate noted that although we have only known each other for about a week, it feels like we know each other better than those we have known for over a dozen years. Plain and simple: everyone at Camp Mak-A-Dream knows what it's like to be a mAss Kicker, to overcome obstacles, to reevaluate life, and to challenge oneself.
Quite a few of the mentors were diagnosed in their junior or senior year of high school, a perfect match for the time frame of my recent re-diagnosis. One particular mentor stood out to me with her spirit and resolve. She was diagnosed at 16 and missed over a year of high school, but was determined to graduate on time with her class. After spending three straight months unable to leave the hospital after surgery and relearning how to walk, she graduated on time, finishing 2.5 years of school in ONE year! She pushed herself as she possibly could, taking extra classes, studying more than everyone else, and proving that as survivors, we are so much more than a diagnosis.
High school and college students diagnosed with cancer have to reevaluate their goals and accept the loss of abilities and dreams, whether those be physical, mental, or emotional. Some of the long term side effects of chemo and radiation include vision, hearing, and memory difficulties; entering the work force with the "new you" requires a reassessment of goals and career choices.
What you can't explain about this trip are the people. We are so much more than survivors..we are athletes, musicians, aspiring film makers, accountants, educators, etc...we cannot be defined or held back by a diagnosis. No one aspires to join the brain tumor club, but its members possess the highest possible levels of bravery and tenacity.


  1. I absolutely love what you wrote Catherine!!!:) It was all so so meaningful, touching and inspiring!!! It was so wonderful meeting you and I'm more than glad you had a great time at camp and that I could provide you with some meaningful information and I hope to help you more!!:) I am here if you need me, so do not hesitate to do so!!:) Thank you for your post:)

  2. Catherine thank you!! Although are no words to quite describe this past week for us, you put it in the best terms I could possibly think of. This was my third year coming to Camp Mak-A-Dream and I'm even more amazed at the tenacious and inspiring people than ever before. It's true that no one hopes to become a member of the "brain tumor club", yet I think I can speak on the behalf of all the life long friends I've made there and say that I'm grateful for the chance to recognize the courage in every one of us.


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