Helping Families Minimize the Emotional Side Effects of Cancer
When Lauren Huffmaster was diagnosed with breast cancer eight years ago, she was originally told that it was stage three. She began treatment with the mindset of, “I can just push through and move forward with my life.” However, even during treatment, the cancer continued to spread and her diagnosis changed to metastatic stage four breast cancer six years ago. “At that point I realized that cancer wasn’t going to be just a blip,” said Lauren. “It was going to be my life. I also realized that my three young children would never have a memory that cancer wasn’t present. The question was, what kind of story did I want cancer to have on their life?” Lauren started Adventure Therapy Foundation in 2018 as a way of highlighting everything that’s “good” about the cancer experience and to spread that joy into the lives of other people.
Adventure Therapy Foundation helps local families who are dealing or have dealt with cancer in any way. It began as giving those families a moment away together, like a three nigh vacation somewhere within a three-hour radius of where they lived. Lauren wanted it to be a location where they had never been before, doing at least one thing that they’d never experienced. “When you’re in treatment for a long time, you start to feel very trapped. You go from treatment to treatment or doctor to doctor, and everything is very limited.” Lauren wanted people to spend time out in nature and be able to finally take a deep breath, not just the individual with the diagnosis, but the entire family. “We wanted to make sure the whole family was acknowledged because everybody is affected. You feel grief, but you can’t always feel grief. So how do you give yourself permission to enjoy life? We wanted to give that opportunity to these families.”
Originally Adventure Therapy Foundation was sending one family at a time to enjoy these unique experiences. Then when COVID happened, Lauren had to find a new plan. “The pandemic gave me time to think a little deeper and figure out the purpose of the foundation,” said Lauren. “We decided to purchase a home that became our retreat center so that we could control how it was cleaned and how you got in and out.” After everything opened back up, the foundation transitioned again, and now they offer three to four retreats per year which accommodates five or six families at a time. That way they can get to know each other and find a bond with someone enduring a similar situation.
While everything that Adventure Therapy Foundation offers for the cancer community seems like it would be enough to keep Lauren’s schedule packed, she also has a podcast called Adventures with Scars, is writing a book focused on the unseen experience related to cancer, and has developed a curriculum to shift the dynamic and language around cancer patients. “The word ‘patient’ only refers to me and my relationship with my medicine or my doctor,” said Lauren. “That’s the dominant word people use. I came up with a phrase called the emotional side effects of cancer. We all know about losing your hair and being tired, but what about the emotions that nobody talks about or expects them to linger for years after treatment?” Lauren’s goal is to create a box that can be shipped out any time with family games and activities that have a deeper meaning. “I want to bring families together and acknowledge that everyone has questions and emotions swirling that they don’t necessarily want to talk about with each other because everybody else is also struggling.” Lauren ultimately hopes to bring members closer together despite their difficult experience.
Lauren is always looking for ways to reach and unify the cancer community. This year she launched a program called Kinship which brings together individuals who have something in common other than cancer. Lauren started with 12-15 teachers who gather together every month and Adventure Therapy Foundation sponsors whatever activity they want to do, like dinner and a movie or a book club and craft. “We’re testing out this new system to see if it works,” said Lauren. “We also sent that whole group on a retreat together. It seems to be an amazingly tight knit community already.”
While a portion of what Adventure Therapy Foundation offers is funded by grants, Lauren is always looking for donations to help keep things going. “Grants only pay for growth, so we still need help to make sure that everything that is already established has what it needs to continue, like the retreats.” Local businesses have shown their support, like Brentwood Rotary Club who selected ATF as their nonprofit of the year in 2022. “When a family has a crisis, we want to be able to step in immediately and do what needs to be done,” said Lauren. Lauren has provided legacy photo shoots so that families have that memory to hold onto after a member is no longer with them. She also fully funded a handful of Christmases last year. “We try to make it so that one more thing doesn’t drop for these families. We had three families this year whose kids had been battling cancer for years and then the mom was diagnosed. All that stress really takes a toll on the body. We need to be ready to assist these people.”
It doesn’t look like Lauren’s slowing down any time soon. “I have so many goals and ideas for the future.” Lauren spent a large chunk of 2023 traveling to speak to groups and just signed a contract to be an official consultant with Gilead next year. “My number one goal is to make sure that Adventure Therapy Foundation is completely funded. I don’t take any of the money; I just volunteer my time. I want it to be independent of me so that if I get sicker, it still lives on. It has to be able to stand on its own. It is my legacy.”
by Michelle Lassle
photos by Sara Diotte Photography