10 Ways To Love Yo’ Body


I want to talk about loving our bodies and not merely in a bar soap commercial sort of way. Although it’s important to come to love and accept our bodies no matter what they look like on the outside the kind of love I am talking about is more than skin deep. I am talking about the kind of revolutionary love that connects our minds and our bodies and can heal us from the inside out, a kind of love that it took getting cancer for me to understand.

Before I get into how I think we can all find this kind of love I want to share my own journey through frustration, betrayal and eventually acceptance, awe and love for my body. Prior to being diagnosed with breast cancer I think I had a pretty typical relationship with my body for a 20-something-year-old. I saw it as serving primarily aesthetic purposes which meant I was often frustrated with it. I never hated it but always wished I was a little bit taller, a little less soft around the edges. My body also rarely performed the way I wanted it to. I was a particularly uncoordinated teenager and could never seem to run as far, swing the bat as hard or spike the ball with as much gusto as I would have liked. In some ways it felt like me and my body were in a constant battle and neither of us ever won.

Then, right around my 30th birthday, I was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease and breast cancer in rather quick succession and I was overwhelmed by a feeling of betrayal. My body was literally attacking itself and in the process it was threatening my life. But I also began to feel guilty. Although I had always tried to eat healthy I had been doing so from a perspective of what would make me look good, not what would make my body feel it’s very best. I had been hard on my body, filling it with chemicals, demanding that it keep running at optimum levels despite the toxins to which it was exposed. I also felt bad about the treatment I was about to put it through. Over the course of a year my body sustained 20 rounds of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, and 33 rounds of radiation. It was poisoned, slashed and burned, as they say.

As my treatment went on, however, I began to realize how resilient my body was, how it would bounce back from beating after beating, ever striving to make me feel well again. The combination of guilt and awe that I now found myself feeling, on top of the desire to be as healthy as I could, led me to begin thinking about my body in completely new ways. I began to be gentle with it, started to try and listen to what it needed and wanted, educated myself on what was best for it instead of what would make it look the way I wanted.

By the time I was diagnosed with advanced metastatic breast cancer this past January I no longer felt betrayed by my body. Instead I was deeply in love with it. I devoted all of my time and energy to treating it with all the kindness and care I could muster. I love my body, more than anything else, for letting me be here, for letting me exist on this earth, for allowing me to explore the world. Before cancer my body was an impediment to letting me be the person I wanted to be and now I am in awe of this incredible vehicle that works ceaselessly to try and keep me on the planet enjoying my life for as long as it can. I used to take my sight, my hearing, my ability to eat, to run and jump and play for granted. Now I know that cancer or some other debilitating illness could easily take those away from me so I am thankful every day for what my body lets me do.

Whether you have had cancer or not we could all use a little more body lovin’ in our lives. Here are 10 ways to learn to love your fabulous body:

1. Just listen: Our bodies are pretty good at communicating with us but, unfortunately, we are even better at ignoring them. We see much of our bodies’ communications: upset stomachs, headaches, aches and pains, etc. as annoyances to be covered up, not necessarily messages that something might not be quite right. After several years of dealing with chronic illness I have come to realize that often I intuitively know when something is wrong. I have always been right when a new lump or spot on a PET scan was cancerous and when it wasn’t. I went to the doctor before I had any obvious symptoms of an auto-immune disease because something was just “off.” We are taught to ignore, suppress and not give credence to the messages our bodies are constantly delivering when really we should be leaning in closer and listening as carefully as possible.

2. Eat to nourish your body not just to please your taste buds: I’m not saying don’t eat delicious food. Goodness no! What I am saying is that we should eat with nourishment as the main motivator. I have actually discovered that food can be even better when we eat for our health rather than our taste buds. Often times that plate of pancakes looks tempting but leaves us feeling sluggish and unfulfilled. It’s because those yummy pancakes aren’t providing what we most need. I’m not advocating any kind of particular diet because I don’t believe there is a one size fits all. I do think that we should be eating, and teaching our children to eat, what makes us feel good, not just what tastes good.

