This past fall, I was the beneficiary of a four-day trip to an upscale spa in the Wisconsin Dells, just north of Madison. So were 11 other women from my Detroit area Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC) support group. Everything was paid for — even the ride to and from the airport. A deceased woman in our group left behind an astoundingly thoughtful and generous husband who set up a foundation to fund these luxury spa trips.
When I was contacted by our support group leader via email that my name was pulled from a hat, it made my day. Our Detroit support group has 20 members, but there were only 12 spots. So not everyone got to go.
I understood from the first six who went that it would be wonderful, but they could not disclose details. I imagined it as four days of pure bliss — gourmet food, light exercise, spa services, more spa services, making new friends with cancer, etc. I looked forward to it for months.
My expectations were slightly askew. It was not a carefree vacation at a spa in the bucolic forests of northern Wisconsin. Rather it was a cancer retreat with a daily agenda that started early and with activities carefully crafted and operated by the Wisconsin-based non-profit Breast Cancer Recovery. A program director and volunteers ran it. This team of women had different stages of MBC, which was comforting to the attendees from Michigan. We also were joined with MBC attendees from Wisconsin and Minnesota.
While we were treated to a deluxe private room and an over-the-top breakfast each morning, it had to be consumed by 8:30 a.m. in the restaurant or brought to the circle to eat. Yes, the circle. We spent long stretches of time sitting there on stiff folding chairs, an especially painful undertaking for me with nerve damage in my spine and thigh. This routine required setting my alarm for 6:30 a.m. so I could shower and do my morning rituals before circle time. Keep in mind I never get up that early.
In fact, circle time, which happened intermittently through the morning, afternoon and evening, became a ritual I was not always happy to join. There were all sorts of unleashing of feelings such as fear, anger, frustration, and sentiment regarding life before and after the dreadful MBC took hold. Luckily, the leader had a three-minute timer that kept each participants’ story to a minimum. I provided a bit of levity playing the bad ass of the group. I’m decent at being self deprecating and sarcastic, and it sometimes makes people laugh. But, honestly, it serves as a way for me to hide my emotions.
I am also aware in these kinds of groups that I’m the only widow, and I feel sorry for myself and jealous of others.
Enough negatives. The spa was as lavish as a luxury hotel with hallways and rooms that smelled like lavender and lemon. The staff was kind and patient. There were hot and cool water pools and showers everywhere and hot tub motifs that copied the rugged nature of the Dells.
A highlight for me was finding a large, empty meditation room with panoramic windows that looked out to the woods brimming with prowling deer. I hung out there by myself because most women didn’t stray far from the circle-time room. In fact, if I had one criticism of this retreat it was too sedentary. We should have got up from our seats regularly to stretch or stroll around the indoor and outdoor grounds of the spa. During a break one day, I made the bold move of going outside for a walk in the woods. There wasn’t a soul outside except for the doorman.
They fed us well; we even had our own chef, a tall, good-looking, young charmer. We were privy to three rich meals a day with an afternoon smoothie thrown in.
Most of the women were friendly, open about their lives and brave. A few were surprisingly young — way too young for this kind of cancer. One had a child under five. The U.S. MBC population is about 150,000 and growing. I’m trying to educate people about it because almost no one understands it. Until my diagnosis, I didn’t have a clue.
It is the kind of breast cancer that kills because the cancer tumors in the breast, sometimes undetected as in my case, take a quiet, one-way trip from the breast to the bones, liver, lungs or brain. This is called metastasis. Most of the other kinds of breast cancer can be cured via a lumpectomy or mastectomy followed by chemo and/or radiation. MBC can be treated, but never cured. Once it metastasizes, there is no remission. You are never cancer free. Still, there are drugs that force it to lie dormant for periods of time. And, for that, I am thankful.
Would I attend another Breast Cancer Recovery event? Certainly. I learned a few things, enjoyed making new pals and ate well. I now have a block of new Facebook friends from Wisconsin and Minnesota, and I am again reassured I am not alone with this miserable disease.