How One Breast Cancer Survivor Is Helping Others Heal Through Adventure
Like so many others, Lauren Huffmaster was devastated when she heard that she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. It didn’t take long, however, for her to see purpose through the pain, an opportunity to fulfil a lifelong aspiration of running her own nonprofit organization. Huffmaster decided to use her experience fighting breast cancer to guide others through their journey with the disease.
The breast cancer survivor and Epic Care patient is the force behind the Adventure Therapy Foundation, which gives families touched by cancer the chance to enjoy an outdoor experience together and find emotional release – “to step beyond the confines of their comfort zone and experience the freedom and healing that can take place within the vastness of the outdoors.”
The idea for the program grew out of Huffmaster’s cancer battle, which began at age 35, when doctors diagnosed her with Stage 3 breast cancer. The mom of three – her children were 2, 4 and 6 at the time – had recently moved to a new state. Suddenly, she was going through chemotherapy, radiation and several surgeries in a place where she knew very few people.
Many women walked that path before her. In the United States, breast cancer is the second-most common cancer among women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2017, the most recent year for which data was available, doctors diagnosed nearly 6,500 women in the country in Huffmaster’s age group with breast cancer.
Thanks to Epic Care, Huffmaster had a team of dedicated oncology specialists and an expertly trained breast surgeon providing state-of-the-art treatment options at her disposal. The Northern California-based practice’s comprehensive care for women and men facing breast cancer and breast diseases includes not only diagnostic tools such as ultrasounds and biopsies, but also cryoablation of fibroadenomas and small cancers, high-risk surveillance and breast cancer prevention.
Epic Care specializes in and dedicates its practice to the treatment of breast diseases, however, even with the most sophisticated, modern and compassionate techniques for diagnosis and treatment, breast cancer is a fierce, unpredictable foe.
“It’s not about me dying”
About 18 months into her treatment, Huffmaster underwent a scan ahead of a preventive surgery. But when her oncologist called, on the last day of school before Christmas break, with an entire class of kids at her house for a party, her life changed again.
“She just kept saying, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,’” Huffmaster said, recalling the conversation with her oncologist. “She didn’t even have to tell me what happened.”
Huffmaster now had Stage 4 metastatic cancer that had spread all through her spine, hip bones, femur and ribs. Her life passed into shadow for the next couple of months, a time when Huffmaster said she “just couldn’t think beyond death.” She began making preparations for the family – separating her belongings into three piles for her children and cleaning out closets so her husband wouldn’t have to do it later – after what she saw as her approaching, “inevitable” death.
But then something in her switched – and it not only altered the way she looked at her own life, but also brought her to a place of wanting to help others.
“I could have 10 years but spend every day dying and it wouldn’t mean anything,” Huffmaster said. “Or, I could have 10 days and spend every day living and really be the person I want to be.”
That’s when the idea for Adventure Therapy hit her. Since college, Huffmaster had envisioned herself running a nonprofit organization, and now the time had come to realize that dream. Weakness became strength, she said.
“I was like, ‘It’s not about me dying. It’s about me doing something important,’” Huffmaster said. “And so, I shrugged off all the fear, and here I am.”
Focusing on the cancer community
Huffmaster started the Adventure Therapy Foundation four years ago, within months of her Stage 4 diagnosis, and today it helps both cancer patients and the multiple generations of people affected by a diagnosis.
“My focus is the cancer community,” she said. “It’s not just breast cancer but anyone impacted, meaning their caregivers, their children, their spouses.”
The foundation’s work involves a coaching program that leads up to a specially designed retreat for patients and their families.
The program also helps recognize the work of caregivers – the people Huffmaster said “carry your burden and theirs.” Teaching patients and their loved ones how to express their feelings and needs can keep relationships strong, she added.
“Caregivers are so much a part of the process, yet we never, ever talk about them,” she said. “All we talk about is the patient. … But we have to acknowledge and start seeing, again, survivorship as this bigger thing. We have co-survivors.”
Now, Huffmaster is also developing an app to connect cancer patients to local people, communities and resources around the country. It’s geared toward the “What now?” moment that happens after patients learn they have cancer.
Having a survivor to lean on “would be hugely cathartic” in challenging moments, Huffmaster said.
“You need someone in your region, someone you can go to get coffee with,” she said. “Or if you’re having a bad day, they can come sit with you at treatment.”
Personalized care and acknowledgement
Throughout her experience with Epic Care, Huffmaster felt the positive impact of a personal touch.
“Everyone has been very nice,” she said. “The chemo nurses have a lot of time, so they talk to you and you get to know them, and that’s always nice to have someone who you know their name, you know their kid’s name. You can come in and have something to talk about.”
Her doctors were great, too. She said she never had to wait more than five minutes to see them.
“That’s always good when you don’t feel great,” Huffmaster said. “You don’t want to sit in a room and wait for an hour.”
Understanding the value of authentic connection and acknowledgment during challenging times, such as radiation treatment, she believes more cancer centers can deliver patients the kind of comprehensive, personal support Epic Care offers as a community-based multi-specialty provider. And she brings to her foundation that insider knowledge of what works and what people need.
“Every day I talk to a stranger who’s just been diagnosed, and I say, ‘You have to go through all of this, but think about the strengths. Find the good,’” she said.
Choosing who you’re going to be
Huffmaster founded Adventure Therapy so she could have an outlet to serve others impacted by cancer. Faced with the possibility of death, Huffmaster forged her life’s work. “Cancer, for me, is not a valley darkened by the shadow of mountain-top experiences,” she wrote of the organization.
“Cancer is the calling of my life. It is through my brokenness that I hope to demonstrate love. I know the pain cancer causes. My own experience motivates me to seek out solutions that may minimize the burden of cancer from the lives of others.”
As her foundation efforts have increased, her own situation has improved. When she underwent a scan in February 2020, doctors found no cancer in her bones, and she’s had no recurrence.
With the support and guidance of Epic Care and its talented, community-focused medical team, Huffmaster has gone from patient to survivor – and one with a renewed purpose in life. She saw her options and made a choice, something she encourages others to emulate.
“At some point, you have to stop choosing fear, stop choosing to believe you’re going to die when the doctors say you’re done with treatment and everything’s fine,” Huffmaster said. “At some point, you have to start choosing who you’re going to be.”
Epic Care is a multi-service health center, with locations throughout the Northern California East Bay area, committed to providing high-quality, personalized, value-driven care to our patients. Specializing in oncology, surgery and breast health, we give our expertise, technology, information and support to women and their families, so they feel empowered to make informed choices about their care. We are here when you need us.
Contact Epic Care today to schedule an appointment, find a location near you and start choosing who you’re going to be.