The rhythmic rumble of a rushing L train clatters outside her kitchen window every few minutes. Colleen McGrath doesn't stop talking. She doesn't raise her voice. She just keeps going. That's what she does.
"I love it," says the 32-year-old Bartlett native, who could be talking about the train, her cozy Chicago apartment near family, her amazing life as a two-time survivor of Stage IV cancers, or her job as a social media coordinator using the Childhood Cancer Awareness Month of September to get kids with cancer to camp.
"She has that job because she's great at it," says Jeff Infusino, president of Camp One Step by Children's Oncology Services, which runs a variety of camps and programs for children with cancer and their families. "Who better to communicate the experience at camp? Who better can tell that story than Colleen? She'll never stop fighting. She's been an incredible force."
McGrath's introduction to cancer came as a child, when the disease killed her grandmother and uncle. She spent her 13th birthday in hospice with her mom, Ellen, who died of colon cancer two days before her 52nd birthday. Before that year was over, McGrath would be diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer.
She grew sick, tired, bald and so overwhelmed by the ravages of surgery and chemotherapy that she was ready to call it quits and welcome hospice herself. Her widowed father, Michael, begged her to go to a summer camp for kids just like her, and McGrath reluctantly agreed.
"That's the first time I saw someone of the other side," recalls McGrath of meeting cancer survivors. She had fun for the first time in a long time. "That camp saved my life. I'll never forget how my dad said he got his little girl back."
She hasn't missed one since. After five years as a camper, McGrath volunteered as a counselor for a decade. Her father died of colon cancer when McGrath was a 19-year-old college sophomore, and cancer also killed her best friend from camp. But it wasn't until she was 27 and just starting her career with Camp One Step that cancer came after her again.
Another grim Stage IV diagnosis, this time with colon cancer, sent McGrath back for surgeries and chemo, even though many medical experts were advising hospice would be the kinder option. Through it all, she never missed her summer Camp One Step. Even this year, after her ninth surgery ("the biggest incision I have"), and spending all of May in the hospital, McGrath made her annual pilgrimage to camp.
"My body doesn't retain iron, and that's because of the organs missing," McGrath says, running through a list of body pieces she's had removed. "I wasn't in the greatest shape yet, but it was absolutely magic being with those kids. It was medicine for my soul."
Stacks of handmade cards from campers and the miniature Polaroid photographs McGrath snaps are all about smiles and good times. "We love you!" one card says. "Colleen is amazing!" reads another.
"Because of them, I don't mind the things that have happened to me," says McGrath, who has Lynch syndrome, a genetic predisposition to certain cancers.
Only when asked does McGrath do the math and discover that she's spent well more than a year of her life in the hospital and a grueling 39 months receiving chemotherapy.
"The things they do to save your life are so brutal," says McGrath, who smiles as she explains how a friend helped with her hair, which has grown back, pushing the wig into her closet.
Photos of her niece, Elly, 12, and nephew, Sean, 9, their parents, Andy and Mary Eileen Weber, and her brother and sister-in-law Michael and Kari McGrath, decorate her fridge.
"I want my parents here," says McGrath, who has framed old notes from her father with "Mom loves you" reminders. "I want to know they are proud of me."
But she says her co-workers, the 400 volunteers and the thousands of campers who've shared their lives with her, are her family, too.
"I see them on their best days," McGrath says. "I see them swim in the lake again or white-water raft. I watch them ski or rock climb. It's magic. There's no other way to put it."
McGrath, who has posted social media updates from her hospital bed in the middle of the night, embodies the spirit of Camp One Step. "She's a representation of what our campers are all about," Infusino says. "Cancer is not going to define her life."
Like that L train that runs past her apartment, McGrath focuses on what's ahead. Camp One Step's Dude Ranch with horses starts Sunday in Mauston, Wisconsin, as does registration for Winter Camp (Dec. 27-31 in Williams Bay, Wisconsin) and the Utah Ski Trip in February. Family Camp runs from Oct. 6-8 and the Camp One Step team will run the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 8.
Camp One Step offers 11 camps and activities throughout the year, serving more than 700 children, ranging in age from 5 through 19, as well as their families and former campers. For details, visit CampOneStep.org, facebook.com/CampOneStep, twitter.com/CampOneStep, instagram.com/camponestep, linkedin.com/in/onestepcamp or the Camp One Step channel on youtube.com.
"Without cancer, I never would have gotten Camp One Step," McGrath says, explaining how that connected her to a world filled with "loving, patient and kind" people. "I'm a lucky girl."