3. Don’t work out, have fun: It wasn’t until I started rock climbing regularly that I realized how much fun a good workout could be. I used to force myself to go to the gym no matter how bored I was with my routine. Now I’ve let go of any strict rules I once had for myself (“must get x amount of cardio in every week”) and just try to move my body in whatever way is the most rewarding. Sometimes I really feel like a good stretch so I dig into yoga. Other times I feel like a nice sprint so I go for a run. Don’t be afraid to dabble in lots of different activities, to try something new, to go outside and to make playing your passion.

4. Recognize when your body feels good: We often pay so much attention to what is going wrong with our bodies that we fail to pay attention when our bodies feel good. Chemo was a really good teacher in reminding me to appreciate how good it feels to feel good. A good day during chemo was one where I didn’t have terrible mouth sores, I wasn’t terribly nauseated and I could get up and walk around for more than a few minutes without feeling exhausted. Today I try to appreciate whenever I am feeling strong, vital and whole and am grateful to my body for letting me feel that way.

5. Pay attention to the mind-body connection: Our minds and our bodies are intimately connected. Nearly everything we think and feel is playing out in some way at the physiological level. It’s easy to recognize this when we are feeling a negative emotion. When the tears start rolling or our hearts start pounding the connection is clear. But it goes the other way as well. Positive feelings calm our bodies down, release happy hormones and boost our immune systems. One benefit of paying attention to this connection is that when we are overwhelmed by negative emotions just concentrating on our bodies instead of the negative thoughts can help us relax. It’s an incredibly powerful connection that can keep us sick as well as help us heal. Just think of the commonly occurring placebo effect. Just believing we will get better can make a sugar pill as effective as medicine. That’s a mighty powerful mind!

6. Respect the R&R: We love to be busy. Our bodies (and our minds) do not. Our bodies love sleep and downtime but we so rarely give it all that it requires. Don’t be afraid to go to bed early, take a nap, let yourself unwind, allow yourself do nothing but just be present. Your body and your brain will thank you.

7. Build the right team of healers around you: You would never send your pet to a veterinarian who didn’t care about animals so why do so many of us put up with doctors who don’t fully respect us and our bodies? Contrary to popular belief YOU are the number one expert on your body so you should find doctors and healers who respect that idea above all others. You want a team who wants to work with you to help you find the root causes of your health problems and lead you on a path to ultimate wellbeing.

8. Forgive your body: It’s easy to feel betrayed by our bodies. We all deal with some sort of illness, or allergy, or weakness or cancer. Our bodies are fragile and we live in a pretty toxic world. Just as we often make mistakes so do our bodies. It’s part of our humanity. While it’s ok to wade through all the anger and frustration you need to come to a more accepting place I do recommend you give your body a break whenever possible and try to respect all the ways in which it is working for you even when it feels like it’s not on your side.

9. Don’t make comparisons: We all know we shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to the unrealistic and heavily Photoshopped standards we see all around us but in reality we shouldn’t compare our bodies, what they need and their strengths and their weaknesses to any other body. Each one is completely unique. Each of our bodies has different needs when it comes to food, workouts, environment, medicine, sleep, etc. Don’t feel bad if your body is different from those around you. Just respect its little quirks and do what you can to meet its unique needs.

10. Be in awe: Our bodies are absolutely incredible instruments. The millions of billions of tiny little processes that have to happen every second to keep us breathing, keep our blood pumping, keep our immune system going are worthy of our unending awe. Our bodies are constantly fighting to keep us healthy, constantly recovering even when we don’t treat it very kindly, constantly doing everything it can to keep us here for as long as it’s able. If that isn’t worthy of our unconditional love I’m not sure what is!










It’s technically the “off-season” here at First Descents, and the next round of camps is five long  months away.  But while we’re all getting ready to stuff our faces with Thanksgiving turkey and start our holiday shopping, there is a lot going on just below the surface.  When the thought of basking in the summer sunshine on a rock face or on the water seems so remote, it’s wonderful to reflect on what camp means to us and our alum.  This is the time of year when we can take a moment and really consider the tremendous impact First Descents has so many lives.

FD alum Hottiebucks recently took some time to trace the evolution of his own cancer experience and how First Descents altered his outlook.  We thought now would be a good time to share his frank and compelling insights.

