Just for You

Camps and retreats for survivors abound. Find a place that meets your needs and prepare to unwind.

By Jennifer Larson

You’ve been through a lot. You’ve faced the stress of a cancer diagnosis; you’ve managed—or maybe are still managing—treatment; and you continue to cope with all the changes that this journey has brought into your life. But are you taking any time for yourself?

Chances are you are breathlessly running through your life, trying to keep up with all your responsibilities at the same time that you adjust to the new normal of living with a cancer diagnosis. Women often spend so much time taking care of other people that their own needs take a backseat. Wouldn’t it be nice to take a break and go someplace where you can relax, be yourself, and meet some people who have also faced cancer?

Camps and retreats for women with cancer have sprouted up across the United States over the past few decades, and they are as diverse as the women who attend them. Some women want nothing more than to put up their feet and gaze at a spectacular sunset over the mountains. Others would rather get a massage and take a yoga class, and still others would relish the chance to try a new activity that they’d never have the opportunity to experience at home.

There are retreats and camps to meet all these desires, and many provide their services at no cost to survivors and families. Here are just three of the many different experiences you might consider.

Camp Mak-A-Dream

Camp Mak-A-Dream’s 86 acres of ranchland in Gold Creek, Montana, beckon women to go west. The camp holds two retreats every year for ovarian cancer survivors and one retreat each fall for women who have had any type of cancer—and all the retreats are free. Though a doctor and a nurse are available on-site, prospective campers, together with their doctors, must decide if they are physically able to attend.

Once at the camp, women must first catch their breath from taking in the spectacular views of Montana’s Flint Mountains and the surrounding ranchlands. Then it’s off to discover the many recreational and education opportunities available. Designed to appeal to a wide range of ages, activities abound. Women can tap into their creative side and participate in art workshops or attend clinical presentations with medical experts who will delve into the nitty-gritty details of health issues that may concern cancer survivors. And for the camper who’s itching to get outside and move around, there’s the mini-golf course, the climbing wall, and the archery range—and the hot tub for afterward.

“The biggest thing we do is bring these women together and give them four or five days devoted to them,” says Camp Director Beth Jones. “It really is all about them, from the time they arrive to the time they leave.”

The camp atmosphere definitely contributes to the spirit of fellowship that develops among the women, says Beth. The women sleep in bunk beds in cabins, they compete for the title of best line dancer on Western Night, and they dress up in fine clothes for the banquet dinner on the last night. And they laugh together—a lot. But don’t be fooled: this is not the bare bones sleep-away camp of your childhood. These cabins are heated, and the beds are made with soft bedding; there are hot showers, and there is plenty of delicious food to share with your new friends when you all sit down together in the comfortable lodge.

One of the most anticipated camp events is the group hiking trip. Campers put on their walking shoes, climb the 1,000-foot butte behind the lodge, and take a celebratory photo at the top. “They do take the opportunity to challenge themselves and each other,” says Beth. “And that’s where the camp part comes into play.”

The time at camp also provides women with a chance to re-energize and receive affirmation that their futures are bright, says Jennifer Benton, director of marketing and special events, who works closely with the board to put together Camp Mak-A-Dream’s ovarian cancer retreats. “To be able to come and have those days be about them and their well-being and what they need, I think, is really the most important thing we can provide.”

Empowered by the time spent communicating with their fellow survivors and learning from one another, relaxing in the beautiful setting, and exploring new activities, campers leave both refreshed and inspired.

Reeling and Healing

About eight years ago, Ruthanne Tietsort learned about a retreat for women who’ve had cancer that immediately appealed to her. As a breast cancer survivor, she’d attended a camp that mostly consisted of classes and motivational speakers, and while she was grateful for the experience, she was looking for something different. She found it through Reeling and Healing Midwest, a program that teaches women how to fly-fish.

The premise is simple: Bring a group of survivors to beautiful fly-fishing water; teach them the basics of the sport—tying flies, wading, and casting a rod—and allow them to experience the joy of learning something new, moving their bodies, and sharing the experience with other survivors. For some participants time spent sitting by the side of the river and enjoying the day of rest, quietly soaking up the sights and the sounds of nature will be enough. For others the benefit will come when they discover that they are ready to talk about their experiences with other campers and volunteers. And then there are those who find a passion for fishing itself.

