Exactly ten days ago, I was three days in to an adventure I never thought I would take. Not because I am not an adventurous person, but because I could never have guessed that I would sit here today – a young adult cancer survivor, lupus fighter or anything other than healthy, fit and super-charged. It is all I had known, really. I was in charge of my body and my limits (or lack thereof). The idea that I would ever not be NEVER crossed my mind – ever. Not when I first got sick in 2006 and not when I was told “you have cancer” and not when they made me walk in to my surgery (see previous blog posts on how that went) and not as I ran my way to a healthier body than I had ever had before cancer. I showed that little fucker! Or, so I thought. The next few years went from being about me kicking ass to me riding a roller coaster and often just barely treading water. I learned that even when you are as strong as you think you can possibly be, cancer can and will push you further. It is never easy and that anchor that it ties to your ankle, well, it gets heavy.
So, the invincible girl who was loud, silly and fearless, became quiet, reserved and broken… a little. I hid it as much as I could. I covered the pain with the jokes that I could still muster, but even the one thing that always flowed so naturally from my soul – humor – was rough around the edges, murky, jagged. The thing that I went to for comfort, my defense, my armor, my security blanket – I allowed cancer and lupus to strip that from me and I was pissed. I started to tell myself that I needed to steal that back. That was mine. Cancer could take a lot. Lupus, that bitch, she could try to take more, but I worked my ass off to find my voice. I spent my life fighting through the fear of using it and when I finally let it rip, I was free. Ironic that I got thyroid cancer, where they would be cutting in to my neck, dangerously close to my vocal cords and made me sign a waiver that, amongst death, said that there was a possibility my vocal cords would be permanently paralyzed. They gave me that waiver 20 minutes before surgery. I was not afraid until that moment. I just wanted to be alone with my voice. I wanted to do a little stand-up set for the surgical team. I tried to throw a few at my mom and Ashton, but they just got teary. Even they knew. I needed them to laugh. I wanted to scream, but I was afraid that someone would be waiting to lock it up in some glass jar and it would be gone forever. Maybe it isn’t ironic at all? Maybe I just needed a reminder that it was my gift. Check.
After my fourth tangle with radioactive iodine therapy, more suspicious neck nodes, another year of being beaten up by my own body, I got really pissed. And, when this scrappy girl gets pissed, all bets are off! I shook myself every night and every single morning. I challenged myself to find something to remind me, again, that I am in charge. When I get to that place, I usually walk myself to the edge of a cliff and jump. That is what I did.
During my six months working with Stupid Cancer, I met so many amazing people and discovered so many awesome organizations that I could not believe I had not stumbled on before. I work in Development for nonprofits. I had cancer. This is what I do. Who I am. How did I miss this? That list included First Descents. HOWEVER, I steered extra clear of the idea that I would take part in an FD “camp” at any point. It was such a great thing they did, but not for me, not for anti-camp girl. I always wanted to learn to surf, but not with a bunch of strangers. Not in a house I would share with a bunch of strangers. Not in a shared room *gasp* – no. Not now. Not when my health was so precarious and unpredictable. Not when I had gone from my healthiest state to my weakest. I was lean and mean. I am neither of those things right now. No. Nope. Not me. That was…until I needed a cliff. I jumped.
Ten days later, I still wear my white thread bracelet from our Baci Ceremony that last night, where we lit candles of hope, whispered wishes of inspiration, shed some tears and then laughed a lot. Oh so very “campy” for this “all things campy are weird” girl. As I twist it throughout the day or catch a glimpse of it, I am reminded. Reminded of that amazing week where I faced my fears, found my voice once again, shook off the dust and took a big old leap of faith. I was reminded that I am not a disease and I am not defined by that. It is a path I have walked and a path I will continue to walk, but I will do so with a revitalized strength even if the shit hits the fan. I promise. I promise myself. I promise my friends. I promise my family. When I think I can’t, I will watch my surf camp movie montage and look at all the amazing pictures. I will remember my fellow FD warriors, their stories, their courage, their triumphs and their strength. I came to “camp” terrified and I left a little sad to leave, but I also left lighter than I had felt in a long time. Each time I get a text from one of my new friends, I smile. I am grateful for the experience that First Descents gave to me and I am beyond inspired to continue to help others find their “voices.” It is still amazing to me that the entire thing was FREE. Words are not nearly enough to thank each and every donor who has ever given a dollar. You, my friends, can not even begin to understand the number of lives you are giving back to people who just needed a little reminder and may not have even known what, exactly, that reminder was. I came home with a clarity that I had struggled to find for some time and the face in the mirror was the face of the loud, silly, fearless, invincible girl whom I had missed so very much.
I look forward to my next FD trip and I hope to get the chance to do it with some of my fellow FD Aqua-Pallooza residents. I will forever be part of the FD family. I will give back in any way that I can, so that every last young adult survivor/fighter can have a what I was told would be a “truly life-altering experience.” So it was.
I sit here in my Farm Dog Surf School t-shirt as I type this and I can’t help but giggle at the sound of “paddlepaddlepaddlepaddle…upupupup” in my head, remember the crazy wipeouts I took, head full of salt water while coming up laughing, the moments I shared with a house full of strangers that are now very special friends and letting go of the continued loop of sick that played over and over in my head. I will forever be “Cougar.” I like her.
Read more from Cougar’s blog here!