I was in my second year of grad school when I couldn’t shake a cold, and my girlfriend at the time dragged me into the doctor. After a lot of lab tests, I was diagnosed with myeloma (also called multiple myeloma).

Myeloma is most commonly diagnosed in older people (less than half a percent of cases are diagnosed under 30, I was 27). It’s a cancer of the blood, specifically immune cells, but the cancerous cells collect in the bone marrow and can cause extensive bone damage. Fortunately, I was diagnosed before this was the case with me.

While there are now (only recently) quite a few options for keeping myeloma at bay for five or ten years, it is considered incurable and the only option that my doctors thought offered a real long-term hope was a fully ablative allogeneic stem cell transplant.

Basically, they wipe out your bone marrow with a huge dose of chemo and then give you someone else’s bone marrow cells (in my case, my sister’s cells). Their cells repopulate your system, and hopefully the transplanted immune system kills, and continues to kill, the cancer. This is done for a lot of cancers but usually only a last resort. It’s very rarely done for myeloma because older patients can’t survive it.

So basically as soon as I was diagnosed I immediately started low-impact chemotherapy to prepare me for the transplant, and six months later moved to Seattle to have the stem cell transplant at one of the few places that had done this type of transplant for myeloma before. Technically, I was enrolled as a student throughout all this, to keep my health insurance, but basically my advisors were kindly covering for me, as I wasn’t going to class, teaching, or doing any real research at that point.

This is where First Descents gets relevant: The stem cell transplant basically went more smoothly than anyone anticipated, but it is a seriously involved, risky process and the doctors tell you to expect your life to be changed forever. In particular, it takes the immune system a very, very long time to rebuild. For me, it involved a month in the hospital, three months in pretty serious isolation in Seattle, and for at least the first year out of the transplant, avoiding crowds and being very careful about not getting sick, not cutting myself, etc. While I was very tired, I exercised through it all and was back to jogging (I loved those Seattle hills!) by about a month after leaving the hospital. I was also pretty happy throughout treatment, although it was sometime unpleasant.

The stem cell transplant mostly mopped up the cancer, but initially it looked like it hadn’t worked and there’s no way of knowing if the cancer was “gone.”  So to this day I remain on a new generation chemo drug. Other than making me tired and occasionally crashing my immune system, it isn’t a bother. I would like to get off of it, but when I went off for a month, there were some signs that I might be relapsing. It’s a small price to pay for not relapsing.

From the start, I basically assumed that I would never be a firefighter again, and maybe never travel in a developing county again. These are the kind of dreams you jettison just to focus on getting better, and partly because it’s what the doctors are telling you to prepare for. The stem cell transplant is a very risky procedure, so the list of rules and limitations, even years later, can be long and serious.

About a year after my transplant, I applied to attend First Descents camp. At that point, I felt tired but good and was very happy. I was back in the swing of things at school and had started working with the fire department again, just driving trucks and doing paperwork.

But I hadn’t gone backpacking or rock-climbing and I was rarely in close proximity to strangers for long if I could help it. And I was pretty apprehensive about doing some of these things. I remember going bouldering with a friend a month before camp, and being unusually scared as visions of being back in the hospital flashed before my eyes. And in many ways, I really was still vulnerable–three weeks before coming to camp, I got a really bad case of swine flu and ended up in the hospital again.

I saw First Descents on a friends’ blog. I had wanted to plan something outdoorsy and challenging for a while, but I worried about planning for medical emergencies and being tired, and worried about slowing down the people I was with. So the idea of kayaking or rock climbing in an environment where my concerns would be understood was liberating. Also, I was pretty broke after treatment, so it being free helped too.

At the same time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go out in the woods and talk about cancer with some complete strangers. Support groups were definitely not my style. But honestly, I didn’t see another way I was going to have a really cool outdoor adventure that summer, so I signed up.


Hottiebucks in Jackson, WY, August, 2009


Looking back, my camp experience rock-climbing in Jackson Hole, WY gave me several things. For one, thing, it just go me out, doing something adventurous in the woods with a group of strangers, and made me realize that any health concerns were easily manageable and any risks were well worth it.  Until cancer, I had always been pretty adventurous about life, collecting a lot of scars and eating sketchy street food. Cancer forced me to abandon that, and First Descents was the first step in recovering that do-it-all attitude, although I still have to be careful.

