FDX Africa- This Is Way Better Than Planet Earth


FDX Africa: This is Way Better Than ‘Planet Earth’


My new friend Spaceballs and I walk through the tall grass at the Lake Manyara Rift Valley and enter the clearing where zebras, jackals, gazelle, wildebeest and warthogs all roam close enough to kill us before we could utter “hakuna matata.” We turn our heads and see more animals. Then we turn our bodies in a full circle and see animals everywhere. We are wearing long pants and button-downs coated in permethrin to deter malaria-carrying mosquitos, safari hats, daypacks, sunglasses and binoculars.

All that lies between the animals and us is Lingato, our guide who is a Massai warrior. Lingato, dressed in a red sheet, holds a spear with which he can throw at and hit a precise blade of grass fifteen feet away. Lingato tells us about the time he killed a lion—out of self-defense and never for sport. “When lion attacks, I throw my spear from far enough away that if I miss then I can still grab my knife. That is my last line of defense. Maasai warriors do not fear the lion. Maasai warriors do not hesitate.”


Lingato says it is possible for two lions to attack at once. “I only have one spear, so I can only kill one lion.”

He doesn’t describe exactly how we would survive if two lions attack.


This is Africa.


* * *


I met Spaceballs the day we left for Africa, even though we live just 20 miles apart and share the same religion, sense of humor and employer. We registered for FDX Africa, a week-long safari in Tanzania through Mark Thornton Safaris. We booked identical flights for the trip including an additional day to visit Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous archipelago east of Tanzania. Half of Spaceballs’ large intestine was removed due to colon cancer. I guessed that meant the traveler’s diarrhea we all would inevitably get would speed through him even faster.

Spaceballs and I met the remaining group members either during our layover in Amsterdam, Netherlands, or at the first lodge in Arusha, Tanzania. A third of them had had breast cancer. Based on their discussions I considered that straight women love breasts more than straight men do, but Shredder clarified that’s only true for breast cancer survivors.

Bubbe—the loud, unfiltered, totally American and total New Yorker who had breast cancer several years ago—schooled me on breasts. I can now enter a conversation about the varying implant technologies and methods to keep them high on the body with strong pectoral support. Bubbe said, “A minute after Avocado [another breast cancer survivor] introduced herself to me I had to interrupt her and say, ‘Sorry I didn’t hear anything you said, I can’t stop staring at your breasts.’

“Avocado has like the BMW of breasts while I’m driving an old Hyundai.”

Bubbe is upgrading hers this spring. She let me cop a feel and I thought, Oh this is cool I’m touching a breast right now. I did not think,These breasts need upgrading, so maybe I’m not ready to enter that conversation quite yet.

Bubbe told me their breasts glow red when they shine a flashlight through them when in the dark, displaying their veins like a road map and their nipples (or tattooed nipples) like a silhouette. When Shredder had found this out a year after her surgery she asked her surgeon why he hadn’t told her. “Because then you would show them off,” she said he told her.

“I show them off anyway!” she had replied.

“You can do the same with your balls,” Bubbe told me.

Did I know this when I was a little boy and feel the same intrigue they feel for their breasts, now in their thirties and fourties? Probably, but I can’t remember. I walked away, opened the flashlight app on my phone and unbuckled. Bubbe was right. I offered a trade—me showing off my glow-in-the-dark body part in order to see one of theirs—but Avocado photographed hers and shared the photos with everyone without demanding anything in return. Like Shredder said, they love breasts.

While many of our post-campfire evenings revolved around breasts, our days revolved around animals. Our safari included walking and driving around the Maasai Steppe and Tarangire and Lake Manyara National Parks, and driving through the Ngorongoro Crater. For the first two walks, all twelve participants, our FD lead staffer and our three guides walked single-file in silence. One guide, a Massai warrior, held a spear and Rambo-like knife, and one guide held a gun as a potential last resort. We got close enough to many of the animals to see every detail through binoculars.

I never expected to get close enough to nearly touch a 900-pound living mass of muscle and grace. Full of adrenaline and awe, my evening at Rift Valley with Spaceballs and Lingato was one of my life’s best. Humans top the food chain because of our technology. But without it, we are no match for the animals we domesticate, kill and eat.

Sometimes that is true even with our technology. The next day, as we headed towards Ngorongoro Crater, our guide Elvis stopped the Land Rover when he spotted an elephant in the woods. It towered over the brush, its ears flopping as if listening to our whispers of, “Look at that giant fucking elephant oh my God!”

The elephant approached the road and stopped. It watched us. Would it turn back? Or would it charge? Our metal door and glass window would do little to slow the elephant’s tusks or legs. As much as human beings think we know—about cancer, about how animals think, about the benefits and detriments of consuming seven cups of coffee a day—we are generally ignorant.

