01/29/2013 02:33 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

The Pursuit of Happiness: You Are Not Your Cancer

I always feel strange waking up the day after being infused with chemotherapy. There's always the precarious feeling of being lost. Not that you don't know where you are (well, sometimes you don't know where you are) but more so that you don't know who you are. We like to separate our lives into manageable, bite size pieces. We use arbitrary events as landmarks to measure personal growth (or lack thereof): By summer I want to have lost 15 lbs... By time I'm 30 I want to be married.

So when you wake up with a dry mouth, uneasiness in your stomach and a foggy memory of everything before 7 p.m. the night before. It's easy to feel lost. It's easy to take account of your life at that moment in time and feel aimless. A quick look at the world outside your window you see construction workers hard at work, people busily walking down the streets, faces buried in their iPhones, and even the squirrels and birds seem to have their act together. And there you are, sitting on the couch, with a handful of pills watching the third straight loop of ESPN and trying to find the motivation to make yourself a bowl of cereal.

These moments are exactly why First Descents exists. First Descents provides free outdoor adventure camps for people with cancer. They started with white water rafting but now they offer rock climbing and surfing camps as well (and that's just for starters).

When fate smiles on you and you find yourselves in the midst of a First Descents camp you are immediately stripped of your name and given a nickname. It has a very Chuck Palahniukian, Fight Club-esqe feel to it.

You are not the car you drive, you are not how much money you have in the bank, you are not your khakis, and you are not your cancer.

You see, Woody had the Cancer, and after an hour and a half at a First Descents camp I was 'Token' (awesome nickname right?). Token never had cancer. It's subtle and brilliant. You don't tell 10-15 cancer patients not to identify themselves as victims of this insidious disease. You give them a sweet nickname and let them fill this void left by ambiguity by defining themselves as a rock climbing, ass kicking, life living, cancer stomping force of nature.

Because, unfortunately, cancer patients tend to bond with the pain they've gone through -- they wear it like a badge of honor. Whenever you meet another patient the first thing they do is list the awful things they've gone through.

"Hi, I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in 2007, had a full knee replacement, since then it has come back seven times, I've had five lung surgeries and I had my leg amputated."

Wait... I'm sorry, what was your name again?

They identify themselves with their greatest pain, because it's also their greatest victory. It's tough not to be timid after having cancer. Your body, which is usually the one thing you can count on (unless it's $1 wells and $2 you-call-its), has tried to kill you. Your cells decided one day that they should "burn this mother%#$& down." And thus, you've spent months or even years fighting fire with fire exhausting every possible option meagerly trying to quell this cellular rebellion.

Which is what's so sweet about FD, if gives you a chance to reclaim your body. To make yourself feel less like a science project and more like an actual human being.

At night, after spending hours rock climbing we sat around the campfire and gave awards. Because victories are nice, you can hang your hat on a victory, and you can build off of a victory. Sometimes after being beat down by life for a while you need to know that you won at something. It doesn't have to be hugely significant or recognized by a large audience, but It feels good man, a pat on the back and a high-five, are worth more than you can possibly imagine. It's one of those benign events that evoke such an extreme visceral response where you're left crying and laughing awkwardly saying "I really never do this." But god-damn does it feel good.

There are a lot of moments like this at a First Descents camp, seemingly innocuous moments but because of what you've gone through, or are still going through, they make you feel alive. Because, honestly, what's the point of beating cancer if you're life is still miserable afterwards?

Because at some point, it could be on the rock, around the campfire, or sitting at the dinner table you realize that you are happy, and that staggeringly simple fact means more to you than any of those arbitrary landmarks that you thought you needed to measure happiness with. You realize that if you want to be unhappy -- if you want to stoically suffer through cancer, or life for that matter -- the universe will allow that with open arms. The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile, but that it is indifferent. If you're trudging through the monotony of living far, far outside your comfort zone, your happiness is, and always has been, about you deciding to be happy. Because there will literally always be more things that could potentially make you unhappy than there are things that can make you happy. ALWAYS. And at some point it comes down to a simple decision.

Happiness, or unhappiness.

So if a one-legged, scar riddled, chemotherapy infused, medical-debt-having guy like me can figure it out, I like your chances.

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