Cruising With Breast Cancer ‘Thrivers’

Breast cancer patients and survivors find inspiration as they bond, and party, at sea

Maybe it was the flip-flops with plastic boobs on them. Maybe it was the double-wide T-shirt worn jointly by two women that read, "Sisters Share Everything — Even Cancer.” But our room of women, most of us accessorized with pink boas, was filled with cheers and laughter. It was the end of our five-day breast cancer survivors' "Thrivers" cruise and we were competing in T-shirt and flip-flop decorating contests, but mostly celebrating life itself.

I’m sure that more than a few passengers on the Carnival cruise ship Elation who stumbled upon our group on their way to the hot tub didn't know quite what to make of us — young, old, some of us in wild pink wigs, others completely bald — all dancing joyously to our new unofficial theme song, “Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You).” But we were having a complete and total blast.

Survivors Who Became Sisters

Most of the 179 members of our group arrived on the ship as strangers, but we left as sisters, bonded not just by the disease we had all survived, but also by the power of friendship, inspiration, laughter and tears. While we listened to speakers, participated in workshops, and attended a fashion show of Anita mastectomy bathing suits, we also made time to sunbathe, sing karaoke, and dance the night away, like everyone else on the ship.

"The goal is to bring women together from all across the country to connect with others who understand what they have been through," says Beverly Vote, publisher of Breast Cancer Wellness magazine, which sponsors the annual cruises. “Our at-sea workshops offer education for empowering mind, body and spirit, because we need more than drugs and surgeries to heal — we need each other. We call ourselves ‘Thrivers’ because it represents a zestful and positive approach to healing.”

The Thrivers cruise is just one example of a new crop of getaways that bring together women (and sometimes men, caregivers, and family members) who belong to an elite club — cancer patients and survivors. Many of these retreats, like my cruise, have informational sessions and talks from experts, but the main focus is the emotional aspect of the healing process and helping us take steps to move beyond the disease, in part by expanding and strengthening our support networks. For those still in treatment, or recently finished, the events offer women perhaps their first chance to leave life as a cancer patient behind for a few days and just relax and have some fun.

“I’m a huge fan of these types of gatherings for my patients,” says Sharon Rosenbaum Smith, a breast surgeon at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City. “It’s a great way to bond and share experiences so you don’t feel alone. I’ve seen people make lifelong connections this way, and it’s so empowering for the newly diagnosed to see women who are 20, 30 years out living happy, healthy lives. When you turn a leisurely experience into something educational as well as emotional, it’s a win-win situation.”

Find a Getaway That's Right for You

Thanks to donations or fundraising efforts, many getaways for cancer survivors are either free or reasonably priced, but transportation costs are usually the responsibility of the attendees. Here are a few programs to consider:

  • Breast Cancer Wellness Cruises. The magazine launched its annual Thrivers Cruises in 2007. Next year, for the first time, it will offer two cruises, one sailing in April from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to the Caribbean, and a second voyage in July, from Seattle to Alaska’s Inside Passage. Cruises include speakers, workshops, fashion shows of mastectomy wear, as well as onboard activities and visits to local ports. The magazine offers several scholarships to women with stage IV and metastatic cancer. Caregivers and other family members are welcome to attend. Costs vary. Learn more at www.thriverscruise.com or call (417) 664-5370.
  • Casting For Recovery. This group offers free weekend fly-fishing retreats in 32 states for female breast-cancer survivors. Founded on the principles that the natural world is a healing force, Casting for Recovery offers women a way to make new friends, network, exchange information, challenge themselves, and have fun in nature — even if they’ve never fished before. The retreats are held from April to November and incorporate counseling and educational services with trained facilitators. Learn more at www.castingforrecovery.org or call (888) 553-3500.
  • Camp Mak-A-Dream. The camp is host to two types of free retreats for women who are undergoing or have completed cancer treatment, one specifically for those with ovarian cancer, and one for those with any type of cancer diagnosis. The campsite is a ranch in Gold Creek, Mont. Retreats are free and incorporate group discussions, presentations by medical experts, art programs, recreation, relaxation and excursions to nearby historical sites. Learn more at www.campdream.org/adult_retreats.html or call (406) 549-5987.
  • Stowe Weekend of Hope. This three-day gathering, held each spring in the resort town of Stowe, Vt., welcomes both male and female cancer survivors and their families. Free accommodations are available for first-time guests, and most events are free. Activities include movement and exercise classes, a three-mile run, workshops focused on specific cancer diagnoses, and presentations by experts about the latest cancer research. Learn more at www.stowehope.org or call (800) GO-STOWE.
  • Little Pink Houses. This group organizes free weeklong beach retreats in private homes in North and South Carolina for breast cancer patients and their immediate families, with the goal of promoting recovery and reconnection in a relaxing environment. Activities include fishing, yoga and parasailing; meals are served in a common area with other families; and babysitting is provided so parents can have a date night. Learn more at www.littlepinkhousesofhope.org or call (336) 213-4733.

Bethany Kandel is a New York City author and journalist. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2007 and is happily thriving in remission.

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