Thank You Bluebird Cancer Couples Retreat

Good morning and Happy Tuesday to everyone! I apologize for the delay in this blog. Out of all the blogs I have done, this is probably the most important for me to convey the emotion and passion gained from this weekend through my words. I have done a lot of reflecting these last few days for the best way to present it. With all that transpired at the retreat in just 48 hours, it is very difficult. I hope through my description you get some sense of the deep impact this had on all of our lives. We had an amazing and perfect weekend. We hope and pray your weekend was as refreshing, eye opening, and emotionally charged as ours. We hope you learned about life as we did, shared your life with emotion and passion, and lived your life to the fullest extent possible because time is precious. Our weekend was filled with experiences, memories, and moments of emotion that can only be explained by God. In order to attempt to explain this weekend, I must detail the path on how Andrea and I came to learn of Bluebird because it is nothing short of a miracle and divine intervention.

The day Bluebird Cancer Retreats and our lives crossed paths was on our 5 year wedding anniversary, July 27. Unbeknownst to us at the time, we were receiving one of the greatest anniversary gifts of our lives. My wonderful and amazing coworkers at the Grand Rapids airport were running a bake sale benefit for our family for the entire day. Fate would have it an incredible person named Renee was traveling out of the country that day to watch a family member compete in the Olympics, and she happened to be the executive director of Bluebird Cancer Retreats. Andrea, Landon, Logan, and I had not arrived at the airport yet, but Renee stopped at the benefit, read our story, and gave my friends her information. I contacted her immediately, and Bluebird Cancer Retreats was now on our radar. If it were not for her flying out that day, we would never have found out about Bluebird.

The retreat was not for a couple of months, but we had every intention of attending. However, I knew a lot could change in that time frame. We did not know if we would be able to leave Logan, especially if Andrea was unable to get enough milk stored because of Logan’s lack of sleep. We did not know what my condition would be. We did not know where I would be or what treatment I would be undergoing. The retreat was a ways away, and I just kept in contact with Renee and updated her often.

As if the very chance encounter of Renee flying out the same day as our benefit wasn’t enough of a miracle, the two weeks before the retreat a few obstacles to our attending the retreat presented themselves. First, Logan was not sleeping through the night, and Andrea could not get her supply up enough to feed Logan for an entire weekend. She felt very discouraged and upset at the notion of feeding Logan formula. With Landon, he was sleeping 13 hours through the night at this age. Andrea’s supply was abundant. This was not the case with Logan, and we were worried formula would cause unwanted issues for a baby who already has sleeping issues. We did not want to place that burden on a family member for the weekend. Fortunately, Andrea called the nurse line for our pediatrician and spoke with a very helpful and informative nurse who went through everything with Andrea. She explained the best formula to use, issues to possibly expect, and, most importantly, to not worry. Andrea was relieved. In addition to being able to relax about formula, a coworker of Andrea’s offered to travel to Holland and pick up whatever milk Andrea was able to store by Saturday night and bring it to Logan. What a blessing! Andrea was very relieved and able to relax now. We were one step closer to attending the treat.

Next, as most of you know, my symptoms with this regimen are just awful. We are trying to get a grasp on them with each new round. For this round, I was in a lot of pain and had not slept more than 4 hours a night in the previous two weeks. I could not concentrate. I could not carry on any sort of meaningful conversation. How was I suppose to put my heart and soul into a weekend to fully appreciate and learn from it? How was I suppose to enjoy the alone time with my beautiful wife? I was, quite honestly, no fun to be be around because of the condition I was in. However, miraculously, my symptoms drastically improved two days prior to the retreat. I was able to get a good night sleep the night before our departure. We were meant to attend. God was taking care of us. Looking back, I can see why.

I’ll start out by saying what was discussed last at the retreat. We were discussing the methodology of explaining to a newcomer the impact of the retreat or somebody considering attending. It’s impossible. There is no brochure, no word of mouth, no expression, and certainly no description that could possibly entail and encompass what this retreat and support group does for an individual with cancer and their caregiver. It is a dynamic weekend filled with emotion, passion, laughter, friendship and bonding. Words cannot replicate the true experience. It is unique to each retreat. The impact for each individual is different. What one couple takes away is completely different than any of the others. How in the world could you possibly describe to a newcomer the deep meaning, the emotions, and the passion shared by so many people and the way it touches your very heart and soul? You cannot possibly. All you can do is tell your reflection and personal view of the weekend and hope it’s enough to convince someone how much it is needed in their life. We all go in with different mindsets. Some don’t think they truly need the experience, others know full well how important a weekend shared with individuals enduring the same life-altering diagnosis that cancer presents can change their life and give new meaning to hope. We were the first type of couple.

