05/20/2013 11:28 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Reflect, Refocus, Rebuild, Live: An Interview With Mike Lang

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In 2011 at the Canadian Association of Psychosocial Oncology's annual meeting in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, I had the opportunity to do my first oral presentation at a national conference. Having been a former outpatient at a pediatric health center, it was a unique experience for me to be on the other side of the fence talking about the experience of pediatric patients transitioning from pediatric to adult health care from the same institution I attended and from a research perspective. Before my presentation started, I looked out in the audience and saw two friendly faces come in to listen, Mike and Bonnie Lang. I later met the Lang's when they toured across Canada promoting their first adolescent and young adult cancer film, Wrong Way to Hope. I've gotten to know them over the past few years and am constantly encourage and inspired by their desire to help cancer patients/survivors and their novel ways of doing so.

Mike's new Web series titled Valleys has been a prominent feature in the Generation Why section. I had the opportunity to catch up with Mike last week to ask him a little bit more about his adventure therapy organization, Survive & Thrive Expeditions.

Emily: Can you tell me about the philosophy behind Survive & Thrive

Mike: Reflect. Refocus. Rebuild. Live. Those four words sum up exactly what we do on our trips.

Reflect. In a world filled with demanding jobs, kids to take care of, houses/apartments to clean and bills to pay, it's tough to take time after finishing treatments to pull quietly away and reflect on your cancer experience. What's really happened to you besides all those medical treatments? How has cancer changed you? "Unplugging" from everything out in the wilderness helps make reflection possible, and for many people it is a great first step to moving forward in your cancer journey.

Refocus. After having reflected on the past, it's important to refocus on the present and take stock of where you are in your life. What's important to you now post-treatment? Have your priorities changed? Do you want to live differently than you did before cancer or do you want to focus on regaining what has been lost? Working through these questions in the supportive, open and honest community that develops while facing challenges together out in nature, is the second important step in processing a cancer experience.

Rebuild. It can be tough to know how to actually implement change in your life, especially after such a huge life event like cancer. The last few days of the trip are spent exploring how to rebuild and move forward. This is the most important part of the whole adventure experience. If there's no next action step, all the reflecting and refocusing will not result in a better, more fulfilled and happy life. We take the time to build a life mission statement to guide you moving forward and create practical action steps to follow once we leave the river, mountains or sea and go back to our cities and jobs and "to do" lists again. We encourage both cancer survivors and one close supporter to come on the trip together to help keep you accountable to your mission statement once you are back home.

Live. So where does "live" come into the picture? Every day! A Survive & Thrive Expedition gives you the opportunity to challenge yourself at different levels through the adventure-of-a-lifetime experiences, as well as kickstart your survivorship journey, no matter where you may be starting from.

Emily: How did you get started and when was the organization founded?

Mike: Before I was diagnosed I was an adventure guide with "at-risk" youth in Washington State. When I was going through treatment I realized that I was becoming a very bitter and angry person because of what was happening to me. I didn't want to be that person, so my wife Bonnie and I came up with an idea to combine my life before cancer and my life after/with cancer in a way that was meaningful. That way it didn't seem like I was going through all this pain and suffering for no reason. The idea we had was to take a group of young adult cancer survivors on a kayaking expedition on the Owyhee River in Oregon. That trip was very successful, and lead to a powerful documentary called Wrong Way to Hope: An Inspiring Story of Young Adults and Cancer (, and from there we decided do some more trips. That's how Survive & Thrive was born! Of course all of this happened before we even heard of all the awesome organizations out there like First Descents, True North Treks and Athletes 4 Cancer.

Emily: What has been the biggest challenge so far about starting your nonprofit agency?

Mike: We had a lot of the connections and expertise within the guiding world, so that part wasn't too hard to pull together. The biggest challenge at first was finding young adult survivors to come! That is still sometimes an issue because we are a small, two person operation and don't have the fundraising capacity to make our trips free for survivors. However, we have found out that if survivors do their own fundraising, or even pay for the trip out of their own savings, they are really invested in getting the most out of the trip. This high level of engagement makes our conversations and activities even more powerful and impacting for everyone involved.

Emily: What have been the highlights and success you have experienced so far?

Mike: Every single trip is a highlight! Every new survivor we get to share a once in a lifetime experience with is a highlight! As far as success... In our mind these trips don't matter one bit if it doesn't help you live your life better. We have been able to watch people make significant positive life changes after going on a trip and to us that is the only success that matters.

Emily: How do you see Survive and Thrive growing in the upcoming years?

Mike: Hmmm... that is a good question. There are now many organizations offering adventure trips for cancer survivors around North America and we have often thought that maybe we should just back out and pass the cancer survivors we meet on to them. But, I have realized over the past five years that not one organization can meet every need and that the way we do things on Survive & Thrive trips, specifically the reflect, refocus and rebuild model mentioned above, is different from the approaches of other organizations. The emphasis we place on introspection, group processing and building a life mission, in addition to the epic adventures and experiential learning activities, is something that certain young adult survivors are really drawn to. So, all that to say, we probably will keep offering 2-3 trips a year so that we can meet the needs of those survivors who are looking to go deep and process their cancer experience through group discussions and activities as well as have an incredible trip of a lifetime

Emily: Do participants have to be Canadian?

Mike: Nope! I love that we have both Americans and Canadians on our trips. It adds a larger perspective to the group discussions that helps us all learn what it is to live with, through and beyond cancer.

To find out more information about Survive and Thrive please go to summer Mike and Bonnie are kayaking the Owyhee River in July and rafting the Grand Canyon in August.