For Ruthanne, the beautiful setting and the relaxed, free-flowing environment just felt right. “It was something totally different,” she says. “It’s nature. It’s the river and the sound of the water and the feel of it against your legs and the sound of the laughter up and down the river.” Over the course of several retreats, she learned to fly-fish and even caught a few. “Am I good at it?” she asks with a laugh. “No, but I have fun. The joy for me is not so much catching fish, which is exciting, but to pick out a spot on the river where I want my fly to go and actually getting it there.”

“Our goal is to renew their spirit and to renew their hope,” says Catherine Sero, president of Reeling and Healing Midwest. She loves providing a new, valuable experience to survivors and watching them embrace the day. “I hear, ‘That’s something that’s been on my bucket list’ or ‘That sounds like something that’s serene and peaceful,’” she says. “They’re at the point where they say, ‘I deserve to do something like this,’ and it’s like they’re on a little mini-adventure. They’re like little kids, and they jump in with two feet.”

Launched 10 years ago, Reeling and Healing is run completely by volunteers. The program offers about 10 camps each year in Michigan and Wisconsin, including some weekend retreats that are geared solely toward new participants who may have never even seen a fly-fishing rod. The new participant retreats always cost $25, and the cost for reunion retreats varies by location.

Ruthanne now volunteers for the program because she enjoyed her own experiences as a camper so much. And she never gets tired of seeing how new participants react to their first Reeling and Healing experience. “They come, and they’re like this beautiful tight rosebud,” she says. “And we just watch them open up and bloom. It’s a joy to take someone on that journey.”

And the women themselves get to determine how that journey unfolds. “We don’t focus on the fact that they had cancer,” Ruthanne says. “We focus on the fact that they’re here to have a good time.”

Life Beyond Cancer

Sponsored by the US Oncology Foundation, Life Beyond Cancer offers an annual four-day respite for survivors and oncology nurses at Miraval, a luxury resort north of Tucson, Arizona. Set at the base of the Catalina Mountains, among the beautiful scenery of the Sonoran Desert, the retreat offers activities and a chance for rest and inspiration.

Survivors can test their mettle on a ropes course, ride horses, meditate, and practice yoga. They can meet other women, share their experiences, and build new friendships with people who truly have “been there.” Throughout they can focus on their own needs and replenish their bodies and their spirits.

Women in general often don’t take time to nurture themselves, explains Ann Wolford, the US Oncology Foundation’s executive director. They’re responsible for so much that their own needs often get shoved way down on their to-do lists. For cancer survivors, who have faced physical and emotional challenges, the opportunity to put themselves back at the top of the list is even more important. Life Beyond Cancer provides survivors with the chance to be pampered, to be taken care of, and to have fun.

“You see friendships form, and it’s hard to do that when you’re running a carpool or you’re working,” says Ann. “You kind of have to be taken out of your everyday life and be given permission to do those things.”

But while the retreat offers the women a chance to relax and unwind, that’s not its only purpose. “It also was meant to take it one step further and challenge patients, oncology nurses, and social workers to go back to their communities and do something toward advocacy in their area,” says Ann. “It allows people to get out of their own issues and think more broadly instead of thinking inward.”

Previous campers have done everything from lobbying their legislators for more funds for cancer research, to creating a support group for children of cancer patients, to assembling goodie bags of information and resources for cancer patients in their communities. One camper even launched a Web site, www.mylifeline.org, as an online resource that allows cancer patients to document their experience and for friends and family to sign up to provide meals or other services.

Participants pay $200 for the Miraval retreat; the foundation underwrites the rest of the cost. Ann says she hopes to be able to expand the program in the future to give more women the opportunity to participate. “We just want to reach more people,” she says.

For a complete listing of camps and retreats for adults and children, please visit www.cancercamp.net. Cancercamp.net is an online listing of oncology camps created by childhood cancer survivor Hunter Weaver, who wanted to give back to the cancer community after his own journey.

