“One, two, three … namaste,” said Bollywood dance instructor Swati Chaturvedi.
In response, several women put their hands together for the traditional Hindi greeting that means both “hello” and “I bow to the divine in you.”
They’re learning a series of Bollywood dance moves from Chaturvedi at Camp Discovery. The camp for women who have survived cancer meets at the MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper University Medical Center in Camden.
Soon, music from the Indian film “Kapoor and Sons” fills the otherwise humdrum meeting room with its bland carpeting and too-bright lights.
All of the dancers are in different stages of recovery from cancer. Some women are still undergoing treatment, while others have been survivors for several years. On this day, scarves in hand and hips popped out, they look vibrant.
Maria Sarmiento has survived colon and breast cancer. From New Jersey by way of Peru, she said that dance offers a relief like none other.
“Oh, I love it! It doesn’t matter if it hurts me, I have to dance, even if it’s just a little bit,” she said in Spanish. “The truth is I’m a bit weary, but it doesn’t matter!”
That’s music to the ears of Colleen Maher of the University of the Sciences and Rochelle Mendonca of Temple University. They’re occupational therapists who run this camp funded by the University of the Sciences and small foundation grants.
Cancer can take a huge toll on mental health and self-esteem — even after recovery, said Mendonca.
“It’s actually the social piece and the emotional piece that’s sometimes bigger than the physical piece, and I don’t think that people are realizing that,” she said. “And what’s also happening is, because of medical treatments now, women are living longer with cancer. They are living in the community and expecting to live life.”
Camden has been identified as an underserved community for cancer patients. And there are many women of color here who are disproportionately affected by some cancers. Black women, for example, are more likely to die of breast cancer than any other ethnic group. Rates of cervical cancer are higher among Latinas and black women than white women.
“What we’re also realizing is that these women of color don’t get the services that other women might be getting,” Mendonca said. “So we see a lot of African-American women and Hispanic women coming to a lot of our camps.”
The camp offers a place where cancer survivors can be with other women like them.
“I think what we’re hearing from all of our women is that, once they’re discharged from the hospital, everyone thinks they’re going to go back to life and live life as it was before the diagnosis,” Mendonca said. “And that does not happen.
“All of them basically say, our families do not understand what we’ve gone through.”
But this class is a place where women can meet and socialize with people who understand exactly what they’re going through. The camp offers a mix of activities such as dancing, painting and making crafts. The women typically form little groups and end up with new friends they can call up for a cup of coffee or a Zumba partner.
Making a difference
The camp makes a real difference in the women’s emotional well-being, according to the research of Mendonca and Maher. Many women become more confident over the long term, they said, and are able to meet more of their goals.
Earlier in the day, women wrote down words that described their current mood.
Cynthia Casey chose “motivated.”
“I’m motivated cause they got me up at 9 o’clock to be here and come back, so now I’m ready to try to make sure I schedule myself to stay out of the bed,” she said. Everyone applauded.
Her friend Linda Gaylord Quann agreed.
“Well it’s been good for me because I’ve been kind of in a funk — I needed something that would brighten my mood,” Quann said.
For Maria Sarmiento, the word of the moment is “attitude” or “actitud” in Spanish.
At the end of the dance lesson, she said it had been a hard day because of lingering pain and exhaustion. But, as she shared a little bit of her life philosophy, it’s easy to see why the camp works so well for her.
“Today, you can cry,” she said in Spanish. “You can suffer, hit your head, it doesn’t matter. But tomorrow, you get up, and draw back the curtains so that the sun can come in. Because the sun comes out every day.”
For one week in the summer, women cancer survivors are greeting that morning sun, one “namaste” at a time.