I might have come to this in time anyway, but First Descents was a bridge that accelerated the process. Not long after returning from FD, I planned a backpacking trip in Utah with a friend– I’m sure I wouldn’t have done that then without First Descents. It also made me more aggressive about getting back involved with firefighting. A few months ago I took a hoseline into a structure fire for the first time since cancer. It was exhilarating–a huge milestone on a journey back that really started at First Descents.

As a result, while I am careful about my health and treatment, I think First Descents has helped me take risks–judicious risk, but risks–and shift the care for my health/live life balance back in the direction of living life, where I want it to be.

First Descents was also one of the most purely fun experiences I’ve ever had, and the most fun I’d had and most relaxed I’d been since being diagnosed with cancer. It also was the first time I’d spent time in a large group, and met a lot of new people, since starting treatment. So in some ways it felt like a bit of restitution of things I’d missed out on during treatment, and a reminder that I wanted to be open to life and experiences. After treatment ended I felt like I wanted to live every day like it’s my last–all the BS that cancer patients usually spout. This lasted a couple of weeks, until life got back to normal. First Descents reminded me of that live-every-day-to-the-fullest feeling. In a way, it’s like a recharge.

The third thing First Descents gave me was a connection to other cancer survivors that I would have gotten literally no other way. As I said, I’m not a support group type person. But the mix of people at camp was comfortable for me–some of them still severely physically or emotionally affected by cancer, some of them less so, some of them guides or staff or donors who have never had cancer; some of them feel comfortable with “cancer survivor” as an identity, others, like me, fight that identity pretty hard. This mix of wonderful people, they humor that ran through the camp, and the context of an amazing outdoors experience gave me an opportunity to connect, vent, and think with other survivors without feeling like I was wallowing in cancer. The way many of them are living very aggressively, sometimes while facing more daunting health challenges than me, was also inspiring.

This was validated a few months ago. I had a bad test result, and it appeared for a month or two that I was relapsing (I wasn’t). Not wanting to freak out my friends and family, who have endured enough at this point, and fearing they wouldn’t really “get it”, the only person I talked to about it was one of my FD campmates from last year.


Hottiebucks in Vail, CO, July, 2010


Attending a second camp this year, kayaking in Vail, allowed me to see how much I had progressed. Last year, I felt somewhat physically frail and was apprehensive about being around a group of people (because of my weakened immune system). I also wasn’t sure how much I could talk about cancer with other survivors without it devolving into self-pity. This year I felt strong, ready to kayak as hard as I could, and completely comfortable being part of a group of strangers and talking about what we had all lost and gained. I felt like I was “over” cancer in a way I hadn’t been when I arrived at the first camp, and I owe much of that to my first came experience.

At the same time, First Descents this year was an important pick-me-up. It was a good way to remind myself of goals I had valued and planned on–like spending time or living in a developing country–that I jettisoned during treatment and haven’t yet recovered. In part, this resulted from taking part in kayaking, which was something that I had always wanted to do, and put off during treatment. It also come from meeting other people – campers, staff, guides, safety boaters, reporters, board members – who are living out their different dreams no matter what obstacles are in their way, be they cancer related or not.

It’s a long way from First Descents to taking on major issues and challenges that we face back in the “real world.”  But the attitude that I carry into dealing with that type of problem – that I want to deal with my health issues as a practical problem to be worked around, rather than a wall I can’t see past – was born and strengthened at First Descents.



We love to brag about our alum and their amazing talents – have you noticed??

Most recently, our collective minds were blown when we learned that camper Juliana “Cogs” Carvatt had not only (1) garnered a third-place prize in the Lily Oncology on Canvas Art Competition but (2) donated her $2500 award to First Descents!

According to the Oncology on Canvas press release, “The biennial competition invites residents of the United States and Puerto Rico who have been touched by cancer – patients, family members, friends, caregivers and healthcare providers – to express, through art and narrative, the life-affirming changes that give their cancer journeys meaning.  Winners’ prizes consist of donations made in their name to the cancer-related charities of their choice.  Since Lilly created the competition in 2004, more than 3,600 individuals have submitted artwork and narratives.”

