Camp Mak-A-Dream — with its ropes courses, zip-lining, hiking trails and horses — looks the same as any other retreat center in the United States.

But one thing sets it apart: Every participant is someone affected by cancer. Camp is free, except for travel costs.

“We do as many travel scholarships as possible,” says executive director Kim McKearnan. “It depends on our funding and how much we can do.”

We sent photographer Louise Johns into the rolling valleys of Gold Creek, Mont., where she spent a day at Camp Mak-A-Dream with 61 women, plus volunteers. (Some were past attendees.) They came from different states, different stages and different types of cancer. From Sept. 14 to 18, they gathered at Camp Mak-A-Dream to meet other women in similar situations. Johns was immediately welcomed into the family.

“The feeling [there] is a lot of giving, warmth and understanding. This community that they create is incredibly warm and inviting.”

Four women set out for an early morning hike as part of the women’s cancer retreat. Despite the challenging weather, three of the women hiked to the top of the butte behind Camp Mak-A-Dream.
Four women set out for an early morning hike as part of the women’s cancer retreat. Despite the challenging weather, three of the women hiked to the top of the butte behind Camp Mak-A-Dream.
Cheryl Albright and Bette Monahan hike together.
Cheryl Albright and Bette Monahan hike together.
Bette Monahan pauses on her walk up the butte. Monahan, a breast cancer survivor, is on her fifth year at the women’s cancer retreat. She looks forward to coming to camp each year and says, “Camp is the best place on earth.”
Bette Monahan pauses on her walk up the butte. Monahan, a breast cancer survivor, is on her fifth year at the women’s cancer retreat. She looks forward to coming to camp each year and says, “Camp is the best place on earth.”
“It was pretty amazing to watch these women persevere. For me, it was a metaphor to see their endurance and the act of hiking a mountain in pouring rain, sleet and snow. And reflecting on what they’ve been through, [I realized] if anyone could do it, these women could,” says Johns.
“It was pretty amazing to watch these women persevere. For me, it was a metaphor to see their endurance and the act of hiking a mountain in pouring rain, sleet and snow. And reflecting on what they’ve been through, [I realized] if anyone could do it, these women could,” says Johns.

During the five-day retreat, women participated in outdoor activities, workshops, classes and fireside chats. They did everything from silk scarf printing classes to lectures on monkey mind.

The women from a cabin called “Bitterroot” adopted Johns and took her under their wing. They allowed her to see — through their lenses and hers — the joy and delight of their friendships.

“A few of the women expressed to me that this was the place where they found themselves after cancer,” says Johns. “They just feel like this is the best place on earth, and this is home to them because of the women that are there. You can really tell that it means so much to them.”

During the women’s cancer retreat, women take turns photographing each other with the bear statue on Camp Mak-A-Dream‘s campus.
During the women’s cancer retreat, women take turns photographing each other with the bear statue on Camp Mak-A-Dream‘s campus.
Women learn how to make their own silk scarves as part of an art workshop. Each year the camp brings in local artists to teach workshops for the participants.
Women learn how to make their own silk scarves as part of an art workshop. Each year the camp brings in local artists to teach workshops for the participants.
Hermine Soler paints a landscape resembling Gold Creek, Mont. during the silk scarf workshop. Soler, a lymphoma survivor, is from Tacoma, Wash. where she lives on a farm.
Hermine Soler paints a landscape resembling Gold Creek, Mont. during the silk scarf workshop. Soler, a lymphoma survivor, is from Tacoma, Wash. where she lives on a farm.
Luanne Greer amuses her friends and cabin mates with her costume accessories during a fireside chat. Fireside chats are a safe space for women to share their stories, laughter and tears with one another.
Luanne Greer amuses her friends and cabin mates with her costume accessories during a fireside chat. Fireside chats are a safe space for women to share their stories, laughter and tears with one another.
Jackie Pryor, a first-year camper from Georgia, is a four-time lymphoma survivor. At age 36, after several relapses, her twin brother donated his stem cells to her. She’s now been in remission for three years. “Out of all the members of my immediate family, he was a perfect match … I know that’s a big part of the reason I’m sitting here and I’m healthy today.”
Jackie Pryor, a first-year camper from Georgia, is a four-time lymphoma survivor. At age 36, after several relapses, her twin brother donated his stem cells to her. She’s now been in remission for three years. “Out of all the members of my immediate family, he was a perfect match … I know that’s a big part of the reason I’m sitting here and I’m healthy today.”
DeNise Waker has been fighting cancer since she was 18 years old. A New Orleans native, she currently lives in Colorado working as a medical receptionist. She has survived cancer five times throughout her life, and believes in the strength of God to get her through it. “I do not want to look like how I feel. So if I feel like crap on the inside, I don’t want it to show on my outside. And when it gets to that point, I know it’s time for me to go rest my body.”
DeNise Waker has been fighting cancer since she was 18 years old. A New Orleans native, she currently lives in Colorado working as a medical receptionist. She has survived cancer five times throughout her life, and believes in the strength of God to get her through it. “I do not want to look like how I feel. So if I feel like crap on the inside, I don’t want it to show on my outside. And when it gets to that point, I know it’s time for me to go rest my body.”
Women pose for a photo during theme night. Theme night is a tradition, and this year is no different. Participants bring costumes to match the theme.
Women pose for a photo during theme night. Theme night is a tradition, and this year is no different. Participants bring costumes to match the theme.
Jackie Pryor laughs as she recognizes her friend.
Jackie Pryor laughs as she recognizes her friend.
Many women express that their time at Camp Mak-A-Dream is their favorite part of the year, and the community has changed their lives. One woman expressed that it’s a place where they are “free to be [them]selves and let [their] inner child return.”
Many women express that their time at Camp Mak-A-Dream is their favorite part of the year, and the community has changed their lives. One woman expressed that it’s a place where they are “free to be [them]selves and let [their] inner child return.”

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