WALNUT CREEK -- A group of Bay Area women warriors fighting cancer are thanking their sometimes lucky stars that Laura Milstead's elementary school teaching career did not work out as planned.
If it had, they would not have bonded their way to greater peace at a May 2013 Yosemite retreat Milstead organized.
The 51-year-old Walnut Creek resident attended college classes for the first time at the age of 40, with a talent for inspiring young minds and a knack for organization. After substitute teaching at Mount Diablo district schools since 2005, Milstead discovered her true calling -- leading cancer survivor retreats. It was a hard-learned lesson.
"In July, 2011, a mammogram found cancer," she says. "I had a lumpectomy, chemo, radiation. My cancer was stage one, so I got standard protocol and treatment. It was a living hell, actually, but compared to other women, I had it easy."
Milstead kept her hair, by wearing special turbans, called Penguin Cold Caps, that froze her scalp. "The first cap is unbearable, the second is really bad, and after half an hour, you go numb and can tolerate them," she remembers.
Along her cancer journey, Milstead says she was blessed. Chosen by lottery to attend "Casting for Recovery," a fly-fishing retreat in Northern California designed to encourage breast cancer patients to regain use of their arms, she appreciated the camaraderie as much as the newfound fishing skills. A month later, she attended another retreat in Sonoma County and returned with stories to share with friends.
"They told me I should plan an event," Milstead says. "They saw my enthusiasm. It's easy for me to organize things: I've been doing it for years and never realized it." She had been a leader of the protest of a planned In-N-Out Burger restaurant near the Pleasant Hill-Walnut Creek border (plans for that restaurant were shelved).
The "Yosemite Wellness Retreat" she led in May took 16 breast cancer survivors on a three-day weekend filled with activities. "I had an agenda and everything flowed. I kept them busy, outdoors, proud of themselves." Milstead received no payment and worked with the national nonprofit Boarding For Breast Cancer Survivorship Fund for financial support.
Marcia David of Pleasant Hill was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer in February 2011. She appreciated the retreat's prearranged meals and a release from the subtle pressure to "get back to normal." Being a "stoic super hero" had been exhausting, David said: nature, women who "get it" and surprisingly, the simple act of hiking rejuvenated her soul, she said.
Tambre Thompson of Concord said was moved toward healing by Yosemite's natural setting and time spent with women who allowed room for her volatile mix of feelings.
"My life feels different after going through this," the 47-year-old Thompson said about her battle with invasive ductal carcinoma. "Cancer has changed me on deep levels."
The bottom line, Milstead said, is that such retreats are fun.
"To sit with other women who have had cancer is magical." That is why she immediately began planning a second retreat, just days after the first one was completed.
The Oct. 4-6 retreat at Yosemite's Tenaya Lodge will allow 15 women with any cancer diagnosis -- from cancer-free to advanced stage -- to attend. Milstead has set up a website (www.gofundme.com/WomenConqueringCancer) to help the participants raise money online.
"No woman should have to pay for their own retreat," she says. "My goal is to raise the money, divide it up and offer a few scholarships."
As of late August, interested applicants were being asked to raise $325 by drafting an email asking friends and family to support them. "Many have friends who will say, "I've always wanted to help. Now I know how,'" she says.
As word of her retreats travels, Milstead may have to resort to the same kind of lottery system that first allowed her to attend that fly-fishing retreat. "Maybe I'll get my own nonprofit status and keep doing it," she says. "This is my thing: this is my reward for going through the mill."