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Healthy Dose of Fun for Young Cancer Patients

Medical concerns fade as children at Camp Summersault savor activities, share stories.

August 16, 2003|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

Roasting a hot dog over a Long Beach campfire, Joey Vergara squinted at a reporter. He is 7, missing a few front teeth as well as his hair and eyebrows.

He wore a baseball cap, and had a tube taped to his nose. Compared to brain cancer surgery, cooking with a coat hanger and being interviewed by a reporter were a cinch.

"I'll talk to her, but she's gotta come over here," Joey told his camp counselor. " 'Cuz I'm too busy here."

Camp Summersault is meant to be a busy time, a week full of fun activities for about 80 Southern California children, about half of whom are being treated for cancer or who are in remission. The other half are the brothers and sisters of patients who relish being outdoors after long hours spent in the hospital.

The free day camp is sponsored by the American Cancer Society at the Camp Fire USA's Long Beach council property. It has been run by volunteers for 19 years on this triangular patch of land near the Los Coyotes Diagonal and Carson Street.

About 9,000 children under the age of 15 will be diagnosed with cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society. About 75% of them will survive if given proper care.

The camp reinforces the optimistic outlook.

"It's a great camp for the newly diagnosed," said Christy Rincon, one of the camp directors, as swarms of kids made crafts and raked leaves from campfire rings to prepare for cooking over open flames. "They can be close to home. And they know people here will understand and not make fun of them if they don't have hair or can't do certain things."

Many of the counselors have survived cancer, and their good health conveys an invaluable message to children -- and their families -- who may otherwise see only the ravages of cancer treatment.

"They look forward to this all year," said Teddi Softley, a clinical psychologist who works with pediatric cancer patients at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center's Miller Children's Hospital. "They go through a lot with the disease. The side effects of the treatment drugs, that alone can be hard, and leave them ... irritable, lacking motor skills. Depression can be a real problem.

"Joey," she added, "wouldn't have talked to you three or four months ago. But he's doing quite well now. You can't stop him."

The Downey boy, who had a brain tumor removed in February, underwent radiation treatment and is still in chemotherapy, which supresses his appetite and makes it hard for him to hold down food. He sometimes needs liquid nourishment through the tube.

Still, he was thrilled to be at the camp, as was his twin sister, Alyssa, who sat with him at a picnic table after he scorched some hot dogs for counselor Alex Wirth, whose mother had cancer, and other diners.

While the point of the camp is to provide an escape from health worries for a week, the children's conversation naturally drifted toward what they have in common. And speaking with the authority of older people, they found in each other a refuge to talk about grave things with matter-of-factness.

"I come here because my brother has cancer and he lost all his hair and eyelashes," said 6-year-old Ashley Haboud. "So they had to cut the tumor out of his head with a knife."

Said Joey: "They didn't cut it out with a knife. They cut it out with a spoon."

No, said Ashley. It was a "curvy knife. It just looks like a spoon."

The conversation sometimes followed the trajectory of dreams, a stream-of-consciousness commentary that faded in and trailed off, offering a glimpse of what lay beneath the surface of a child's apparent composure.

Brain surgery "isn't really that bad because they give you drugs so it won't hurt that much," Joey observed, and other children nodded with him.

"My brother had a blob cut out of his head," explained Alexandra Muise, 6, of Torrance of her sibling Matthew, now 11.

Campers Hannah Butler of Costa Mesa and Amanda Clifford of Long Beach are 11-year-old survivors of acute lymphocytic leukemia. Both are considered cured.

Hannah was diagnosed at age 6, Amanda at 5. They shared how they coped with baldness.

Amanda: "I had no hair from the time I was in kindergarten until

Hannah: "I had 65 hats. Some with pigtails on them, pony tails, every flower you can imagine....

"I got a henna tattoo on my head."

Amanda: "Cool. I was thrilled when I grew enough hair to wear barrettes."

Their hair has grown back, and they admit to being inordinately attached to its length. They look well, but the upshot of their childhood brush with death is an unchildlike perspective.

Said Hannah, shrugging: "I was in first grade when it was diagnosed, and fourth when it was gone. But we'll both have to keep going for checkups the rest of our lives."

Across the grounds, Joey and the youngest campers lunched at the picnic table. Behind them they had written a sign listing what they believed to be the most important rules to remember: "No biting. Do not leave a counselor. Have fun. Be nice. Help tidy up. Do not paint the camp counselor."

The day had been spent shooting arrows at targets, stringing beads, crafting a paper crocodile, constructing imaginative structures out of wood milk crate remnants and, of course, tending the campfire.

Joey had already raked the campfire edges, plucked out rubbish from the ring, placed cans of water to be boiled for dishwashing later and done most of the camping chores except setting the fire itself, a task left for counselors.

Cooking was his favorite camp duty, but Joey said he was feeling a little tired and looked forward to relaxing later. In a reminder that the campers are younger than they sometimes sound, Joey explained that he would wrap up his afternoon at home "watching Channel 5: 'Scooby-Doo' and Jackie Chan cartoons."

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