Over at her own blog, Cogs has written about the thrill of winning the prize and what it meant to be able to translate her cancer experience into creative expression.  Take a look at the stunning result:

Kudos to Lily for coordinating such a fantastic competition that benefits worthy cancer charities, and congratulations to Cogs!  We are so proud of you and cannot thank you enough for your generosity.


The evidence of our campers’ endless energy, creativity and drive just keeps pouring in!

First Descents alum Jon “One Shoe” Wilson has started a non-profit called the AKP (“Always Keep Pedaling”) Foundation, whose mission is to “provide young adults with the means to use adaptive sports to assist, inspire, and energize a comeback from physically altering trauma caused by cancer.”  After losing his leg to cancer in 2006, One Shoe has used kayaking, biking, skiing and other adventures to help achieve his own comeback in life.

One Shoe!!

AKP will hand pick recipients in financial need and work closely with them to match the individual with an appropriate adaptive sport or athletic endeavor and help set specific goals.  Applications are available online and are due by November 16th.

To learn more about AKP, check out a video of One Shoe, and learn how you can be part of the cause, visit their site today!

Amazing stuff, One Shoe!  We are so proud to call you one of our own.

“I said SHOTGUUUUUUNN”: One Camper’s Thoughts on First Descents

It never ceases to amaze us:  as each First Descents camp unfolds, we are astounded by the strength, character and humor of the young adults who join our family.  The truth is, we could probably write a book about each remarkable individual who decides to make the trek into the unknown, onto the rock or the rapids with a group of total strangers, putting blind faith and trust into our crazy formula for healing the emotional and psychic scars of cancer.

But since we are busy, and sometimes lazy, we are always thrilled when our campers choose to share their FD experiences directly with the world at large.

Sarah Feather, aka SHOTGUN, attended her inaugural FD camp the week of September 19.  Shotgun is an ovarian cancer warrior extraordinaire, who puts one foot in front of the other each day with unparalleled style, wit and intelligence.  Long before coming into the First Descents fold, Shotgun had established herself as a dedicated YA cancer blogger, and we were honored when she offered up her first of hopefully many entries about her camp experience.

We’re sharing her words here, and hope that you’ll see fit to follow her adventures at her own site.

Heartfelt thanks to you, Shotgun, for bringing your unique brand of awesomeness to all of us here at FD.

Shotgun, on belay and super-bad.

Of course I didn’t sleep well on Saturday night. What with the day being exhausting and the nervousness about missing my flight and the excitement about First Descents finally being here, I maybe strung together three hours of sleep. Just the way to start four days of exhilarating physical exertion, right?

Our group of thirteen campers found each other at the baggage claim area of the Denver airport in two shifts with the help of the very enthusiastic camp director and EMT volunteer. By the time I rolled up, some of the campers had already nailed down their nicknames and were admonished to use them exclusively, but their first stabs at a name for me (“Starfish!” because of my earrings) didn’t feel right. I wanted a perfect fit; there is a chance I’ll be using this nickname for years, and just-okay wouldn’t do. I knew it would have to come up organically, so I waited.

First Descents camps assign everyone a nickname upon arrival to distinguish the camp experience from the real life that many of us would like to forget. Camp is the opportunity to rise above your definition of yourself as “cancer patient” or “cancer survivor” and simply to be the person you are that week. You don’t have to be anyone’s mom, kid, wife, husband, sister, friend, co-worker; just yourself, an incredible sense of freedom. Not to mention a really easy way to remember the names of twenty new people at once.

Six of us plus Patch, the FD EMT volunteer, made our way to the short-term parking lot and a rented van in which we’d ride the hour-and-a-half to Estes Park. I’m not sure where the immature urge came from, but my competitive-sibling gene forced me to shout, “SHOTGUN!” by the side of the van. Hey, if no one else was going to call it… The nickname was found. (And, when discovered later by members of my family, confirmed as unassailably perfect.)

