Cancer survivors seek physical, emotional healing

‘That’s the thing about cancer . . . it changes your life forever’

Dr. Bridget Bongaard (center) talks story with Annie Joya of the Pacific Cancer Foundation and licensed practical nurse Shirley Ramey after the close of the Maui Cancer and Wellness Retreat on Sunday. Bongaard envisioned the retreat, which took place over the weekend at Lumeria in Makawao. Activities were inspired by integrative medicine, which combines traditional Western medicine with holistic practices for physical and emotional healing. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

MAKAWAO — Since 2008, Christy Kozama has been living the dream, working as a marine naturalist in West Maui and soaking up the island’s natural beauty with her husband of 13 years.

But on March 3, Kozama was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. She had to start chemotherapy and cut back on her work hours. The treatments wore her out, and the numbness in her hands and feet made it difficult to surf or go for walks.

“Cancer’s tough. You hear that diagnosis, and first of all kind of think, ‘Am I going to die?’ “ said Kozama, 35. “It just kind of puts a hold on your life. I think it makes you feel like your life is waiting somewhere for you to pick it back up again once you’re better.”

For Kozama, who is awaiting a double mastectomy on Aug. 15, the Maui Cancer and Wellness Retreat couldn’t have come at a better time. She and 23 other cancer survivors spent Friday through Sunday swapping stories and getting their minds, bodies and bellies in tunes on the grounds of Lumeria, a breezy hideaway in Makawao that hosts wellness and educational retreats.

The event, which was sponsored by the Pacific Cancer Foundation and funded by the Joseph Padua Trust, was the brainchild of Dr. Bridget Bongaard, known as “Dr. B” to her patients. In 2014, Bongaard retired from her position as chief of integrative medicine with the Carolinas Healthcare System and moved to Maui with her husband, Jim. While on Maui, she’s worked as a physician at Kula Hospital and Hale Makua and as medical director of Islands Hospice. Bongaard, who has 30 years of experience in medicine, wanted to offer an integrative experience for patients on Maui.

Integrative medicine, according to WebMD.com, “takes the most effective treatments from different disciplines” to help patients achieve physical and emotional healing. Major universities and medical centers around the country offer integrated medicine programs, Bongaard said. She explained that integrative medicine doesn’t spurn traditional methods like chemotherapy or radiation, but aims to complement them and make the patient better equipped to fight the disease on different levels.

“When people are not fearful, they can heal faster,” Bongaard said. “When people are having good nutrition, they can heal faster. When people are able to get rid of old emotional trauma, they can heal faster. And that’s how we support the oncology process that we know as modern medicine.”

Over the weekend, attendees participated in journaling, art therapy, yoga, qi gong and hula, as well as lessons in nutrition and wellness.

Wailuku resident Wayne Steel, 70, didn’t come out of the retreat with a set list of treatments to share with friends and neighbors. Rather, he wanted other cancer patients and survivors to realize they had plenty of choices.

“This showed unlimited possibilities,” Steel said of the retreat. “And that’s what I think everybody needs to see, is that you can pick out some things that you feel motivated to do. This (retreat) will motivate you and give you hope, and I didn’t find that anywhere else that I looked.”

Steel moved to Maui in 1990 when his wife, Hana, became the county’s recycling coordinator. Wayne Steel served as executive director of the Maui Food Bank before moving on to work in the prosecutor’s office and later as coordinator of the Maui County Children’s Justice Committee.

In 2013, doctors noticed that Steel’s prostate-specific antigen levels were rising, which can indicate cancer. Doctors performed biopsies on Steel and sent him to Honolulu for a second opinion, which confirmed that the mass in his prostate was indeed cancer.

As soon as he found out, Steel overhauled his habits. He exercised regularly and became a vegan. He underwent surgery to remove the tumor, and for a while, it seemed all was well. Then, his prostate-specific antigen levels started to go up again, prompting 39 radiation treatments from July to September 2016. Now, he undergoes regular checkups to make sure the cancer hasn’t returned.

So far, so good. Steel said the retreat has motivated him to continue his healthy habits and helped him deal with the anger, resentment and shame that can come with a cancer diagnosis.

“I’m just trying to do the best I can to make sure it doesn’t come back, and if it does come back, be ready for whatever I have to do,” Steel said. “That’s the thing about cancer. Once you know it can come back, it changes your life forever.”

Kozama, who started out as a marine naturalist with the Pacific Whale Foundation, had just begun a job as volunteer coordinator with Malama Maui Nui last August. Now, her main focus is beating cancer.

Kozama said being healthy isn’t just about “fitting into a dress” these days — it’s her life that’s in the balance. From March 26 to July 3, she and her husband drove from Napili to Wailuku every other week for chemo treatments. She said in the rush of emotions and that followed her diagnosis, she got caught up in trying to beat cancer as quickly as possible. What she’s learned, however, is that it takes patience, time and the willingness to do research and understand the disease — a lesson reinforced by the retreat.

“I think the overarching message that Dr. B tried to get across this weekend to all of us is just your healing is about you, and you’ve got to take time for yourself and really put yourself first, and dedicate time each day to doing whatever outlet it is helps you to heal,” Kozama said.

The Joseph Padua Trust provided a $40,000 grant that covered all expenses for attendees, including air transportation for Molokai participants. Bongaard said there’s even money left over to organize a reunion in five weeks to see how participants have created changes in their lives. She hoped the retreat could become an annual event.

Annie Joya, development coordinator with the Pacific Cancer Foundation, encouraged cancer survivors and their families to reach out to the foundation or organizations like the American Cancer Society.

Whether it’s navigating insurance or cleaning out the garage, “there is no kind of challenge that is too big or too small,” Joya said. “There will always be support regardless.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.