From Survivor to Support

Cancer survivor Mykel Vanek talks about her time with Camp Journey


Erin Rebar for The Easterner

EWU student Mykel Vanek is interning at Camp Journey this year

By Erin Rebar, A&E and Features Editor

Contributed by Camp Journey

To the outsider looking in, Mykel Vanek’s childhood was relatively normal. Growing up in a single parent household near Spokane, Washington, Vanek went to school in the small town of Valleyford until 8th grade. At that point, she moved with her family into Spokane and attended high school. She then began the running start tract and started school at EWU. Currently, Vanek is an EWU senior double majoring in VCD and communications and public relations.

Appearances, however, aren’t always what they seem.

When she was two years old, Vanek was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Her single mother, who had just turned 19 or 20, was devastated.

“There were a lot of hard times,” said Vanek. “I lived in the hospital for three years. I had a lot of complications throughout my treatment. They didn’t really offer good cancer treatment for little kids back when I was diagnosed, so I was kind of the guinea pig generation for cancer treatments.”

Contributed by Camp Journey

She beat it, went into remission at the age of 7 and was able to attend school like a normal kid. Cancer, however, as it normally does, hadn’t left without a scar.

“I was teased a lot in elementary school because the other kids didn’t really understand what cancer was or how to handle it,” Vanek said.

On top of that, Vanek had trouble fitting in with the other kids whose parents struggled to accept Vanek’s very young mother. The pair found themselves ostracized and Vanek withdrew.

“I think the majority of children who come out of cancer treatment when they’re younger are really reserved and shy and don’t know how to interact with people,” said Vanek. “As I got older and realized that there were other people out there like me that didn’t criticize me or ostracize me for what I’d gone through, it really opened my eyes to different perspectives.”

Contributed by Camp Journey

In second grade, Vanek found out about Camp Journey, a summer camp for children who are currently suffering from cancer or are cancer survivors, from her teacher. The camp, which is medically supervised and free to all campers, offers a full summer camp experience to kids who otherwise wouldn’t be able to go.

“I was really hesitant to go at first. I wasn’t really a social kid, even though I liked talking to people. My mom made me go and I’m really glad that she did. I went every summer after that.”

It turns out, that the teacher, combined with her mom’s insistence, changed her life.

Vanek attended Camp Journey as a camper for the next 12 years. When she aged out of the program, she was trained as a camp leader and graduated with her very own counselor name, Mahalo, given to her because of her cheerful nature and her ability to handle tough situations, bringing people together with ease.

Contributed by Camp Journey

After graduation from the leadership program, Vanek said she knew she had to continue attending, if not as a camper, then as a camp volunteer.

“We were required to take a break year [from camp], so I had to take a summer off,” said Vanek. “Of course I went back on visitor’s day because I can’t miss camp, even if I can’t be a part of it. I really love how there’s just a community of hope [at Camp Journey] and you just really get a second family out of it. I’ve gone through a lot of hardships outside of camp. An example is, my grandpa passed away on New Year’s, not last year but the year before. Of course my family was devastated. He was the only male figure. I got a letter in the mail and it was a card from camp saying, ‘we’re sorry for your loss.’ I think that’s just a really good example of how you just get a second family out of it. It’s amazing.”

Last summer, Vanek attended Camp Journey as a volunteer for the first time. This year, she is interning at the camp as their Marketing and PR director.

Contributed by Camp Journey

“I was always different anyways, whether I would have had cancer or not,” said Vanek. “I feel like there are either two outcomes when you have to go through a situation like that when you’re that little. You either make the best of it and become the person you should be, or you pen it all up and get really angry and lash out. I’m really glad I didn’t go the negative way because there are a lot of people who do.”

In the future, Vanek says she hopes to be a spokesperson for an organization she believes in. She plans on continuing her work at Camp Journey for the rest of her life.

“Even though [cancer] was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me in my life, I feel like it was also the best thing that’s ever happened to me too,” said Vanek. “It introduced me to Camp Journey and built my character throughout the years.”


If you are interested in donating to Camp Journey’s new Fund-A-Camper campaign, click HERE