The elephant continued on its way. Maybe it sensed we were simply cancer survivors there in peace and for the adventure of our lifetimes.

Childhood and young adult cancer survivors endure immense suffering and deal with additional effects later in life. Individuals who were never victimized by cancer say we are strong and badass. Sometimes we young cancer survivors agree. Sometimes they and we even think we are superhuman. During FDX Africa I considered the possibility that everyone in our group was a pussy compared to Tanzanians, many who live without electricity and running water. They make their own food, clothing and shelter; use every part of their resources, including their cows’ dung and slaughtered goats’ blood. After FDX Africa I returned to my cozy apartment three blocks from the underground train and one mile by car from a giant supermarket.

I wondered if the Maasai people whose boma I visited would want to trade lives with me. Would they want to exchange their physically, never-endingly demanding yet slow work for my stagnant, hyper-paced one behind a desk and monitor? Would they want a portable device that calculates, tracks and schedules every aspect of their lives so they no longer have to?

Walking through the jungle, with the sun both depleting my energy and soothing my worries, I understood why people and animals in Tanzania embrace the phrase “pole pole” (pronounced “polay polay”), which in Swahili means “slowly slowly.” We saw a lioness stalk a water buffalo, leading to a distant staredown between the two beasts. We saw a hyena chase a dik-dik (a small antelope), weaving through much larger wildebeest. In both instances the predators tired and quit. But they would be ready for the next opportunity.

Hakuna matata. This is Africa. And we fell in love with it.

FB_IMG_1457542064347Benjamin (Hippy) Rubenstein is the author of the Cancer-Slaying Super Man books. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also read about his FD1 trip rock climbing in Moab, Utah.

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!









One Day At A Time- PTSD and Anxiety after cancer


Sometimes it’ll just hit me all at once out of nowhere.

I’ll be in the car driving home, or walking around on my college campus and then suddenly… I’m crying. And I mean like ugly crying… hardcore sobbing with streams of tears rushing down my face. My hands usually start trembling and my knees go weak. I just want to curl up in a ball and disappear. Sometimes it gets so bad I can’t even see anything in front of me. All I can think of is, Cancer…I had cancer.

And the strange part is, most of the time I don’t even really know why I’m crying about something that happened to me over two years ago. I don’t feel anything except the numbness that echoes through me like footsteps in an empty hall. But still, my whole body tenses as if I’m staring down an invisible enemy. In my head, I know I’m not in any immediate danger. My brain is telling the rest of me to get it together and suck it up. Don’t be such a baby, you’re fine now, I try to tell myself. But of course, that doesn’t help.
Something insignificant triggers a piece of a memory, and then at once it all comes back to me. Half-second memories and nightmares flood my mind, causing each breath to feel like a desperate gasp for air before drowning. I try to stay focused on the present, but visions of the past demand my attention and force me under. Needles going into my chest port, painful bone marrow biopsies, liters of neon yellow chemotherapy, blood and platelet infusions, being violently ill, wheelchairs, electrocuting pain all over, wondering whether the chemo or the cancer would kill me first, wondering if it will just come back one day anyways…

As I drop to my knees shell-shocked, I realize… I am drowning inside of myself, and no one else even knows it.

Eventually, I reached a point where I had to talk to somebody about what was going on. Thankfully, I was able to receive free post-cancer counseling therapy through a local nonprofit. Talking with my counselor about these thoughts and feelings has helped immeasurably, and I would highly recommend anyone who has been affected by cancer (whether by their own diagnosis or that of a loved one) seek professional counseling. My counselor told me I exhibit many signs of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and anxiety, but that it’s not uncommon for survivors to experience those issues after treatment ends. It hadn’t really occurred to me before that this might actually be a common struggle for many other adolescent/young adult (AYA) cancer survivors, too. Maybe I wasn’t just “being a crybaby.” Maybe this wasn’t something I could just force myself to “get over.” Maybe this was somehow… normal?

After talking with my fellow FD campers, my suspicions were confirmed. PTSD is a fairly widespread issue among AYA cancer survivors, often accompanied by other underlying issues such as “survivor’s guilt,” depression and anxiety. Not everyone experiences these problems to the same degree, and some do not experience any of them at all. But for those of us who do, these mental and emotional struggles can be every bit as crippling as the physical challenges of cancer and treatment. Unfortunately, there is still a large gap in information, research and resources available that address AYA cancer survivors’ mental health issues during and after a cancer diagnosis and treatment.

First Descents plays a crucial role in filling part of this gap by providing AYA cancer survivors with the chance to connect with one another and find healing through incredible outdoor adventures. FD provides survivors with a chance to redefine their physical and mental limits by learning a new outdoor skill. Furthermore, FD helps survivors reclaim their bodies from disease to use as strong, capable tools for adventure and fun, rather than seeing themselves as broken or sick victims.

