My Ovarian Cancer Journey: Surviving Through Summer Camp

My Ovarian Cancer Journey: Surviving Through Summer Camp

Vanessa Ehrlich

Each summer I volunteer to serve on the faculty of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Olin Sang Ruby Institute Camp for two weeks.  In November of 2018, I was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer, which made going to camp unpredictable for the coming summer. As I spoke with my Sharsheret social worker I quickly knew that I should start planning for the future.  Sharsheret gave me the resources, support and encouragement that helped me come to this realization.  

As my treatment which included chemo, surgery, and more chemo progressed I realized that going to camp was my number one short term goal. I was determined to serve on the faculty for summer 2019. I completed my final chemo treatment just shy of two months before I was scheduled to leave for camp and I knew most likely there would not be MUCH hair on my head for camp. I am grateful to my supportive gyn-onc for allowing me to go to camp and understanding how important it was for my emotional health to achieve this goal.  

One tradition we have at camp, specifically in my unit, is Facepaint Friday. This usually happens right before Shabbat and this year I went in full force. Or rather I went in with a full bald head and allowed the campers to paint an Israeli flag on my head.  No one batted an eye, well maybe some of the counselors did, but everyone insisted it looked great. 

The rejuvenation I felt from being at camp and working in a space where I do my best work, is equivalent to a thousand naps and I didn’t even realize until I got home how much it did for my nefesh, my soul. This year I am committed to continue sharing my story and promoting Ovarian cancer awareness.  At Makom Solel Lakeside we will be having our first ever Cancer Awareness Shabbat in October; this is a small step and I know that Sharsheret will be able to mentor us in this important activity.  

I will leave you with two different Top 5 lists. Both lists share a connection of summer and cancer, which you don’t see too often. Enjoy!

Top 5 challenges of being at camp:

  1. Trying to stay up and talk with friends, but being exhausted.
  2. Watching people look at you and for one minute wondering who are you? 
  3. One half of your painted on eyebrows melting off during the day.
  4. Wearing chemo hats on 100 degree days.
  5. Mosquito bites all over your bald head.

Top 5 Joys at being camp:

  1. Just being at camp and feeling normal.
  2. Being comfortable enough to take off your chemo hat all together since you feel at home.
  3. Putting on just a little makeup and having EVERYONE say, YOU look great!
  4. Facepaint Friday!
  5. Telling the story at our weekly Shabbat Shira(song session) in front of 800 campers, counselors, faculty, and guests, which leads to feeling on top of the world.  

Vanessa M. Ehrlich, RJE

Vanessa is the Director of Lifelong Learning at Makom Solel Lakeside in Highland Park, IL.  She has been a Jewish educator for over 30 years. Follow her Cancer journey at her blog: In One Ehrlich or on Insta and Twitter @VMEhrlich.