I will be completely honest. I did not think we needed such a weekend, but I love to meet new people. I wanted to attend for reasons other than what I came out of the weekend knowing. I love to learn from individuals, but as far as what support groups are said to do for couples, I didn’t think we needed it. We are a strong, faithful, God fearing couple. We communicate very well and love each other more than each other’s own lives. I will be the first to admit I was wrong. We were wrong. I did not know how important it was to share your life story with those in the same passion-filled, but unfortunate, group we were all thrusted into. Aside from that, it is the unplanned experiences that are the ones difficult to describe and portray the meaning. I will discuss them in a bit, but I can remember 3 distinct moments that touched my heart, revived my soul, and allowed me to remember some of my life before my cancer diagnosis. Unless you experience this awful disease first hand (I hope and pray you will never), you will never know what this does for a cancer patient. Your life forever changes post diagnosis, no matter if it’s Stage I or Stage IV. No matter if is a surgery only treatment, or all three (chemo, radiation, and surgery). Your life stops, but if you can get a glimpse of life, even for a moment, of before that dreadful day, it is cleansing, refreshing, and cathartic.

The retreat staff was incredible. They lived up to everything they promised and more. You go in expecting your run of the mill volunteers only to be floored by their personal stories and why they are there. You learn, very quickly, why they are present and how much caring and pampering us are deeply rooted within their souls. Honestly, I do not like to use the word staff. They are more than that. They should not be grouped with your normal hotel staff, concierge service, valet, coordinators or even counselor. They were our caregivers for the weekend. They have all been in our situation in every known roll of this journey. They know the impact of this weekend even though we did not at first glance. They allowed our caregivers to forget their roll for the weekend, relax, and just enjoy life with everyone. The weekend would not have been what it was without their dedication, support, honesty, love, respect, and care for both the survivor/thriver and caregiver. Saying thank you does no justice. However, thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

The weekend was very structured. It had to be. They had a schedule that was very well thought out. We started out Friday with a meet and greet. We had dinner together, and the evening was probably the most emotionally charged part of the weekend. We confronted our stories. We shared our lives, our fears, our goals, and passion for living. We gave each other hope. We tearfully expressed our most intimate details about our journey. The stories, although incredible and moving on their own, are by themselves ones heard before. On paper, they were stories of tests, diagnosis, and statistics. However, the inspiring, touching, and remarkable aspect was the emotion, strength, love, and faith expressed and instilled through the stories. We are fighters. We are survivors and caregivers. We are love, respect, and dedication. The love for each other was so evident it could be felt and gave you chills. The sum of any support group is much greater than the individual parts. We could move mountains as a team. We have no choice but to give it our all. It is not a game. It is our very being and existence at stake, and we are a team of people who are faced with the ultimate task of beating the odds no matter how depressing and daunting. We will prevail. This session is the one that shocks you, opens your heart, and allows you to enjoy the rest of the weekend. Your story is out there, but the after effects are so much different than expressing our journey to a person untouched by this disease (touched first hand – it effects all of you, I know). The sharing part is difficult, but there is no pity. There is no “I’m so sorry” phrase following the story. Most importantly, there is no change of perspective on each other because we are all in this together. We were able to enjoy each others company for the remainder of the weekend without an elephant in the room. It was amazing.

The planned events and sessions were extremely meaningful. We discussed fears, definitions of words, goals, offered office, and gave suggestions. We learned a tremendous amount from the intended activities. However, as important as the planned events were, the unplanned moments are the ones that shaped our experience and made the weekend so very unique. They were situations nobody could foresee. It was life at its finest expression of love, knowledge, and unpredictability. The range of moments was extensive; the laughter at dinner; the one on one with other couples; sharing our passions in life and what makes us smile; sharing our motivations and joys; and inviting each other in as family. For me, it was my passions in life, besides my family, that were rekindled.

