Have Cancer and Have Kids? This One’s For You!


The following is from LIVESTRONG Leader, LIVESTRONG Fundraising Mentor and amazing mom, Barb Simmons. Barb’s daughter attended Camp Kesem- a LIVESTRONG funded camp for kids who have a parent with cancer or that have lost a parent to cancer. THIS CAMP IS FREE. Bring a Camp Kesem to your community. Vote Now!

“I can’t wait to meet other kids like me” – Rachel, 7 year old cancer hater

I am not a cancer survivor, nor are my children, but cancer has impacted our lives more than it ought to have.    My connection to cancer began when I was three years old and my mother passed away from Leukemia.   Immediately, my life was transformed.   My four siblings and I were thrust into a single parent home life with a grieving father who worked full-time.  You can imagine how different this was from the rest of suburbia back in the late 1960’s, especially with cancer still a very taboo subject.

Fast forward 33 years and suddenly my oldest sister – who was like a mother to me – passed away from a two month battle with lung cancer, leaving behind two children of her own.

Fast forward 2 more years and my father’s very healthy life was cut short by cancer.

Fast forward another year and my own spouse passed away suddenly from a very rare form of cancer only two weeks after his diagnosis, leaving behind three children – ages 9, 6, and 1 year.  Actually 364 days old.  Her birthday was the very next day.

As my children have grown, I continue to see firsthand how cancer has impacted their lives and our lives together as a family.  As a mother, I immediately wanted to provide support to my children.  What could I do to help them with their grieving, while also dealing with my own intense grief?  Unfortunately, other than one-on-one counseling, there really wasn’t much more available for my children in this decade as there was in the 1960’s and 1970’s while I was dealing with the same issues.

Over time, my children and I became involved with LIVESTRONG, primarily as an opportunity to honor their father – which we’ve done each year at the Philly LIVESTRONG Challenge.  This event actually lands on the same weekend as the anniversary of Brian’s passing.  A very wonderful tribute to him while being surrounded by thousands of people also touched by cancer and “get it.”  I have built a very wide net of friendships and support for myself through my involvement with LIVESTRONG.  Friendships that have allowed me to survive the last 8 years and made me realize I am not alone.

LIVESTRONG is best know for providing support for those battling cancer and survivors.  Most assume survivors are those that survived cancer, but there is a large group of survivors out there that never had cancer but provided support and love for those that fought gallantly – both  successfully and unsuccessfully.  Among those are thousands of children being raised in a single parent household due to cancer stealing one of their parents, or those living with the daily struggles of watching a parent suffer with cancer.

My children fall into this category.  And I see them struggle on a daily basis regarding one aspect.  The fact that they are different from their friends.  The awkwardness they often feel when someone that doesn’t know our situation asks about their father.

I get this….I was them when I was growing up.

The quote above was actually shared with me by my daughter one spring morning last year.  It was when  I gave her the news that she would be attending her first overnight summer camp.

This was no ordinary camp…..

My daughter had the experience of her lifetime last summer attending Camp Kesem at Northwestern University – a program which is recipient of grants from LIVESTRONG.  This is a camp for children that have or had a parent with cancer.  Some of the parents are survivors and others are currently in the battle, while others – like Rachel – have lost a parent.  The common thread….they all understood what cancer is, how it impacts families, and all feel different than most kids their age.

Rachel returned from her week long adventure a different girl.  Not only did my baby girl come home with a new identity (each camper immediately receives a new name for their camp experience – Rachel is now officially known as “Laffy Taffy” in the Camp Kesem world) , she was filled to the brim with confidence in herself.  Rachel receives a lot questions from kids at school about where her dad is, but she no longer tells them he is too busy at work, or in the army, or ignores the questions.  In her own words “I no longer have to hide what happened to my dad.”  Rachel recognizes now that she isn’t different….she is just different from her classmates.  Rachel has cabins full of friends that are just like her….minus the red curly hair and freckles.  When I picked her up, she immediately stated – before she even said hello to me – “I am coming back next summer and every summer.  And I am going to Northwestern for college so I can be a counselor.”

She also shared that she has never laughed so hard in her life.

