Young adults with cancer relax and bond during Cedars CanSupport summer retreat
The first time Noémie Robidoux, 24, took part in Cedars CanSupport’s annual weekend retreat she had just finished a year of rehabilitation, after having had surgery for bone cancer. As an inpatient at the Montreal General Hospital of the McGill University Health Centre (MGH-MUHC), where she had part of her pelvis removed, Robidoux had benefited from Cedars CanSupport services such as art and massage therapy, and the support group for adolescents and young adults (AYA). In July 2014, she felt well enough to take the bus ride with 26 other young cancer patients, facilitators and healthcare professionals to Jouvence Resort Hotel, in Mont-Orford National Park.
“This was the first time I did something outside of my comfort zone as a person with reduced mobility,” Robidoux explains. “I was a little intimidated at the beginning, but everybody made me feel welcome. We were all there because we had, or had had, cancer. There was no pity, no uneasiness, no need to explain anything. I felt I could talk freely about my disease. It was liberating.”
The three-day retreat is funded by the Cedars Cancer Foundation and welcomes 18 to 39 year-old patients from all Montreal hospitals. It combines group activities, workshops and free time for AYAs to connect with others, enjoy different outdoor activities or simply relax.
“Being an adolescent or young adult with cancer has particular challenges,” says Jennifer Finestone, CanSupport program coordinator for complementary therapies and support groups and Drama Therapist. “In your 20s or 30s, you don’t think about dying. If you get a cancer diagnosis, your friends won’t necessarily understand what you’re going through. You feel very isolated. The retreat fosters a sense of community; AYAs realize they’re not alone.”
Learning to cope with the disease
“Retreats help heal your spirit, recharge. They offer tranquility, respite and just make you feel a little less alone. It’s a truly life-changing experience that is very meaningful and empowering.” – participant Laura Loebenberg (in bright green cardigan)
“The links we create allow us to break down the barriers of isolation and to share our experiences. It’s very valuable.” – participant Noémie Robidoux
“I have participated in several workshops and activities that have changed me in such a positive way. I have learned so many things from the amazing facilitators and the awesome participants. Knowing you are not alone in your fight and your feelings is so important.” – patient Sarah Labelle (right), with patient Julie Szasz during CanSupport’s 2014 summer retreat.
Young cancer patients could talk freely with Dr. Geneviève Chaput (left, with participant Monique Joseph) during the retreat.
The retreat and all other CanSupport activities are funded by the Cedars Cancer Foundation.
CanSupport is one of the few programs in Quebec that offers complementary therapies to patients within the hospital setting such as art, drama and music therapy, relaxation, yoga, massage therapy – Jennifer Finestone, CanSupport program coordinator and Andréanne Robitaille, CanSupport director.
The workshops cover themes that patients at all stages of cancer can relate to, such as uncertainty about the future, changes in relationships and body image. Retreat participants are encouraged to attend, and those who don’t want to talk can just sit and listen.
“The workshops allow us to question ourselves, to find ways to integrate the disease into our daily lives and to move forward,” says Noémie Robidoux. “Even if there’s no trace of it left, cancer will follow us throughout our lives.”
For some patients, the retreat can be a first experience with a support group or an opportunity to get away for a weekend after months of treatment. For others, it is a chance to make friends. When attributing shared rooms, Finestone tries to match participants she hopes will connect.
“Last summer, I put participants Julie and Sarah, both mothers with young kids, together, and they hit it off,” she says showing a picture of two smiling young women. “Sadly, Sarah passed away last Fall. She had been a mainstay of the retreats, the support groups and the young adult community in general.”
During the retreat, AYAs can talk to a number of professionals and facilitators in a context that’s different from a hospital environment. For the first time since the retreats started, in 2007, one of the retreat’s leaders was Dr. Geneviève Chaput, director of the MUHC Cancer Survivorship Program.
“Everyone was so excited to have Dr. Chaput there,” says Finestone. “She’s incredibly open and accessible, and people felt comfortable talking to her.”
Noémie Robidoux, who decided to repeat her experience at the retreat in 2015, found it “even more enriching this time around.”
“I was more comfortable to share my experience and to listen to other people’s stories. That sense of community is very important. We return to our families and our lives knowing that there are others who understand our situation, with whom we can exchange later. I have a bunch of new Facebook friends, and we keep in touch. The retreat creates bonds that last beyond that weekend.”