The most amazing story I can tell is one of sharing knowledge and helping another despite what I am going through. For those who have known me my whole life or at least some time, I love to help others. I love to give myself in any capacity to make another’s life a little brighter and to instill hope. What happened at the retreat is nothing short of a miracle. My cancer is very rare. Yearly, there are about 80-100 new cases nationwide. At the time of our registration, I was the only one attending with angiosarcoma. God intervened. The retreat was full and no room for additions. Miraculously, a couple canceled a week prior for unknown reasons. Due to the closeness to the retreat, they went through a stand-by list of couples looking for a voice and not an answering machine. Four couples were called before fate locked in the fifth couple on the list. They answered and she too was diagnosed with angiosarcoma around the same time of my recurrence discovery. Her doctor, whom is not a specialist, had stripped her hope and told her they were out of options after just a few rounds of a single regimen. This was devastating to hear knowing all of the research my family and I have done. You better believe I kicked in to help overdrive. My first goal was to restore hope. Hope is critical. After that, I explained everything we have learned. I emailed all of my sources that evening, and received immediate responses. It is important for all of you to know how critical it is to move fast with this disease. Every one of my contacts knows this fact and will not waste time. We now have the ball rolling to get her the correct help and treatments. She will have the very helpful books I read later today. They are an amazing couple, and I am so glad they are part of the family you and I have grown. It gave me a sense of purpose, besides my family, in life again. It has sparked a fire to do all I can to help not only my new friend, but to help those researching and studying angiosarcomas. It is an amazing feeling.

The next unplanned moment happened during one of the planned activities. The activity involved couple’s teamwork to build a bluebird birdhouse. Andrea and I love to work together and tackle projects. We work very well together. She designs and picks the colors, and I instill my type A, OCD personality in to every detail of completing her vision. While painting each side, we had to leave time to let it dry before putting the details on. To fill this time, there was a boy named Nolan. He was the son and grandson of two of our weekend caregivers helping with everything birdhouse construction. He was an incredibly polite and respectful young man. To my delight, he too had a passion for soccer. His passion was just beginning, and, lucky for me, he brought his soccer ball. Unbeknownst to the staff, I played soccer my whole life. It is one of the most passionate things in my life. Furthermore, I have been unable to exercise for the past 3 weeks due to my side effects. It felt so good to feel my heart rate increase, to feel my breathing rate increase, and to kick the ball around with this young man. It was therapeutic on so many levels for me. It was very refreshing.

As far as unplanned moments go, this next one took me by surprise, and the sequence of events just fell in to place without any effort. With the retreat being on Lake Michigan, Andrea and I did not hesitate to take a walk down the beach, hand in hand, while the sun was setting over the lake. It is one of our most favorite things to do as a couple. Along our walk, we noticed a kite boarder trying to launch from the beach. As we approached, he waived us to come through. We waived back to him with the notion we would stay where we were to watch. He was able to get the correct airflow over the leading edge to get some elevation, but the wind changed. After about 10 minutes of attempts, he brought the kite to the beach and waived us through again. He seemed to be calling it a day with attempts, so we decided to walk through. As we passed, I said hello and nonchalantly mentioned he had the correct airflow but the wind just changed. The friendly gentleman kindly walked over to us and engaged in conversation for about 20 minutes, mostly with me. Through conversation, I learned he is a pilot and owns his own airplane. I have not discussed aviation like this in so long. We discussed the equipment in his airplane, how it flies, the airplanes I flew and their equipment, our favorite things about flying, and everything else you could thing of. He didn’t know my situation. We just spoke as both our lives were enjoyable and filled with passion, as they both, quite apparently, are. He than asked me, as he stated, being a fellow airfoil man, if I would not mind launching his kite. Mind you these kites are very sophisticated, about 15 feet long, and behave just like an airplane wing. I was thrilled and honored. He gave me some tips on kite board launching. The launch was flawless and amazing to do and witness. Thank you Tom for giving us this memory. Thank you for your compassionate for life and strangers. Thank you for embracing my wife and me on our walk. You will probably never read this, but you filled my heart with joy that day. You cannot plan these moments. These memories are what makes explaining someone contemplating attending a retreat, support group, or the like so difficult. It is the combination of everything that makes the experience what it is.