Children’s Camps and Retreats

No one likes the reality that cancer affects children too. But fortunately there are a growing number of camps that specifically meet the needs of children who have cancer (or are medically fragile) or have relatives with cancer. Some camps offer space to children with their family members too.


Camp Smile-a-Mile
P.O. Box 550155
Birmingham, AL 35255
The camp is located at Children’s Harbor on Lake Martin in Alexander City.


The Center for Courageous Kids
1501 Burnley Road
Scottsville, KY 42164
(270) 618-2900


Camp Sunshine
35 Acadia Road
Casco, ME 04015
(207) 655-3800


Camp Casey
P.O. Box 2225
Birmingham, MI 48012
(248) 705-2780

North Carolina

Wind River Cancer Wellness Retreats
(828) 863-2343


Camp Horizon
American Cancer Society, Tennessee Division
1315 8th Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203
(800) 280-1227
The site for the camp is Camp Lookout on Lookout Mountain.


Camp Hobé
P.O. Box 520755
Salt Lake City, UT 84152
(801) 631-2742


Camp Agape NW
All Saints Center
205 Raft Island Drive East
Gig Harbor, WA 98335

Multiple Locations

Camp Erin
The Moyer Foundation
2426 32nd Avenue W, Suite 200
Seattle, WA 98199
This network of 28 camps in 18 states was created by the Moyer Foundation to help children who are grieving the loss of a parent or loved one.

Camp Kesem
P.O. Box 1113
Lafayette, CA 94549
Camp Kesem offers camp experiences for children whose parents have or had cancer. Camps are held at the following locations: Arizona State University, Brigham Young University, Camp Kesem North Carolina, Emory University, George Washington University, and Indiana University.

Hole in the Wall Camps
The Association of Hole in the Wall Camps was founded by Paul Newman to provide a network of camps that serve children with life-threatening illnesses all over the world. Camps within the United States include Double H Ranch (New York), Hole in the Wall Gang Camp (Connecticut), Camp Boggy Creek (Florida), The Painted Turtle (California), and Victory Junction (North Carolina).

Camps for Women


Camp Bluebird
(800) 811-8925


Sunstone Retreats
(520) 749-1928


Commonweal Cancer Help Program Retreats
(415) 868-0970

Healing Odyssey
Laguna Hills
(949) 951-3930

Ting-Sha Institute
Point Reyes Station
(415) 663-1190

Rancho Santa Margarita
A.W.O.L. Retreats
(949) 916-6851


Second Wind Retreat
(404) 348-4986


Reeling and Healing Midwest
(866) 237-5725
(616) 855-4017


Camp Jenée
Fort Wayne
(260) 417-1533


Sail for Hope
(207) 691-0183


Bluebird Cancer Retreats
Grand Haven
(616) 847-0839


Women in Nature
(763) 520-5211


Mississippi Gulf Coast Camp Bluebird
(228) 809-2267


Camp Bluebird
(417) 820-2523
(800) 432-2273 (Connie Zimmerman)


Eagle Mount
(406) 586-1781

Camp Mak-A-Dream
(406) 549-5987

New York

Camp Bravehearts
(518) 454-2064
(570) 852-3125

Camp Good Days and Special Times
(800) 785-2135

The Libby Ross Foundation Yoga Retreats
New York City
(212) 831-9592

North Carolina
Buddy Kemp Caring House
(800) 998-4673

Camp Dove
(252) 816-4790


Camp Bravehearts
(570) 852-1459
(570) 288-6688

ECaP Retreats
(814) 337-8192

Mind-Body Wellness Center
(814) 333-5060

South Carolina

Myrtle Beach Cancer Care Retreat
Myrtle Beach
(877) 460-2657


Camp CareFree
(800) 345-6324


Casting for Recovery
(888) 553-3500


Special Love
(888) 930-2707


Harmony Hill Cancer Retreats
(360) 898-2363

Washington, D.C.

Smith Farm Cancer Help Program
(202) 483-8600


Infinite Boundaries—Breast Cancer Recovery Retreat
(888) 821-1140