The first night, following my well-deserved nap, included an up-to-the-minute personal medical review with the staff and medical team (during which I filled them in on my fevers, lungs, and failed clinical trial), a delicious vegan organic dinner with the other campers, staff, and guides, and trying to remember everyone’s names. After icebreaker games (flashbacks to freshman orientation) and a rundown of the next morning’s plans, everyone drifted off to bed.

Monday morning, excitement made it easy to wake up and get ready to go; my new gear was shiny-clean and primed for action, and the two-hour time difference meant I had even had a decent night’s sleep. The altitude was having an impact on my breathing, though – at 8,500 feet the atmosphere contains about 35% of the oxygen it does at sea level, and I huffed and puffed climbing a flight of stairs or completing a sentence. Being winded made me nervous about the rock-climbing: how much would I be able to do? Would my fitness level and push-ups training make any difference?

The training climbs were planned for a rock formation not far from the lodge, within walking distance (coolers of food and drinks! folding chairs!) from the parking area, and the campers scrambled up to the base, eager to get started and afraid of how we’d do. The gusty wind made it hard to hear the instructors’ careful lessons on knot-tying, belaying, and checking our gear – I found out we’d be belaying each other; somehow that made it more scary than if the instructors had been directly involved. I hadn’t grasped the importance of the trust between teammates, the one climbing up and the one keeping watch at the bottom – when I climbed, I was in control, even though the belayer was watching my every step and keeping me safe from falling. But once it came time to belay back down (to lean back at a 90-degree angle from the rock and hang by my harness from the rope and pulley controlled by my belayer on the ground) I was terrified. You want me to what? Walk backwards off this cliff hoping that my brand-new best friend is paying attention and holding on tight? All the 40 feet back to terra firma? Holy crap, what was I doing here?

BAM, the magnitude of where I was and what I was doing hit me. I was up on the side of a rock, in a city and state I’d never been to before, surrounded by people I’d only known for eighteen hours cheering me on and hanging my butt, literally, in the balance. Cancer patients put their trust in doctors, nurses, family members… people we’ve known for years, interviewed carefully, background-checked. Who were all these campers? Ultimately, I think it was this overwhelming unfamiliarity that helped me sink into the new, delicious abandon of trust, tip myself over the verge and bounce backwards to the ground.

The cheers and support of my new best friends made all the difference that day – they helped each of us to climb past our personal insecurities and to back down to earth again over and over. As we rooted each new climber to the top, as we spotted belayers and checked everyone’s gear before a new climb, our reliance on each other and our shared triumphs hitched us all to a common purpose that WASN’T cancer, and that felt really, really good.

After lunch in the sun I tried a tougher climb, but about halfway up the altitude and the fresh air and physical efforts conspired to stop me – other campers later spoke of watching me “hit the wall” on the side of the rock face – and I cried, “I’m done!”, belayed down and headed for my chair for a nap; I knew I was finished for the day. I dozed in my chair for an hour or so, then the concerned doctor gave me a ride back to the lodge and my bed around 2PM. As I slept more, my headache grew. I wanted to take some Tylenol to kill the headache (it couldn’t be dehydration, as I’d had about two quarts of water since we started climbing), but was feeling nauseous and knew I needed to eat first so I wouldn’t get sick. Vicious cycle – I dozed off and on for about two hours until Clover came to check on me and I asked her to get the doctor. Hack finally showed up and gave me some Zofran for the nausea and some Diamox for the altitude acclimation, and forced me to eat yogurt. The food helped me get down some Tylenol; that and some more napping wiped the headache clean. Turns out all that water is nothing for a day of exertion without some salt: should have been Gatorade and a bag of chips. Lesson learned.

By 6:30 I was able to get up and have dinner with the crew, and felt better enough to join the after-dinner “campfire” session to talk about the day and how much fun we’d each had, and how proud we were of our accomplishments. And to enjoy the dynamic that was developing – the personalities were linking, meshing, overlapping, and we were getting comfortable enough together to start making fun of each other, the true test of friendship. Things were starting to get good. My addition to the evening’s observations was that FD staffers and volunteers are TOTALLY as cool as the hype I’ve heard about them – their enthusiasm was contagious from that first moment at the airport.


