A Life Worth Living Again

By: Jacqueline "Rockslide" Harris

Nothing changes your evening plans like a cancer diagnosis. Yes, everything else in life yields to the Big C…The Dark Knight…The Big Mamba. As an active, healthy, and reasonably sane 25-year-old, wrestling cancer was not exactly on my summer “To Do” list. My diagnosis felt more like a hazing ritual from the Universe rather than the blissful post-graduate school traveling I was hoping to start. Having an oncologist breakdown the meaning of a cancer diagnosis couldn’t have been less fitting considering my medication list consisted of Multi-Vitamin gummies.

As expected, I was full of questions. What is Lymphoma? What is Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma? And what had I done to deserve this? To this day, I barely understand the answers to the first two questions (not the fault of my oncology team), and the answer to the third question was just disappointing…Random Chance. Oh great! I would have gladly taken any other answer, and I tried to find plenty of other answers to fit. Maybe it was genetic, so I could direct my anger to my family lineage. Maybe it was karma, then I could’ve directed my anger to any poor decision or bad deed that I had done. Karma for every time I woke up as a grouch, or told a lie, or for the times that I wore my hair in a ponytail when my mom insisted that I wear it down. Maybe it was Divine Intervention. God was stepping in for me foolishly signing up for the Navy knowing that I couldn’t swim. God knew my chances of surviving cancer were higher than the likelihood of me passing a military swim class. I didn’t care what it was, but random chance couldn’t be it. I needed to be angry at something and quickly became angry at everything. Angry at my lymph nodes for betraying my trust. Angry at Dr. Hodgkin’s for playing an active role in the existence of lymphoma and for not discovering my lymphoma, therefore placing me on the “Non-Hodgkin’s” team. Something had to take the blame.

Once the physical battle of treatment was done, I realized that the mental battle of remission can be harder.

I had just graduated Dental School and closed that chapter, but all the plans that I had worked so hard to establish were shut down due to my diagnosis. I felt stuck, like I was floating in space hoping to find some direction. Once the physical battle of treatment was done, I realized that the mental battle of remission can be harder. My anger and sadness hadn’t left but were hidden while I was so focused on treatment. I had thrown myself into work and trying to live a stable life again, but something was not being fulfilled. I had a flyer that was given to me by my nurse during treatment. It was about First Descents. At the insistence of my nurse, I applied for a program. A trip white water kayaking. Sounded amazing. I had no clue what to expect but I was all in…well almost. I had two huge doubts in my mind: (1) I was never a summer camp kid, so this was completely out of my comfort zone (2) I can’t swim (or have “limited swimming abilities” as I worded it for my medical clearance form). I didn’t just beat cancer only to be taken out by a few ill-timed rapids. Either it was procrastination or desperation to try something new, but I never removed myself from the program and decided to follow through.

Who would’ve thought that a few days with some strangers on a river would have filled something that I did not realize I needed. Before getting sick, I had gotten accustomed to fighting so hard to stay upright, but like with the kayaks and thanks to Dr. Hodgkin’s contribution to medicine, I inevitably flipped. Sure, I rode some rapids from underneath the water, but I eventually got flipped right-side-up and the potential of another flip seemed less scary. Seeing other survivors take on rapids head-first, sideways, and even upside down gave me a sense of pride in my journey. A feeling like maybe my diagnosis hadn’t been solely a punishment, but maybe a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. One free chance to step away from the person, expectations, and path that I felt obligated to fulfill. Cancer gave me the best excuse to try the things that I never had the courage to do. My First Descents trip showed me that there was something still left. Something inside was still there. Something that came out in the river that needed space in my normal life. Maybe a realization that my life didn’t fall apart but might have opened-up. Maybe the chance to learn how not to shy away from the rapids in life. Maybe the freedom to see that life doesn’t have to be the way that it’s always been. Or maybe I just drank too much river water.

Choose Adventure This Summer

At First Descents, we pursue adventures that are a chosen challenge; not those forced upon us by disease. In wild places, flowing rivers, and warmed rock walls, we create the path of courage, community, and continued healing. This year, we relaunched our Week-Long adventure programs and will serve over 500 participants across 42 programs in 2022.

Thousands of young adults impacted by cancer and MS, healthcare workers, and caregivers have already applied to start Out Living It. So this summer, our goal is to raise $25,000 to sponsor a Week-Long program and extend the healing power of adventure to 15 participants. Head to support.firstdescents.org/chooseadventure to give the gift of adventure.

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