The weekend was filled with so much hope and strength. We all learned that although our individual stories are unique and inspiring, our feelings are not. We are all part of a group we never envisioned joining. We are part of it now nonetheless. However, every single one of us embraces it with hope and courage. We look this journey in the eye and confront it with the notion, willpower and strength to beat this dreadful disease. The entire weekend we built on each other’s strengths to fill our own individual weaknesses. It was a weekend we all needed for different reasons. Our circle reflections at the end revealed many revelations about what we learned and how it has changed our lives. The weekend caregivers said you will enter this retreat one person and leave as someone different. They were absolutely correct. We arrived as strangers and left as family. We started out as individual pieces of something much greater and departed as a masterful work of art that is inseparable, inspired, and stronger than before.

If you get anything out of this lengthy blog (and I apologize for the wordiness), I hope it is the power of friendship and sharing your story with people in your circle. This concept does not just apply to cancer. It applies to anything in life. If you are having issues with a job, find a group with the same problems. If you are having relationship bumps or problems with children, seek out a circle of people in which they can relate and give significant advice. If you have any disease, it is paramount you seek out others with the same bump in the road. I have heard from most, if not all of you, how you have no idea what we are going there. Once again, that phrase is both a blessing for my heart and for your life. Walk with us, but don’t ever experience it first hand. Learn from us and take what you will, but live your lives not knowing the life-changing nature of such a diagnosis. With a retreat like this, they know what we are going through. You can lean on one another, cry with one another, and everyone knows the feeling. You can all relate. Please do not hesitate, as we did initially, to attend such a group. It will transform your life in the most positive ways possible despite such a daunting and bumpy road ahead.

Thank you for your continued love and support. I hope I was able to convey what I needed to. I hope the significance of this weekend to us is now known, can be spread to those unaware or unwilling, and helps people in all walks of life. We all need each other no matter the circumstance. No issue is too small to cry out for help. We need each and every one of you with us. You each bring a unique way of helping us on this journey. Thank you for walking with us and lifting us up. We love you all. Make it a great everyone!

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17 Responses to Thank You Bluebird Cancer Couples Retreat

  1. Donna Holmes says:

    WOW! Thank you Ryan for sharing your weekend experience with me and so many others. Remember, “I know I can” and let’s add “and I will!” Blessings upon blessings to you and Andrea! I will be in MI the weekend of Oct. 12th and most certainly want the privilege of meeting you. Can we make that happen?

    • Amber Venema says:

      I was checking my Facebook page to post on my Cake Pop page and I saw your families picture and blog come across on Bluebird Cancer Retreats FB Page. I immediately started reading and couldn’t stop. Your story truly touched my heart and soul- tear ducts a bit, too. I ( Cake Pops! by Amber ) did desserts for one of Bluebird’s events this year and through that became more familiar with the organization. I am amazed and delighted by what they do for people in such difficult situations. Thank you for sharing your story with us. I am a parent myself to 3 little kids and we say our prayers together every night. We will close our eyes tight and squeeze our hands tighter sending many angels and prayers to you and your family!

      Many warm thoughts and well wishes!
      Amber, Mike, Gavin-7, Ava-5, and Cloe-1

  2. Renee Denslow says:

    I am speechless and nearly frozen from your words. I am so happy that our retreat touched you and Andrea in this way and you have given meaning to our work that I can’t even describe. On paper a schedule looks rewarding and we feel like our programs have meaning… but you found the true meaning… the unexpected, the relationships, the love, the acceptance, the freedom to be honest about what cancer has brought to your life…

    I know that God brought you and Andrea to Bluebird AND to me AND to Roxanne. You are so open to the path God has prepared for you, and there is so much beauty in your endless passion, compassion and love.

    There is so much more I want to say, but I can’t even find the words between my tears. I thank you for opening your heart and making Bluebird part of your journey. I have shared your story countless times since I returned from the weekend and I know you will continue to inspire others in MANY ways and hopefully lead them to a place where they to can enjoy the blessings of the love around them as you do.

