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Camp provides peer support

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

It’s a shot of the new infused with a dose of the familiar at Camp Enchantment, New Mexico’s weeklong sleepaway camp for children who have battled cancer.

What’s new at the camp, which opened Sunday for its 27th session that lasts until Saturday: a peak number of participants – 84 – and a system to track the medical needs of all the campers, about half of whom take daily medications.

And what’s familiar at the camp, held at Manzano Mountain Retreat, an hour southeast of Albuquerque: arts and crafts, games, and all the other kids’ staples.

“Last night we got to sign up for all these activities!” said first-time camper Serenity Gatlin, 8, from Albuquerque, who’ll enter fourth-grade at Sandia Base Elementary. On her sign-up form, she’d written archery, sports and “Cake Boss,” held Monday afternoon.

Modeled after a TLC show of the same name, campers decorated unfrosted cakes. When asked where his cake was, Alec Lopez, an 11-year-old from Santa Fe who’d decorated his to resemble Cookie Monster, couldn’t produce it. “I shoved my face in it first,” he said.

Like Serenity and Alec, many of the kids whose parents dropped them off over the weekend don’t look different from other children, as they hugged their friends from last year and made shrinky-dinks and wove potholders.

Others, playing games in the gym and lunching on pizza and homemade peanut butter cookies, have scars from tumor surgeries or missing hair. Some campers receive chemotherapy orally at the Med Shed near the cafeteria, while others are in remission.

The kids of Camp Enchantment

Cancer survivor counsels kids at summer camp

When a camper needs an ear, a social worker in residence can give support on issues specific to survivors of childhood cancer. Chemotherapy will make some unable to have children. Having gone through cancer and treatment often disqualifies young people from military service. Some are bullied and don’t know what to share with their peers. Others sometimes feel physical pain from their treatment.

Jonathan Sosa is one of those who deals with pain. Sitting on a porch Monday afternoon, he was stitching a leather change purse to give his grandmother, also a cancer survivor. The 11-year-old from Albuquerque, who’ll start sixth-grade at Van Buren Middle School, was diagnosed in 2011 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. His hair has grown back since he lost it during monthly chemo treatments, and he bruises easily. His spinal tap every 85 days causes really bad headaches, he said.

Now, his and other campers’ records are stored electronically through an online program,, that Camp Enchantment’s medical team – a doctor, an RN and a nurse practitioner from University of New Mexico Hospital’s pediatric oncology department – is implementing for the first time this season. Camp Enchantment is a program of UNMH.

Starting six weeks ahead of time as campers’ applications began coming in, the medical team gathered, reviewed and recorded each child’s immunization status as well as allergy and insurance information, in addition to their cancer history.

Tracking when campers last took medication is important because sometimes chemo makes a patient feel ill when exposed to the sun. Other campers are part of research trials, and records kept at camp can be printed out, shared with other health care providers and saved indefinitely.

“It’s a way to reassure parents,” with whom the medical staff builds a relationship before camp begins, according to Cathy Chavez, the team’s registered nurse.

When Jonathan’s family found out about his illness, “They were really sad, but they told me to keep on fighting.” His attitude toward his illness: “I can get through it. I can look back and not laugh at it, but be happy I survived.”

Whether they have survived their cancer or are still being treated for it, campers, wearing sweatshirts and T-shirts with camp logos, will round out the week swimming and kayaking in the pool and playing sports. They’ll also have a costume party and a carnival.

What unites campers to each other and to counselors – all volunteers, and about a quarter of them survivors – lies below the surface.

“Cancer is not a topic they speak about very much. If a camper wants to talk about their cancer, it’s usually done in a cabin setting,” said Helen Pino, who has run Camp Enchantment, as well as a four-day retreat for siblings of children with cancer at Lone Tree Ranch each October, since 2006.

“They deal with that fifty-one weeks of the year. Here we like to put that aside.”