PLYMOUTH – Friends for 25 years since each being diagnosed with breast cancer, Mary Anne Meeker and Carol Marino are living proof that, as they say, “cancer is not a death sentence”.
Meeker and Marino shared the powerful story of their journey through breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and cure as they sat at Meeker’s house in Plymouth.
Both are members of Camp BraveHearts, a non-profit organization that offers women living with cancer a variety of weekend retreats, each focused on a different theme. More on that later.
“Our goal is to share our story with others who may be starting their journey,” said Marino. “Over the years, we have bonded with many survivors in the area. “
Meeker, who enjoys throwing swimming parties at her home, agreed, saying support for newly diagnosed patients is essential.
“Carol and I are 25 year survivors,” Meeker said. “We let people know that there is life after diagnosis and treatment. There will be good days and bad days, but many more good days to come. “
Marino said she volunteers with the American Cancer Society to work with newly diagnosed patients as they begin their journey to recovery.
“It can get difficult at times,” she said. “We have to offer them emotional support, especially at the beginning. It’s good to have family and friends behind you, but no one knows what it’s like to walk in your shoes better than someone who has been on the journey before.
Marino and Meeker said there are many aspects of how survivors help newly diagnosed patients.
“For example, how the chemo will release their hair,” Marino said. “We are preparing them for this. We suggest that they consider purchasing a wig. And we share a lot of other tips.
Meeker, 82, was diagnosed in February 1996 at the age of 57. Due to family commitments, she postponed her mastectomy until June 1996. Meeker did not receive chemotherapy, but was prescribed tamoxifen for a period of five years thereafter.
Meeker is a woman of faith and she believes in the power of prayer and had a great support network within her family and friends, but it was in the hospital that she met Marino, a cancer survivor. breast cancer and volunteer with the American Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery Program.
This program pairs a breast cancer survivor who is one year after treatment with a newly diagnosed patient. When Meeker was recovering at home, Marino paid another visit and met his family. Their diagnostic stories were shared and Meeker was pleased with Marino’s positive result with her breast reconstruction and Meeker decided to seek professional advice to see if she was a candidate and indeed she was.
Marino stayed in touch with Meeker throughout his rebuilding to provide him with emotional support.
Marino then invited Meeker to participate in a breast cancer support group at Medical Oncology Associates where their friendship grew and they met other survivors who shared their stories and knew exactly how they felt. They participated in this group and continued to share their experiences for several years and it was there that they met three other young women who have become strong advocates for women cancer survivors.
It was through the opportunities given to them through Medical Oncology Associates that they formed the nonprofit Camp BraveHearts – a women’s oncology camp. The first BraveHearts retreat took place in September 2001, and Meeker and Marino have been with the organization since its inception.
As fate would have it, this home visit and the telephone contact that followed led to a friendship that is still strongly intact to this day.
Marino, 69, is from Wilkes-Barre Township and was diagnosed in February 1994 at the age of 42 after a physical exam by her gynecologist which was not detected on her mammogram. When given the choice between a lumpectomy or a mastectomy, Marino chose the latter because she believed it would give her the greatest peace of mind. She was prescribed four cycles of chemotherapy. Eating was a challenge during these treatments and her main source of livelihood was – don’t laugh – Taco Bell.
After recovering from chemotherapy, Marino wanted to help others who were about to embark on their own cancer journey. She was introduced to the American Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery program in 1996 and has supported over 100 women during that time.
Marino also continued to attend support group meetings for several years and is still involved with Camp BraveHearts.
Karen Haag, a former Wilkes University girls’ basketball coach and breast cancer survivor, is one of three women who co-founded Camp BraveHearts in 2001.
Haag, Joyce Chulock, and Lori Walsh were patients of Dr. David Greenwald of Medical Oncology Associates in Kingston. All three had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Dr. Greenwald’s wife, Carol, a mental health counselor, helped organize the trip and the group.
Dr Greenwald said the three women became aware of an event taking place in upstate New York, so he suggested they attend.
Haag said the event was called “Good Days and Special Times” and was held at Keuka Lake in the Finger Lakes in New York City.
“We signed them up, paid their booking fees and they even borrowed my car,” Dr Greenwald said. “They all needed psychological and emotional support. And they came back from the event and organized Camp BraveHearts.
Chulock and Walsh have since passed away, and Haag continues to coordinate the organization from his home in Albany, NY.
Camp BraveHearts, a women’s oncology camp, continues today. Before the pandemic, weekend camps were held and will resume soon. Virtual meetings were organized during the pandemic.
Weekend camps feature different themes and include activities such as whitewater rafting, clip-on boat trips, yoga and exercise therapy, relaxing treatments, art workshops and hikes in nature.
“We were looking to meet people, bond and get support,” Haag said. “We came back from that first event extremely energetic and determined that we had to do something. “
And Camp BraveHearts was born, organized as a non-profit organization, and it grew to have members all over the country.
Haag said the first camp was held at the YMCA’s Camp Kresge and quickly expanded to four cams per year at places like Shelter Island NY, Double H. Ranch in Lake Luzerne NY and various sites in the Poconos.
Haag said up to 65 people attended each camp. Due to the number of accommodations, attendance is limited.
“We want to make sure everyone has a quality experience,” Haag said.
Haag thanks his volunteers – a team of 11 who contribute and put everything in place for the camps.
“Camp BraveHearts has become more than I ever imagined, but we always want to do more,” said Haag. “In the camps we can see the healing – the friendships formed are extremely inspiring and precious. He’s worth the pain. We truly receive more than we give.
Haag coached the Wilkes University women’s basketball team for 10 years before moving to the head coach position at Saint Rose College, where she is now associate athletic director.
“BraveHearts occupies my free time and the growth of this fellowship has been phenomenal to see,” she said. “The power of love is incredible! The members of the volunteer team are some of the best people on the planet and they inspire me every day with their generous spirit.
About Camp BraveHearts
Our goal is to provide women who experience any type of cancer with the opportunity to share their life experiences.
Through the exercise, crafts, wellness, outdoors, education and social activities offered at Camp BraveHearts, we will provide participants with the opportunity to learn new skills, increase self-esteem and self-confidence, and to help manage the risks and fears women face during and after treatment.
For more information, call 518-454-2064.