    Our work isn’t done here Ryan… and I mean that in many ways. Thank you for helping me to remember that. Love to you my friend! Renee

  3. Laura says:

    We are so happy that you guys went! It is exactly what you both needed at exactly the right moment. We had a wonderful day in Holland, and the milk delivery was the perfect justification for a road trip…glad we stayed and talked for a few minutes to make your walk on the beach happen at the perfect time. 🙂
    Laura and Matt

  4. Gloria LeMaire says:

    Ryan and Andrea, I can’t tell you how much your words mean to me as the retreat director for the weekend. As Renee says, we work on the schedule and hope that we give everyone a great weekend and many memories to take home with them, but your words have validated our effort. Thank you for these wonderful words. I have printed this off and I will reread it often. Your family will continue to be in my thoughts and prayers. Thank you for all you did to help Roxanne and Jeff. God really was present this past weekend for all who attended.

  5. Robin TerLaan says:

    Dear Ryan and Andrea,

    Renee Denslow just called me to tell me I must read your blog. She explained you had just attended the Bluebird couples retreat and I would be blessed by your response to the retreat. My husband Bill Timm attended “Camp Bluebird” in Alabama some 20 years ago when he was struggling as you are with a difficult cancer diagnosis. He felt as you did that it was life altering and had trouble putting to words his experience…he wanted me to grasp the depth of love and closeness he felt at camp. I’m sure my dear friend Pete Thuene did his usual amazing, eloquent job of telling Bills story. I love that man!!! Ryan I am speechless, I don’t have words to describe the feeling your writing gave me. It took me back 20 years to the day I picked Bill up from Camp Bluebird and his excitement, he was like a kid that just found his best friend, his soul mate because of the friendships formed that weekend. I was able to stay for lunch and a closing ceremony where I had a glimpse of what happened that weekend. Bill came home with a renewed passion, a vision of bringing Camp Bluebird to west Michigan. I thank God for people like Pete, Renee, Gloria, and all those who have persevered through the years to keep Bluebird alive and well. It is flourishing and touching lives in ways I never imagined!!! Thank you for taking time to put your words and feelings to paper!!! I too am a God fearing woman and I believe God is pleased with the work being done through people investing in others lives for no other reason then to share the love and hope of God and Jesus.

    I know this is a long shot and I know you are incredibly busy but if you ever have time I would love to meet you if to only give you a gentle hug to show my appreciation for your support of Bluebird. I will be praying for you and your precious family as you continue on this bittersweet journey. I want you to know how your story of being on the beach with the gentleman who was trying to fly touched me deeply. After Bill died I was a counselor at Bluebird retreats on the beautiful shores of Lake Geneva, I would sneak away by myself and walk the beach remembering Bill and the reality that his dream and vision of Bluebird had come to fruition…he would have been so pleased. I would spend time with God who would meet with me on that beach where I could feel the spirit saying to me “you don’t walk this journey of life alone”. Hold on to that truth that he is walking beside you hand in hand, may you sense the joy that comes from that truth. With my love…Robin Timm TerLaan

  6. Barb L says:

    Oh my goodness! Just when I thought I was done crying at my desk, I read Renee’s comments and started all over again. God was definitely working when he brought you to the other woman with angiosarcoma; He was there again when you ran into Tom. What an awe inspiring story that was. Everything you shared about this weekend sounds magical. I am so glad you and Andrea were able to attend. I can’t thank you enough for sharing all of this with people like me who you have just met. I pray that ours will be a very long friendship!! All the best to you, Ryan, and thank you to you, Andrea, Landon and Logan again for becoming part of my life! I am much richer for it. xxxooo

  7. Wendy Swenson says:

    I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to meet you and your wife during the retreat. You were so kind to put up with my picture taking. I love taking pictures and your faces just shined with love. I so appreciate the time you put into this blog. We as board members spend a lot of time trying to explain to people what the benefits of Bluebird are, and I just seem to fall short. I will pray for you and your family and I hope you enjoy the photos I took of you that weekend as a reminder of your experience.

