BC Children’s Hospital surf trip connects teens through shared experience

Standing alone on a surfboard, Anna Joy connected to something much larger than herself.

The water off Cox Bay Beach in Tofino was dotted with surfers, among them a group from BC Children’s Hospital’s Oncology and Hematology department and Power To Be. The group, newly introduced to each other and the sport, tackled the waves while the instructors from Pacific Surf School threw up hang tens and handed out high fives.

“You couldn’t tell who was a participant and who was a leader or care taker. Everyone was able to try it out,” says Anna Joy, 16. “The fact that people would take time out of their own lives to do something for somebody else, I find that so amazing. I love to see that if they are helping us to have fun, they are able to have fun as well. Everyone can relate to each other in that experience.”

Despite her enthusiasm over time spent in the waves, surfing wasn’t the real draw for Anna Joy to join the adventure.

“It didn’t matter where I was going or what I was going to be doing. The fact that I could spend time with other kids going through similar health experiences – I jumped on that idea right away,” she says.

The group, which included medical staff, was made up of youth with cancer or blood disorders, as well as a few siblings. There is magic in that dynamic, says Andrea Macdonald, Power To Be program facilitator, and the activity itself is a bit of a distraction as people play in nature.

“They are able to come together as youth who have gone through these exceptional circumstances to then discover that they are all just teens, who go through similar situations and dramas in their everyday life too,” Andrea says.

That connection is what Anna Joy was most interested in. Diagnosed with cancer in 2016, she had a brain tumor removed while she was in the middle of inpatient treatment for anorexia, an experience she is very open about.

“I had a lot of experience meeting girls and other people I could connect with about the mental disorder and that was a big help,” she says. “I was never an inpatient for oncology though and I never met another teenage cancer patient.

“I have wonderful friends at school but they don’t know what it is like. I can I talk to them and they support me, but they haven’t been through it.”

Common ground was established on the sand and translated to the waves during the Power To Be surf trip. As the group learned new skills, conversations uncovered shared experiences and unique insights into life.

“I like to know what others either have done or have been through, … so I asked each person at the right time ‘what’s your story?’” she says. “They were all very open about it and didn’t seem to mind talking about it.”

Reflecting those stories, the experience was fluid out on the water.

“It changed from second to second. There would be two seconds where I felt good and balanced on the water, and the next moment I felt like I was going to fall off,” she says. “And sometimes I would. That’s when I thought to myself, ‘how do I make myself feel not unbalanced.’”

One answer to that question surfaced later over dinner. The shared experiences, celebrated around the table, flowed into conversations about where people came from and what they believe in.

“I didn’t realize how open I was in general, being that I hadn’t talked to any new kids since I was little. It was my first experience reaching out past my school community,” she says. “That was a wonderful learning opportunity and a wonderful experience in general.”

From all of us at Power To Be, thank you to the participants, BC Children’s Hospital staff and Pacific Surf School for making this adventure such a great experience!