I wish I could tell you that during my FD1 kayaking trip I mastered the roll, or even a simple T-rescue. But I didn’t. I was too scared to be willingly flipped over in my kayak with my head underwater. The fear of being out of control, trapped, and drowning was too overwhelming for me. At the time, I didn’t understand why. But now I can see how to a large degree, it was my PTSD and anxiety that held me back. The feeling of drowning was all too present in my daily thoughts for me to be able to enjoy those underwater exercises. I chose to stay upright in my kayak as much as possible that week, and honestly, I still felt every bit as happy and accomplished as any of the other campers by the end of the week.

That’s part of the beauty of FD. They encouraged me to go beyond what I thought my limits were (both physically and mentally), but they never forced me to do something I didn’t feel safe doing. The motto of the week was, “Choose your own adventure.” For someone who hasn’t had much say in what’s gone on in her life, it was refreshing to have choices.

I learned tons of valuable lessons about myself and about life in general during my week on the water. I learned that life will throw you rapids, and sometimes your only option is to ride straight through them. They may end up being the most fun thing ever, or can be as scary as hell. Either way, it’s up to you to decide how you’ll tackle those rapids and what your mindset will be when riding through them. Your mindset probably won’t change your circumstances, but it certainly will change your experience of those circumstances.

I also learned that my body is stronger than I thought it was. I am (surprisingly) not made of glass! Or cancer! Who knew? After my week on the river, I was inspired to spend more time outdoors enjoying nature and being physically active. So I started out simple by go for long walks, then I started running, then I moved on to horseback riding, and soon I hope to get back in the kayak and master those skills I wasn’t ready to try before.

With PTSD and anxiety, there are good days and bad days. Counseling, friends, family, writing, art therapy and being active outdoors have all played a part in helping me outnumber the bad days with good ones. As I apply the lessons learned on the river to my everyday life, I’m finally reaching a point where I can roll myself upright from the waters of a bad day. I’ve finally found the creative outlets, resources and people that can help give me a T-rescue when I feel the rapids of PTSD pull me under. Even though the panic attacks and episodes come every now and then, they don’t scare me as much as they used to. I’m getting stronger, one day at a time. And who knows? Maybe, just maybe I’ll go on an FDX trip soon, and I’ll be able to roll and T-rescue with the best of them. After all, I’ll have had lots of mental practice. 😉

Elise Intern LS pic1Elise Frame (“Lil Sis”) is a 23 year-old student at the University of Texas studying Communications with a focus on Nonprofit Development. She was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at age 20, but recently finished chemotherapy and was declared cancer-free in October 2014. Elise participated in an FD1 kayaking trip last summer and discovered a previously unknown love for the great outdoors. She now enjoys stand up paddleboarding and kayaking on Town Lake in Austin, Texas, where she currently lives. As a passionate young adult cancer awareness and prevention advocate, she has served as an intern at The LIVESTRONG Foundation, and currently contributes to The Huffington Post‘s young adult cancer blog series, “Generation Why”.


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.



In a cool bit of Internet whisper-down-the-lane, one of our campers, Knuckles, was so moved by the words and work of another camper, Slam, that he posted her poetry right up on his blog.  Fortunately, the poem ultimately found its way to us.  Slam and Knuckles were together at one of our Colorado kayaking camps over the summer, and it’s clear that the experience made a lasting impression on them both.

Legend has it that Slam spent a good part of her camp experience dazzling her fellow campers with her chops, and then, by request, composed an homage to FD which she shared on the last night in Colorado.

Slam, being Awesome

We are forever amazed by the gifts our young adult survivors possess.  Thanks to Knuckles for highlighting Slam’s beautiful and true words, and huge props to Slam for producing such a stunning tribute.

Here it is

We got off the plane
Note sure what to expect
Would it be a first descent?
Or a first eject

The road was windy
The future unknown
We were truly out of our comfort zone

All survivors
Far and Near
Cancer Crushers
Crushing Fear

With the river in front of us
We were on our way
Ready for
A brand new day

Sway your hips
From side to side
Kayak straight
An’ enjoy the ride

Rock the Rapids
Ride the Waves
Boof the Rocks
Surf and Save

The swift and the quick
Guide that stick
An’ paddle on your way

This river battle
Runs deep and shallow

So get down low
Learn how to roll

Wipe that splash from your face

Wet exit when you need to
All you do is lean in through
There is no such disgrace

Pick up that boat
To return to float
With a smile on your face

Cancer led us to this place
7W greased the wheels
I am not sure why I ended up here
Yet, I’m loving how it feels

When these days come to an end
I will look to see your faces again

All locked in
An eddy flower
Floating on Water
Flying on Power

Row, Row, Row your Boat
That’s all you have to do to stay afloat
Sway Your Hips
From Side to Side
We Rock this River with FD Pride

“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.

the invisible hand of first descents: a love letter from Cheesesteak

As the de facto Blogger in Chief here at First Descents, I do my best to maintain something like editorial objectivity and simply focus on the incredible work and wisdom of our campers, supporters and organizers.  Last night, though, for reasons I can’t quite explain, I felt the need to compose my own over-due love letter to FD.  My name is Emily “Cheesesteak” Beck, alum of rock-climbing camps in Jackson, WY (2009) and Moab, UT (2010), and I owe my rebirth after cancer in large part to FD.  Below is last night’s entry from my own blog, See Emily Play, shared here with love and gratitude, as always.

