Pre-chemo retreat to Adirondacks

From left, Denise Sheaks Burke and her children Garrett (behind), Austin and Taylor pose on Baker Mountain in Saranac Lake. (Photo provided by Denise Sheaks Burke)

One month ago, my life turned upside down when I was diagnosed with a very rare cancer called synovial sarcoma. Suddenly and without warning, I was launched into a world filled with doctor appointments, specialists and panic. My tumor was in my right foot, and it was removed improperly by a podiatrist who believed it was “nothing.”

I am a single mother of three, and my children’s world has been shaken beyond recognition. The kids and I decided we needed a little rest and relaxation together before chemotherapy starts at the end of July. My doctors want me to begin three rounds of intensive chemotherapy, followed by a right-foot, below-the-knee amputation. We are flying out tonight (Tuesday night) to the East Coast, heading to Saranac Lake. Perhaps if I was being rational, I’d save the money, but suddenly, spending a week with my kids in a place that we go to every summer seems like the most rational thing to do. Saranac Lake is our sanctuary, a place filled with memories, and it allows us a temporary escape from the insanity we are facing when we return.

Ironically, Saranac Lake and the Adirondacks were introduced to me 26 years ago when I was hired to be the camp counselor/nanny for a family at their summer lake house at one of the Adirondack great camps. The grandmother who hired me had cancer, and she wanted me to entertain her grandchildren so that their summer could be filled with fun. I worked for them for five years and spent five summers in the Adirondacks hiking, swimming and canoeing with her grandchildren, and I did my best to make sure the grandchildren had the time of their lives. The grandmother eventually passed away during those five years, but she taught me the importance of making sure the children had traditions and fun, especially when life gets hard.

In a twist of fate, I now head to Saranac Lake with my own children to swim, hike, play cards and have ice cream at our favorite ice cream stand. I also cannot wait to hike Baker Mountain so that I can sit at the top, taking in the view while basking in the memories of the countless times I’ve traversed her trail. Next summer, I will likely be hiking Baker with a prosthetic leg, a completely new experience for me.

I know we cannot escape the reality of our situation, and my kids and I all know it exists, no matter how much we want to forget. My kids cry randomly, and they tell me they’re scared when nobody else is around, so the reality of what is going on in their world is not escaping them. Sometimes, though, we need healthy distractions to put some wind in our sails when we need it most, to help us feel like all things are possible.

Denise Sheaks Burke lives in Thousand Oaks, California, with her three kids: Garrett, Taylor and Austin.