Our amazing alum make our job here at the FD blog super-easy when they take the time to share their camp experiences with the world through the written word.  

This time around, we’re thrilled to offer you the wit and wisdom of Andy, aka X2C, who just experienced the First Descents magic at kayaking camp in Vail.  X2C is a contributor over at The Mountain Murmur, and he posted a beautiful piece on their site about his week on the water.  As you can see, Andy has no fear  – from taking on the rapids to shoving veggie chips up his nose.    

Kayaking isn't the only challenge campers face

We are forever amazed at the spirit and energy of our campers, and Andy’s words prove yet again that only the cool kids get cancer.


Leanna's First Descents Family; Vail, CO, 7/10

It’s common for a first-time camper to leave their inaugural First Descents experience feeling deeply affected and changed for the better.  We are always amazed at the words and thoughts which people share with us after spending a week on the rock or the rapids.  Whenever we can, we like to pass on testimonials that speak to the ways in which First Descents helps renew and transform young adult lives affected by cancer.

A few weeks ago, Leanna, aka “Floyd” , who is battling Stage IV breast cancer, spent her first week with FD at a kayaking camp in Vail, Colorado.  She posted some beautiful words on her own blog, and we hope you’ll take a moment to read her reflections.  Thanks, Floyd, for your spirit and courage, and for telling the world about how First Descents has enriched your life.


Some young adults come to camp with an established sense of themselves as survivors in the world at large; some of them already have a clear sense of mission, an articulable way in which cancer has transformed them and given them a voice.  Others come to camp still unsure of what it means to survive cancer, and what they want life to look like going forward. Often, though, there’s a little bit of uncertainty and confusion lying dormant in even the sturdiest and seemingly most self-possessed survivors, while those who arrive at camp feeling unsure or afraid discover the warrior within them they didn’t even know existed.

April "Lemondrop" Capil (with hotdog on head) with some of her FD family in Moab, UT, 4/10

FD alum April “Lemondrop” Capil is a woman of wide-ranging interests and passions, with a vigorous mind and an enormous heart.  Those of us who had the pleasure of getting to know Lemondrop at camp this year saw someone with a seemingly clear grasp on what she wanted out of her life as a Stage III breast cancer survivor.  She’d even written a book about lessons learned from her cancer experience.  Recently, though, Lemon shared on her own blog some reflections on her FD experience that show just how unexpected and transformative an experience at camp can be, even for the most sure-footed among us.  Growth, insight and revelation sneak up on us – on the rock or on the water.  Listen to what Lemon has to say:

…First Descents runs adventure therapy camps for cancer survivors. They started as a kayaking camp, which I think is a perfect metaphor for life after cancer (or any other disaster). When you are kayaking, you are floating on an uncontrollable, unpredictable force of nature – just like life. You cannot control a river – it is going to twist and turn and there is nothing you can do about it but learn to ride the waves – to practice being unafraid of the rises and dips on the ride. You can learn to navigate, to paddle, to float, to rest, and all these skills will make the ride easier and more enjoyable, but once you are in the river, you are in the river, and there is no getting out. When I was climbing, the greatest lesson I learned is that your footing – your grip on the wall – is always more certain than you think. I would take a step and think, “That little crack is not going to hold my weight!” and miraculously, it would. I learned to trust my body, trust my instincts, and have faith in myself. After just a week with First Descents, I felt like I had come back home to myself. I realized that it was because for the first time in months, I had actually BEEN myself – a climber, a dreamer, an adventurer who took big leaps of faith and hung on for dear life when the ride got scary. I laughed, looking in the mirror when I got home, because I finally recognized the person staring back.


A select few FD-er’s have been lucky enough to participate in the camp experience with a truly remarkable young woman named Arlene Milagros Quezada.  In 2002, at age 17, Arlene was diagnosed with Juvenile Pilocytic Astrocytoma, a tumor in the brain stem.  She underwent radical surgery, chemotherapy, and ultimately had to re-learn how to walk and talk.  As if there was any doubt about Arlene’s spirit, she decided to enroll in college while in the midst of treatment, and last year she graduated after spending every semester on the Dean’s List.