Some things are so obvious, we risk taking them for granted.  Some things underpin so much of who we are, what we do, that it seems unnecessary, or redundant, to spend time reflecting on their significance.  At the end of a weekend when I feel so acutely the challenges I routinely put before myself, how I conquer them, and when I am looking ahead to some terrifying and exhilarating unknowns, I need to stop and state the obvious.

First Descents has become like oxygen, this completely essential part of my existence. Every day, regardless of what else is going on in my life, there is at least a moment or two where I am communicating with my family from camps in Jackson and Moab; working on the FD blog that I am so honored to have been asked to maintain; or just mulling over memories or images or dreams of future encounters with other FD’ers.  (Today, on a long run, I was gripped by a powerful image of me, Stiletto and Caesar rocking the house at an FD fundraiser, belting out wicked three part harmony on Fleetwood Mac and Journey covers.)

It dawned on me on my run this morning that I am now training for two major athletic events over the next two months.  After a two year hiatus (f!@$ you very much, cancer), I am finally saddling up again for a two-day, 150 mile bike ride for the National MS Society.  And a few weeks ago, after learning about the First Descents 10th Anniversary festivities happening in Denver in October, I decided, somewhat hastily, that I would attempt to run on a relay team in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon there.  Never mind that running at that altitude is an utterly foreign challenge for me.  (I recall gasping painfully on my short runs in Jackson last summer.)  It’s First Descents.  I need to be there.  And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from FD, it’s that I can do anything that I set my mind (and body) to.

At our favorite resting point - the Atco Post Office, August 2010

Yesterday, I rode 40 miles.  Running has greatly improved my endurance and over-all physical conditioning, but it’s still kind of a bitch to get up and run the morning after a decent-sized training ride.  But today, as I woke up, I decided that not only was I going to run, but that I was going to push myself a good bit beyond my average weekly morning distance.  I have set a goal for myself, a distance I will achieve before heading to Denver to run my leg of the marathon, and I just decided – BAM, like that – that I would start today. Why not?

This might not sound like much.  But every single time I saddle up, or lace up, and feel the wind and the sun on me, the sweat running into my eyes (as it did today, on the simmering first morning of what’s expected to be another week-long heatwave), I think of climbing the stairs in our old house during chemo, the way my heart would race, leaving me as short of breath as if I’d just run a marathon.  Two years ago, the challenge of getting my dog around the block, or carrying laundry up from the basement, was as profound as anything I am doing now.  There was so little of me left then, that the smallest task seemed as comparatively monumental as any training ride or run seems to me today.

This afternoon, Mike and I took my mother-in-law out for a belated birthday lunch, and we spent a good bit of time talking about where we are in the adoption process.  We told her that tomorrow we are going for a one-on-one meeting with the director of the agency we are likely going to use.  At one point, I reminded her that the process is destined to be long, and fraught with all kinds of emotional peril.  There is no saying how or when we will be parents.  She responded by saying, “I know that. I am just so happy that you’re ready to do this now, because it means that you are well enough, that you’re OK. ”

The process of getting to the place of being ready to actively pursue adoption – to get on this new roller-coaster and start dealing with paperwork and aggravation and uncertainty – has been long, and incremental.  There has been no over-night transformation from the devastated, heartbroken survivor I was in the immediate aftermath of treatment to the person I am now – calm, realistic, content, blessed with a strength and resilience that I believe can only be gained from enduring a struggle like facing and overcoming cancer.

The fact is, every rock climbed, every stride along the pavement, every push up an incline in the saddle, has been an essential part of getting me to the place where I am ready to move into the next phase of my life – one where I am not defined solely by my survivorship.  But where my survivorship informs the countless other dimensions of my identity – those already known, and those yet to be.

On the rock in Jackson, WY - September, 2009

I trace so much of this evolution back to First Descents.  I can look back to Jackson, exactly a year ago this week, and see the bend in the road, the place where my journey back to life was forever and irrevocably transformed.  It’s a miraculous thing to have this kind of invisible hand operating on me, on my soul.  It’s something that I think all of us who have been fortunate enough to be a part of this magical community understand. Tonight, I just want to make sure I don’t take it for granted.

Scaling the Devil's Butt Crack; Moab, UT, April 2010


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.