This is 100% due to her experience at Camp Kesem.  They instill a sense of normalcy to these children’s lives.  Although the camp only lasts one week, Rachel is building a lifetime a friendships that will provide her support for years and hopefully decades, from others that “get it.”  Just like the LIVESTRONG Challenges has provided me.

A year later she is still talking about the friendships, the counselors, and the activities.  At least once a week she states how much she misses Camp Kesem.  And the best part?  She is busy counting down the days until the first day of this summer’s Camp Kesem.

Camp Kesem understands the importance of the friendships that are created among these children during this fantastic experience.  They appreciate it so much that campers are able to attend year after year after year…..always at no cost to the families.

Camp Kesem also made me realize that I am not alone.  When I was dropping Rachel off to camp that Sunday morning, I realized that for the first time since Brian passed away, I wasn’t the only parent in the group who was “cancer widow” and raising children alone.

If you or anyone you  know have been impacted by cancer, please consider this wonderful experience for their children.  Camp Kesem is offered at 37 universities across the country so there is likely to be one in your neck of the woods.

It is an experience none of you will forget….and just like Rachel, hopefully your kids will laugh harder than they ever have laughed in their lives, and for a few days, feel as though life is normal.


  1. Scott Joy says:

    Wow, that is such a powerful testament that “Unity is strength,” Barb!

  2. Guest says:

    What percentage of the Camp Kesem operating expenses are actually “funded” by LIVESTRONG?

    1. LIVESTRONG says:

      LIVESTRONG funded Camp Kesem through the 2011 LIVESTRONG Community Impact Project. We provided seed funding of $10,000 per camp for 12 camps last year. The camps are run by college student leaders and are all volunteers. More info is available here: http://livestrong.org/What-We-Do/Our-Actions/Programs-Partnerships/Community-Engagement/Camp-Kesem

      1. Guest says:

        My question specifically asked about PERCENTAGE OF OPERATING EXPENSES FUNDED BY LIVESTRONG. The amount of $10,000 barely covers the cost of sending four ‘campers’ to similar types of camps in the USA for a single week.

        1. LIVESTRONG says:

          I just got the dollar amounts we gave last year to Camp Kesem. LIVESTRONG gave Camp Kesem $85,000 for operational expenses to help run the new camps. We gave $185,000 directly to the new 12 sites and paid for training, conferences and travel for the college students running the camps. The total amount donated to Camp Kesem last year alone by LIVESTRONG was around $300,000. As for the specifics of their operating costs you will need to ask them directly. They are an amazing group run by some incredible college leaders and administrators. Working with them has been a joy.

        2. Guest says:

          Each Camp Kesem has a unique budget, operational costs, number of campers and number of volunteer counselors. At my university, we organize a large camp and fundraise the entire year to reach our goal of $70,000, which will send 70 kids and 35 counselors to camp at no charge to the families. It costs about $500 to send a camper to camp for a week. We did not receive the $10,000 because our camp is not new, but a gift of $10,000 would be 1/7th of our fundraising goal. At newer, smaller camps, this donation would be a significant portion of their budget.

          1. LIVESTRONG says:

            Keep up the excellent work! You’re changing lives!

    2. Molee1122 says:

      Just to give an idea how how much our university groups have to raise yearly for camp, I am from one of the campus’ that runs a bigger camp of about 100 campers, meaning about 50 student volunteers to be sent to camp. This year our fundraising goal was just over 50,000 to cover all expenses.

  3. Tori Bazner says:

    My kids, too, are Camp Kesem kids. Their dad died 3 years ago when they were 9 and 6. They have very similar feelings about camp that your daughter does. It is amazing what just one week of camp does for them! They are attending their 4th year this year and I am still amazed at the level of dedication the all volunteer staff at camp give. They fund raise year round so camp families (who are sometimes financially destitute due to medical costs of cancer) don’t have to pay a cent for this experience.

  4. Rica620 says:

    My children will be attending the first Camp Kesem at Columbia University this summer and they are stoked. I cannot tell you what a relief it is to know that at least one week a year, they will be able to have peers that they can talk to, let their feelings go and not have to be “strong” all the time.

  5. This is why I Kesem. Why do you?

  6. Katecanhelp says:

    My girls have gone to Kesem for 2 years and they can’t wait for August. Thanks for giving them such wonderful experiences! Year after year.

  7. Pingback: LIVESTRONG Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *