Meet Alexandra

picture of camper

Alexandra’s life dramatically changed the summer she finished her first year of university.

She had been in pain for months. Arriving home to a pre-booked family vacation, she experienced a whirl-wind of medical appointments, tests and referrals but no answers. Thankfully, her dentist saw an issue on her x-rays, advised her that part of her jaw pain might be her wisdom teeth and referred her to an oral surgeon.

The pain worsened while she was away, to the point she couldn’t even swallow. As soon as she arrived home from vacation, the oral surgeon removed a tooth and performed a biopsy.

Ten days later, Alexandra was diagnosed with stage 4 Burkitt’s lymphoma. Burkitts lymphoma is a cancer that starts in immune cells called B-cells. Recognized as extremely fast-growing, tumours can double in size every 18 to 24 hours.

Very soon after her diagnosis, Alexandra was admitted to Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH). Since she was 18 years old at the time, it’s not uncommon for teens to be admitted there rather than at SickKids. She was at PMH for two weeks and started intensive chemotherapy immediately.

What came next was a cancer journey experience that Alexandra found intensely isolating.

“I lost 90 percent of my friends when I got diagnosed,” says Alexandra. “People my age don’t know how to respond. I got texts with emojis, and that’s it.”
Alexandra was in and out of PMH and the Toronto General Hospital over the course of the next two months. “I didn’t see a person that looked like me,” she says. “I was looped into the same support group as 40-year-olds, and 40-year-olds are not my peers.”

The experience of being in the hospital was so isolating that she begged her parents to stop chemo.

“I remember sitting at our kitchen table with them and begging them to let me stop. To let me die.”

Meanwhile, a social worker had approached Alexandra about attending overnight camp at Campfire Circle. She was so excited to attend and was looking forward to leaving on July 6. But after a series of complications including sepsis and kidney failure, her team of specialists felt Alexandra was too medically unstable to participate.

Alexandra was incredibly disappointed and she even recalled arguing with her oncologist about their decision and her treatment plan. Her mental health was deteriorating.

Another opportunity to attend Campfire Circle’s 7Scape – a program for teens – opened up on August 18. The Campfire Circle team was in touch with Alexandra and her family every day, checking in.

That week, Alexandra had long days in the hospital with blood transfusions and treatment. But Alexandra’s mother was determined to let her daughter go to camp. After a long negotiation with her medical team, Alexandra’s mom proclaimed: “Great! She’s going.”

Alexandra’s mother fought tooth and nail to ensure she got to camp, and once Alexandra arrived, she immediately felt more herself.

“Until I showed up at 7Scape, I was completely isolated,” says Alexandra. “I finally met people who understood me.”

Once at camp, the Campfire Circle team did all they could to ensure Alexandra was taken care of, including changing her dressing seven times so she could go in the lake and getting her to a hospital for a blood transfusion mid-camp. Campfire Circle’s Muskoka site is staffed by highly specialized nurses and doctors with experience in both paediatrics and oncology to ensure campers get the specialized support they need.

After her week at camp, a new Alexandra appeared. She came back motivated and with a will to move forward.

She started her chemotherapy again later that month. Shortly after completing chemo, she was admitted to Mount Sinai with more complications – jeopardizing another camp trip!

It was September 4 and Alexandra was to go on the Campfire Circle Algonquin Park canoe trip on September 11. Her new medical team was still very apprehensive of her going on the trip. But after seeing the change in her after camp, her oncologist called her mom with the following message: “Tell her to have fun.”

campers in canoes on the lake with

“I did Algonquin Park with no immune system and a PICC in my arm,” says Alexandra with a big smile. “And, I was the only one who didn’t fall into the lake!”

Her 19th birthday was approaching in the fall. Alexandra had plans to go to Orlando with her best friend, but she knew it wasn’t going to happen.

A lot of people at camp that summer knew how hard the upcoming birthday would be for her. When they found out there was going to be a Campfire Circle Weekend at Camp (WAC) on her birthday weekend, many volunteers and campers decided they were going to attend with Alexandra.

A few months later, Alexandra celebrated her 19th birthday during a WAC. Her cabin and the dining hall were fully decorated with streamers. “We ate cake for two meals!” remembers Alexandra. It was a birthday she will never forget.

“Birthdays are hard when you have cancer. You don’t think you’re going to live past that year. Even now it’s weird because some of your friends aren’t alive,” she says.

Now 22 years old, Alexandra is a thriving adult. Looking back at that year, the only thing that kept her going was Campfire Circle.

“I wish more people knew about Campfire Circle. I was lucky to go to camp and make friends. Camp gave me the support system to help me with this diagnosis and treatment because no one else gets it. Campfire Circle was the only place that filled this gap for me.”

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