Experience, support at Bluebird Cancer Retreat helped survivor know ‘It’s OK to feel’
by Patti Eddington | The Grand Rapids Press, reprinted with permission
August 25, 2009
When she was diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma during her fifth month of pregnancy, 29-year-old Sparta resident Amy Lundquist decided to hide her anguish to protect her friends and family.
Throughout months of painful medical procedures conducted without anesthesia because of her pregnancy and the gnawing fear she might not see the child she was carrying grow up, she kept her agony to herself.
Later, after daughter Emma, now 2, was born and she endured months of chemotherapy, she remained stoic.
Then she attended a Bluebird Cancer Retreat and realized she was doing a disservice to herself as well as to those she loved.
“Going to the retreat, talking with the other people helped me realize that it was OK to let people know what I was really going through,” she said. “Sitting around the campfire and crying, getting to know everyone, I finally understood that it’s OK to feel the way you feel. It’s OK to be sad. It’s OK to be frustrated. It’s OK to be scared, That’s what I took away.”
That type of support and enlightenment is part of the mission of the Spring Lake-based retreat program, said Executive Director Renee Denslow.
“Many folks with cancer feel badly about the burden they are placing on their family or caregivers.” Denslow says. “People often have a lot of fears that at our retreats they feel they can share openly because everyone there is connected (by cancer.) At a retreat, you’ll laugh so hard. But you’ll also cry. And you’ll find hope.”
Held four times a year at Geneva Camp and Retreat Center, located idyllically on the shores of Lake Michigan north of Holland, the weekend retreats draw people of all ages and all diagnoses. Attendees bunk in the camp hotel and enjoy activities including yoga, massage therapy, inspirational speeches and, most importantly, simply talking with others.
Most retreats are attended by 15-25 people, and two retreats each year are set aside for couples; attendees can bring a spouse, significant other, friend or parent.
“We have some people who are in remission, some who have just been diagnosed and some who are at the end of their journey,” Denslow says. “People always seem to walk away with what they need and sometimes that is simply friendship.”
It was that way for Lundquist, who admits she initially was skeptical because she was years younger than most at the retreat and felt “hesitant and not emotionally open.” By the end of a weekend spent relaxing, talking, crying and sometimes just being silly, she felt she had made many true friends.
“There is an instant connection that is made when someone else has cancer also,” she says, “I was reluctant at first, and it ended up being the most amazing experience.”
A retreat to provide respite and hope for West Michigan cancer patients was the dream of Spring Lake resident Bill Timm, who was inspired by a cancer retreat he attended in North Carolina in 1993. Timm didn’t live to see his dream become a reality, but his wife, Robin, and friend and pastor, the Rev. Pete Theune, worked to ensure his dream lived on, and the first Camp Bluebird retreat took place in 1996. The retreats were renamed Bluebird Cancer Retreats in 2006.
Governed by a 15-member volunteer executive board and funded by individual and corporate donations, Bluebird Cancer Retreats holds two annual events, a 100-hole Gorilla Golf outing and an auction.
Denslow said it is telling that her ambitious goal of garnering 150 donations for the 2009 auction wasn’t difficult to achieve.
“Not one person or organization said no,” she said.
For her part, Lundquist said she is feeling well and having CT scans every three months. Her glossy auburn hair, which became sparse during chemo treatments, has grown back, and she is reveling in watching Emma grow.
Lundquist is endlessly frustrated by people who ask, “When are you going to die?” “The last I looked, I don’t have an expiration date on the bottom of my foot.”
She said she understands people who believe a cancer diagnosis can be a “gift” because it makes them appreciate small wonders.
“Sometimes, we forget to look at the sunrise or when we’re putting our kids to bed see how peaceful they look sleeping. I see all that now,” Lundquist says.
Which explains the quilt square she decorated for the Bluebird Cancer Retreat Blanket of Hope project. The blankets created by retreat attendees are donated to local cancer centers.
On her 12-by-12-inch cotton square, Lundquist wrote: “Every Day is a Gift.”
Grand Rapids Press, August 24, 2009