By Benjamin Rubenstein
“Hey Benjamin, do you have a nickname?” one of the camp directors, Scooter, said upon my arrival with my First Descents rock-climbing group in Moab, Utah, on Memorial Day. Friends and coworkers call me Ben, but that abrupt syllable was too mundane for this adventure. “My left hip was removed due to cancer, so I’ll go by Hippy,” I said.
Scooter explained that nicknames create alternate identities from our cancer survivor egos. Most others chose nicknames based on their given names: Lil Wayne replaced Wayne; Gnomers for Naomi; Aimster for Amie. It seemed I selected the wrong nickname considering it is based on my disease.
I had seen a First Descents display at a cancer survivor conference last May at George Washington University, which I attended for networking purposes. The display caught my attention for two reasons: rock-climbing sounded fun, and the trips were free for survivors.
I was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, when I was sixteen years old. Cancer led me to create rules to live by, which disassociated me from the cancer community (and reality). I wouldn’t volunteer at Camp Fantastic despite nurses begging me, or accept friendships from other patients. I felt superior to them all—an unethical yet powerful defense mechanism.
My rules will always remain, though now I accept they can be bent. Had I considered First Descents a support retreat instead of an adventure then I would have rushed past the display. Maybe I bent that reality. Either way, I signed up immediately.
Our program consisted of 15 “survivors” aged 20-38, a gray term considering some had completed treatment, some were in treatment, and some about to begin again. We discussed diseases and scars the way Washingtonians do careers and traffic. My teenage self would not have approved breaking my No Complaining rule (just mentioning “cancer” was an act of complaining). Actually, he would have been disgraced and probably untied my rope while I climbed Wall Street.
My teenage self would not have scoffed at the laughter, however. Single testis and breast, large cervix and uterus, near-deafness, left hiplessness: all fair game, thanks to cancer, and hilarious. We meshed more than any large group I have been a part of. I spent my adult life pushing the cancer community away, and after one hour I forgot I was supposed to be better than them. We were all Cancer-Slaying Super Men and Women. But I digress, how can I forget that I attended only for the adventure?
Soon after I begin the climb I reach a tall, flat segment. No holds to my right. I can climb around the flat to the left like everyone else will. But my hipless left side doesn’t move that way: it lacks the range, hip flexor strength, and push-off. I look up and see the best hand hold I could hope for, a thick protruding jug with space for my fingers to grip underneath.
I contract my right calf and stand tall on my toes, stretch out with my right arm, lock my elbow, and feel the red sandstone with my fingertips. I creep my hand up until my hold is secure. My rope is tight, belayer ready, and teenage self in awe rather than disgraced.
I match my hands and let my feet fall. I shoot my elbows down, forcing the rest of me up. My head now elevated high above my hands, I maintain position with my left arm and let go with my right. I swing towards a hand hold two feet to my right and grab it. My arms will tire if I don’t find a ledge to stand on, but I see nothing. So I extend my triceps as my body climbs up and up and up until my elbows lock. I mantle with my right foot and carefully rise, brushing the wall with my shoulder. My forearms are exploding, new friends cheering, and heart overflowing.
I lost my left ilium to cancer 11.5 years ago after a childhood defined by athletics. After surgery I required 16 months of intense physical therapy before I could walk without a cane or crutch. Radiation later killed and deformed my hip joint. I will never run or jump again.
I filled the void with darts, H.O.R.S.E. and Ping-Pong. The athletic competition was still missing, though. It is no longer. I see recreational rock-climbing as attempting to reach the top of the route. There is no time limit or points system based on technique or gracefulness. My useful limb count may be 3.5 at best, but there is no deduction for missing body parts.
I failed to complete the crux on that route I described, mostly for a lack of height than hip. But my supportive group still raved about my Cliffhanger-like maneuver. I relished their support. “Support”: I shudder to think how my teenage self would view me for using that term positively.
First Descents was more than just an adventure. We all benefited in different ways. KMac, the victim of social anxiety thanks to cancer, hadn’t felt that comfortable since she was ten. Aimster stopped feeling guilty for only having survived thyroid cancer. Sunny understood that people provide support differently.
I learned that I never have to justify or compare myself to peers. My “normal” has changed the way a horizon changes based on the observer’s position, one no lesser than any other. My physical disability and innumerable other “abnormalities” are not a function of me, but rather what was done to me.
I have been well for so long that my position is usually observed as a cancer survivor. KMac was one of only two longer-term survivors. She has survived four times beginning at age eight. Lings had her ovaries removed three days after returning home from Moab. Her tumor-ridden appendix was also removed, but her uterus thankfully remains. We found that hilarious. Sunny’s three-month restaging showed she is not cancer-free. Somehow she still found a way to crack up about that, in between sobbing and zoning out.
It is so easy to forget my roots. KMac, Lings and Sunny changed my observation point, and I relish the perspective refresher. It won’t last forever, though, which is both saddening and necessary in order for us to be productive and functional in society. I now want to support these other Cancer-Slaying Super Men and Women because I need them more than they need me. I cannot wait for my next perspective refresher at an FD2 rock-climbing program in 2013. I expect Lings and Sunny to be there discussing their uteri and even cervices if they wish.
Hippy was a perfect nickname choice. I do not need to separate myself from my disease because it is a part of, and has helped shape, me. I have found a new favorite hobby because of my disability. Hippy is not justification for my inability to perform difficult climbs (or anything else in life)—it is the reason I will try. Besides, it is hilarious.
Hippy is the author of TWICE: How I Became a Cancer-Slaying Super Man Before I Turned 21, as well as the blog I’ve Still Got Both My Nuts