BAGDAD — Elizabeth Johnson of Lexington was 12 when she was diagnosed with bone cancer that led to surgeries and a deep scar running from the top of her thigh to the bottom of her knee.
On Sunday, 13 years later, Johnson sat in a cabin waiting for campers. As a counselor, she will lead them in playing games and singing songs. But, perhaps most important, she will empathize with them about living with cancer.
All of the 100 kids at Indian Summer Camp, now in its 29th year, have been or are being treated for cancer. The non-profit organization raises money for the children, ages 6 to 18, to spend a week for free.
Johnson first heard about the camp at Kentucky Children's Hospital in Lexington, where she was treated. She recalls being nervous, but when she arrived she found a place where it was normal for kids to have scars from surgery or hair loss from chemotherapy.
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"I never wore shorts before because of scars on my leg," Johnson said. "I started wearing shorts here."
Johnson isn't the only former camper who's now a counselor at the weeklong excursion at Cedarmore campgrounds in Bagdad, about 15 miles west of Frankfort.
This year's class is the largest so far and is supported entirely by donations, executive director Shelby Dehner said. Dehner volunteered as a counselor for five years before becoming director and said she views camp as a chance for kids to be free of thinking about illness.
"I like to think camp gives them back a part of their childhood that cancer took away," she said.
That feeling of normalcy is rare for many kids with cancer, who are isolated from their peers during treatment. They're used to stares or questions about prosthetic limbs and baldness, and often can feel like outsiders.
But not while they are at camp.
"When the kids go swimming, you'll see a line of prosthetics by the pool, and nobody thinks twice," Dehner said.
Mackenzie Sorensen, 10, of Lexington was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia when she was 5. Her cancer is in remission, and she has attended the camp for the past three years. Mackenzie said she enjoys the early morning polar bear swim and the "Cinderella" ball, where she danced with a boy for the first time last year.
Being around other children with cancer is comforting, Mackenzie said, because everyone is the same and has a chance to feel normal. She said even though her cancer is in remission, she empathizes with the kids who are receiving treatment.
"I think this can give them courage," Mackenzie said. "It makes them feel happy because they learn, even though they are sick, they can still do things."
Mackenzie was treated at Kentucky Children's Hospital and saw many familiar faces her first year at camp. Pediatric oncologists and nurses from the hospital volunteer as the medical staff.
Pruette Whitt of Lexington was dropping off his 9-year-old daughter, Katie, for her third trip to camp on Sunday. Katie is in remission from acute lymphocytic leukemia, just like Mackenzie. Whitt said the first time his daughter left for camp, he was apprehensive about her being away from home.
Now, Whitt said, he is at ease while Katie is at camp. The doctors and nurses on site are the same people his family members know from the hospital. He said it's nice to see Katie acting like a normal kid, doing things she never would have been able to do just a few years ago.
"When she was sick, it was 'wash your hands, all the time, be careful.' Now she gets to jump in and swim in a lake," he said with a laugh.
A new relationship
Stacy Carter of Lexington is the patient-care coordinator for the pediatric oncology clinic at Kentucky Children's Hospital. But for a few days in the summer, she gets to be seen in a different light at camp, she said.
Carter said the nurses and doctors are viewed as part of the fun at camp instead of as the people who perform painful medical procedures. That lessens the campers' fears when they go back to the hospital, she said.
"This takes our relationship to a whole new level. A kid who was timid and shy now will come in laughing," Carter said. "The nurses and kids have something in common, and that is camp."
Some children undergoing chemotherapy receive their medication while at camp. Carter said those kids can gain a little hope from other campers who were once in the same situation and came out strong.
"It's important for the kids going through chemo to see other kids who went through it and to see they are doing good," she said.
Between swimming, singing and hiking, or just low-key card games for the kids who are still a little weak, Johnson said, every kid gets the chance to participate in the camp experience. In fact, she said, the kids rarely even talk about their illness during the week.
"Usually, cancer is the furthest thing from their minds," Johnson said. "Here, they just get to be normal."