Last summer, rock-climbing in Jackson, WY, Arlene – who stubborly refused to adopt a nickname, but ended the week with more nicknames than all of the other campers combined – astounded us all with her unrelenting determination and cynical yet warm sense of humor.  Despite the limits on her mobility, she climbed and repelled right along side all of her fellow campers, never missing out on an opportunity to prove her mettle.  Her iron will served as a huge inspiration to everyone in Jackson.

Arlene and Smelly, Jackson, WY

Arlene came back to camp this year, this time to kayak in Washington State, and we asked her to take a minute and put some of her thoughts about First Descents into writing.  Take it away, Arlene:

“It’s not about how hard you can hit but how hard you can get hit
and keep moving forward.”

After I graduated from college, I decided to try something new. I had the privilege and honor to participate in a First Descents camp. This marked the beginning of a new chapter of my life. I went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to rock climb with fellow cancer survivors. This rock climbing experience gave me the opportunity to reveal a part of me that had died when I had undergone surgery for my brain tumor. I saw that I had a lot of physical strength, the physical strength that I thought I had lost forever.  In Jackson, it became clear that my physical wounds were finally beginning to heal.  This part of me awoke little by little as I climbed higher and higher up the mountain. The Arlene who had given up on that part of herself was now witnessing, firsthand, that this Arlene was not dead forever.  This part of me was waking up again, the part of me that was evolving from the seventeen-year-old young woman who was abruptly detached from life.

This summer, yet again, I was blessed to participate in First Descents.  This time I attended the kayaking camp. While rock climbing gave me a glimpse of the woman I have evolved into, kayaking assured me of the woman I am and of the woman I want to be.  It allowed me to begin to discover that emotional part of me that was in dire need of help.  While my process was slower, I was able to fully engage in wet exits from the kayak.  In response to all that I gave to this experience, I received so much in return.

I may have several physical scars from my condition that will never go away, but I rely on them as constant reminders of what I have been through. The emotional scars are much more profound and eternally painful.  First Descents gave me the chance to begin to heal these emotional scars, one by one.

On the final day of kayaking, we kayaked in Hood River. I was on a two-person kayak with one of the counselors, who happens to also be someone I look up to immensely for her courageous spirit and beautiful heart.  Sharing this experience with her not only gave me the opportunity to challenge myself yet again but to also have someone by my side that I hold very close to my heart.  As I looked at the mountains and beauty that surrounded us, my heart was put to rest.  I knew, finally, that no matter what, I would make it in life.  This young woman, full of bruises and scars, both in her heart and on
her skin, is not going to be left behind.

This gave me a confidence in myself that put my emotions at ease.  It put to rest long-standing fears, and taught me I will be okay in this world. Since I was 17 years old, I had felt like a lost puppy, but now I feel that this lost puppy is slowly finding her way back home.  I have now discovered that it will all be okay; this experience answered this eternal question that had paralyzed me for so long. Now, I look back at the pictures of my kayaking experience and just smile.  I smile because at the end of the day I put all my heart, all my pain, and all my love into what I did there.  I smile for the determination and will I put into it.  I smile for the tears I shed when I paddled and paddled with all that I had in my heart.  I smile for the fear I had when I would go underwater and feel a discomfort in my head that was impossible to explain.  I smile for the tears that would fill my eyes, for how I would cover my face with both hands with embarrassment when I tried going underwater and failed over and over again. I smile when I think of the beautiful people with whom I was allowed to share this experience.

At the end of the day, everything was okay.  The best part of First Descents was that it allowed me to finally begin to heal emotionally.  I smile for all those things that made the experience both unique and unforgettable.  A part of my brain, emotionally, is slowly beginning to finally heal.  The part that seemed to be stitched not quite tight enough or well enough is slowly beginning to heal.  I did and I will continue to move forward.  I moved forward in my kayak, and most importantly, I will continue to move forward in my life.  It has been a tough road that life has paved for me, but I know I will make it.  These obstacles have defined who I am; for me, they are a disguised blessing that has broken me down into pieces and then built me up to become the woman that I am today.  I will never throw in the towel on myself.  It may become filled with tears of blood, but I will not quit, ever.  I simply refuse.

Smelly and Arlene, Washington State, 2010