  8. Kim says:

    Thank You Ryan for taking the time and energy to try and explain (which you did beautifully) your weekend to all of us! I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that you and Andrea were able to experience this time together. All Praise, Honor and Glory to our very Big God!! He is so good- all the time!! May these memories and the love you are surrounded with continue to uplift and strengthen you! I Love You Sweetie!!! 🙂

  9. Christine says:

    Ryan & Andrea:
    I am so happy that God worked everything out for you to attend this weekend retreat. My favorite Bible verse is Romans 8:28. Praise God! My thoughts and prayers continue to be with you and your family. Thank you so much for your inspiring messages to everyone….not just those with a disease. They are such great life lessons for us to apply in our daily lives. God bless.

  10. Nancy & Lenny Buchanan says:

    Ryan & Andrea,
    We are blessed to have met the two of you this weekend. Someone at our church says there are no such things as coincidences; rather, God incidences. We agree. God had His hand in Renee being in the airport the day of your bake sale, your being on this weekend, Roxanne being on this weekend. We are inspired by your courage and your strength as you continue to advocate for yourself and find answers to aid in your healing. We keep you in our prayers. Lenny and Nancy B

  11. Leann says:

    We prayed for you again today at our Bible study group.

    I am so happy you had such a wonderful experience at the retreat.

    We were blessed with similar experiences when we were in Georgia when my
    husband was in cancer treatment. It truly was a blessing!

  12. Ann Tibbe says:

    I saw Renee this morning and she told me of your emotionally powered reflections of your retreat experience. She warned me to read it with a box of tissues nearby…she was right ( good grief, she’s gonna have a field day with that comment isn’t she!!). Your words are a gift to those who don’t know where to turn or what to do. I often tell people with a cancer diagnosis to find 1 person, just 1, who is walking a similar path, someone who has beaten the odds…YOU are Roxanne’s 1 person. You gave a woman and her family a new path to follow, a path that didn’t even exist for her until she met you. You have a great purpose in life Ryan and I look forward to all you have to offer for a very long time. I’d like to put in an early request…I want graduation pictures of those 2 gorgeous boys with their amazing parents.


  13. Peter (Pete) Theune says:

    Hi Ryan and Andrea,
    It was such a privilege to meet you both at Bluebird over a week ago. I was only able to be there for the Saturday morning session on “Pillars of a Healthy Relationship”. My wife and I have been away for a weeks holiday but when we got home today I had this important message from Renee that said I had to go to your blog immediately. Well, I just spent time reading it entirely. I am speechless and tenderly moved by your words and reflections and your strength individually and as a young couple. Thank you for the gift of time it took you to write this account as your reflection is precisely what we hope and pray for each participant while on the Bluebird weekend. 48 hours to touch a lifetime.
    My prayers at this moment flow to you and your family and your extended circle of support and prayer.
    Peace. Confidence. Hope. Possibility. You shall be in my reflections and prayers for a period of time beyond our imagining.
    Solid embrace to you, Ryan and Andrea.
    As always,

  14. Leslie says:

    Hi Ryan,
    I was thinking about you today to send you info on a documentary about a doctor I watched recently. I love reading your blog. You have that gift of writing that runs in your family! “We all need each other no matter the circumstance” I saw this quote and how I have been thinking about this all day today! Bless God for His wonderful gifts and the gift of the retreat that brought you to. I LOVE hearing about how He arranges circumstances for us to show His love for us. May He continue to bless you and your family.

  15. Amber Venema says:

    I was checking my Facebook page to post on my Cake Pop page and I saw your families picture and blog come across on Bluebird Cancer Retreats FB Page. I immediately started reading and couldn’t stop. Your story truly touched my heart and soul- tear ducts a bit, too. I ( Cake Pops! by Amber ) did desserts for one of Bluebird’s events this year and through that became more familiar with the organization. I am amazed and delighted by what they do for people in such difficult situations. Thank you for sharing your story with us. I am a parent myself to 3 little kids and we say our prayers together every night. We will close our eyes tight and squeeze our hands tighter sending many angels and prayers to you and your family!

    Many warm thoughts and well wishes!
    Amber, Mike, Gavin-7, Ava-5, and Cloe-1

  16. Peter J. Theune says:

    Greetings Andrea and Ryan,
    Short and sweet, simply thinking and praying for you and your family this day. May healing and confidence and hope come in many forms and from many places to you this day.
    Peace, healing, and goodness sent your way.
    As always,

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