The Experience: This is not your "Oh woe is me, I think I'll hang out on the pity-pot" kind of community. This is a "get your ass in gear (specifically white-water kayaking, surfing, or rock climbing gear!) 'cause we've got a whole lot of adventure lying ahead of us" kind of community. Missing a leg from extraskeletal myxoid chondrosarcoma? A colon from adenocarcinoma? The ability to walk from meningioma on the brain? The ability to see due to complications from a brain cancer called craniopharyngiomas? (And by the way, we had no idea what any of these crazy terms meant either, before being diagnosed...) Well, hate to tell you, but no one is feeling sorry for you. First Descents (FD) is here to empower you to begin "outliving it." Emotional, physical and spiritual growth are all part of the FD developmental toolkit, and a capacity to genuinely believe in a victory over, or at least fight against, cancer remains long after an FD camp has ended.
The people. Daryl & Daril. Critter. Mrs. Robinson. Mama Ludden. The Judgenator. Boom. Karnage. Tubes. The list of oddly amusing yet completely endearing FD names goes on and on and on. If you happen to be flying to your host destination, you may as well chuck out your 'usual name' alongside any illegal-sized liquids you happen to be carrying, because this is the beginning of cancer identity 2.0, which also serves as the identification portal to your new FD family. The idea is not to deny the past, but rather to embrace a completely new possibility for a redefined future. The organization understands that each cancer experience to date has been a bitch. And they are right- to say the least! However, one of the goals is to create a tangible division point between pre-FD cancer life and post-FD cancer life. Talk to hundreds of FD participants and you'll be hard-pressed to find a single person who does not recognize FD as one of their life's milestones, right up there alongside their five-year cancerversary. We emerge stronger, more confident, and more engaged. The cancer hammer that invariably tries to beat people to a pulp, has, I am proud to say, finally met its match.
The places. Montana. California. Utah. Ontario. Alaska. Patagonia. Just to name a few... Spending time in the ocean, on the rivers or on the rocks at any of these exquisitely majestic locations can be nothing other than balm for the cancer soul. Add to the mix: nightly campfires, the best, and I mean best homemade food you could ever taste, sunsets and sunrises that will take your breath away, wildlife you normally only see in pictures, and shhhhhhhhh, if you are lucky enough even a local artisanal winery, then what you end up with is pretty much a guaranteed trip of a lifetime.
The possibilities. A blind kayaker paddling through Class 3 water. Brain tumor survivors who need canes and crutches to ensure they don't fall over -- now catching waves on a surfboard. A survivor who could barely make it up a short flight of stairs as a result of cancer treatment that caused her to more than double in weight and size -- successfully climbing a multi-pitch ascent. No, this is not some quasi-Disneyland experience where "we make all your dreams come true." This is the result of renewed inner strength, revitalized physical energy, and a support team consisting of fellow cancer patients, survivors and FD staff, along with a group of world-class instructors, who help you redefine your sense of possibility. As for who can attend First Descents? Absolutely any young adult (18-39-years-old) on the planet who has personally experienced cancer is eligible to participate in a week-long camp.
The motto: Outliving it. Feel free to spin that phrase like a downed surfer tumbling under the force of a crashing wave, but any way you interpret it, the outcome is Awesome.
Out... A week spent in the great outdoors... where people can also deal in the healthiest way with bottled up fear, sadness, anger and frustration.
Living... Not decaying in some hospital bed or cancer clinic with tubes and catheters and chemo bags. In many instances, people get to "live out" surf and kayak and rock climbing dreams that were merely line items on a bucket list prior to getting cancer. For others, these experiences are even beyond their wildest imaginations.
It... The "it" can change by the season, sometimes by the day, and sometimes by the hour. "It" can be as large as a new, and most unwelcome, cancer diagnosis. "It" can also be as seemingly small as putting a smile on your face when you see your mom, giving her an ephemeral window of peace -- no mom really ever adjusts to her kid having cancer -- despite your lingering aftermath of aches and pains you realize will never disappear.
But there is always a path, like the sun's stretched-out fingertips on the ocean, reaching back to our FD experience, connecting us to a one-of-a-kind source of inspiration and support that I can guarantee you has been a key ingredient in kicking more than one bout of cancer in the butt.