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Colleen McGrath shares her life-saving experience at One Step Camp

Colleen McGrath (center blue shirt) members One Step Camp

Colleen McGrath (center, in blue shirt) and members of One Step Camp

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Updated: July 11, 2013 7:01PM

Cancer is terrifying. And I’ve had “the conversation” too many times. Sitting at dinner when I was 12, my parents explained to me that my mom would become very sick from chemotherapy and radiation, but that she was going to fight as hard as she could so she could raise her little girl. Months later, I held her hand as colon cancer took her life.

Eight months after that, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. And it wasn’t long before the disease struck another member of my family: At the age of 17, I pulled up to my house after a vacation with one of my best friends and was immediately rushed to the hospital to meet my father. There, I learned that he, too, had cancer. I lost my father in 2004.

My cancer diagnosis was different than my parents’diseases. Colon cancer took them both, but I had a chance to live. This was a strange realization for me; I had no experience with cancer survivors, so it was hard to believe I would live. I immediately underwent surgery and chemotherapy — but soon learned that the treatments were worse than the disease.

After chemo, I didn’t recognize myself. I was 83 pounds, bald and depressed. I was so sick that I forgot what it was like to feel happy. My life was consumed by the side effects, hospital visits, fevers and blood transfusions.

After a few months, I couldn’t take it anymore. My father and I sat down and I told my nurse and doctor I was ready to quit chemo and let myselfdie. They were willing to agree to it on one condition: I had to go to a camp for kids with cancer in Lake Geneva, Wis. I agreed to go, assuming I could get out of the commitment. All I envisioned were kids just as sick as me, lying in bed.

Weeks later, I found I was completely wrong. We arrived at One Step Camp, and it was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. Water, woods and cabins with truly happy campers filled the campus. Within hours, something magical happened: I saw cancer survivors for the first time. Some of my counselors were former campers and some of the other kids had disabilities I would never have to face — but everyone was always included in everything we did. For once, we weren’t told no, we weren’t sheltered and wrapped in bubble wrap. We were reminded to have a childhood: Swim in a lake, kick a soccer ball, run, play, end the day with a campfire — all while surrounded by a community. We had a full medical team should we need anything, but we were never forced to talk about our illness.

Naturally, my fellow campers and counselors became my best friends, my second family, my greatest memories. The experience inspired me to continue my treatment, and I eventually went into remission. When I faced cancer again at 27 — something I’m still facing a year later — this community did the same exact thing it did for me when I was 14: Saved my life and reminded me why I loved it.

This year, One Step Camp celebrated its 35th anniversary. And I’m now proud to serve as the camp’s development coordinator and Team One step director (our Chicago Marathon team). We’ve had more than 10,000 campers attend, and now offer 12 weeks of camp each year. My story is not unique — each camper and volunteer falls in love with it just as I did, and can’t imagine missing an opportunity to be with these amazing kids.

At One Step, we have a cure they don’t have in the hospitals. We get to cure the spirit. And as I’ve learned at camp, if you can cure the spirit, you can cure the disease.

For information on how to become a counselor at summer or winter camp, help run a fundraiser or join One Step’s Chicago Marathon team (registration ends Monday night), email Colleen at or visit

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