Dr. Sarah West, an associate professor in kinesiology at Trent University, has dedicated much of her research life to studying the impact of exercise and physical activity on children with chronic conditions. Most recently, Professor West has been leading a research team investigating the impact and benefits of summer camp for kids with cancer.
Prof. West is the primary investigator on study funded by a Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Partnership Engage grant looking at the impact of Campfire Circle (formerly known as Camp Ooch & Camp Trillium), which is a recreational camp for pediatric oncology patients and their families. Campfire Circle is a medically safe environment, and the only overnight oncology camp in Canada able to provide onsite intravenous chemotherapy and blood transfusions.
“Through this research project we are looking at how attending a 12-day camp affects hope, resilience, and stress on children currently being treated for cancer,” said Prof. West. “At the camp, the kids get to do amazing activities such as water skiing, fishing, swimming, high-ropes course, arts and crafts, music, among other exciting activities. With data collected through a series of surveys and biological samples from the campers, we can see whether the experience has an impact on their psychosocial health and overall well-being, and therefore has therapeutic significance.”
Rising to the challenges
Environmental & Life Sciences master’s students Nathan O’Keefe and Sarah O’Connell are working alongside Prof. West on this study.
Nathan was able to conduct the evaluation of the Campfire Circle virtual oncology camp in the summer of 2021. Through the administration of online anonymous surveys, he was able to demonstrate that virtual oncology camp improved children’s resilience and hope, but did not change parental stress.
With the summer camp operating in-person this year, Prof. West, Nathan and Sarah were able to attend camp in-person and meet with campers to complete surveys and collect salivary samples for measuring levels of stress hormones.
“It was a bit of a whirlwind trying to complete the study through the pandemic, but I’m really proud of what Prof. West and I accomplished in such a short-time period,” says Nathan, who successfully defended his M.Sc. in August and whose research was recently presented at the International Psycho-Oncology Society (IPOS) World Congress in Toronto.
For Sarah (O’Connell), who had previously worked as a counsellor at one of Campfire Circle’s sites, the project offered a chance to see camp from a different perspective.
“I saw the positive impact it had on the kids, so being able to research it and hopefully get some evidence-based data has been a great experience,” she says.
Emerging evidence-based data emerging
Having evidence-based data is expected to lend additional credibility to the therapeutic value of summer camp for children with cancer. “Moving forward, we’re hoping it will increase the desire to fund the camping experience and future research on which programs are impacting kids the most and in what way,” says Prof. West.