I had the pleasure of attending First Descent’s first oncology trip of the 2022 program season. I, as well as 11 others, spent a week on the Outer Banks where we challenged our inner and physical selves at the sport of surfing. As I look back on this opportunity, I would tell you there is not a better one out there. I have loved the ocean since I was born. In 2019, many things were taken away from me when the doctor said, “cancer”. At 18, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Leukemia and would have to undergo two plus years of chemotherapy. With no immune system or strength in my body, the littlest tasks became the hardest ones to do. I felt completely isolated as the pandemic erupted and most aspects of support were quickly shut off. I thought there was no way I would ever get back to being that ocean loving girl I was before.
In doing some online searching, I happened to stumble upon a group called First Descents. A group where oncology patients get a chance to travel to a beautiful place and learn a new skill in honor of what they have been through. Little did I know that this group and the experiences they provide would change my life forever. First Descents offers so many incredible choices it was hard to pick just one, but when I saw surfing there wasn’t a doubt in my mind. I had always wanted to surf but never thought I could do it and especially not after cancer. Early on in my diagnosis, I was too weak to even roll over in bed, and for two and a half years I wasn’t able to swim above chest level in the ocean as it was too much of a risk for an infection. Through it all, I was successfully able to finish my treatment this past March. No sooner did I get a wonderful email saying I had been picked for the first surfing trip of the 2022 season. I had absolutely no idea how this trip was going to go as I knew no one there and nothing about getting on a surfboard.
Upon arriving at Norfolk airport I showed up as Ashley Kindler. A girl who was scared to go out and really start “Out Living It”. That fear quickly vanished as I met the 11 other participants who I would share this once in a lifetime experience with. For 6 days, I was surrounded by a group of people who all knew exactly what I had been through. We all understood the fears, pains, the all important cancer jokes, and the rest of what comes with a cancer diagnosis. From the moment we all introduced ourselves we instantly became a family. I was younger than everyone but accepted as an equal. I never thought I would ever be able to put cancer away, especially not on a trip for cancer patients. I was wrong. Even though we were all brought together by this terrible disease it slowly stopped defining us. I watched myself and the rest of the group start to live in the moment as we all had fought quite hard to get there. In the nerves of arriving and awe of the breathtaking beach house, our fears and troubles from back home seemed to slip our minds. This is one of the greatest gifts First Descents gives.
The next morning I woke up eager for the days ahead. New nerves had developed as I was about to try surfing for the very first time. I was hoping for at least one good wave during my week (whatever that even means). At the beach, we were introduced to the best possible group of surf instructors. Each of these wonderful men took us right under their wings. I desperately needed this. They asked us on day one if anyone had surfed. Someone said “I have been attached to the board.” I later learned what that meant. It is pretty safe to say that I inhaled all of my body weight in salt water and sand on day one. Even through the many failed attempts, I was getting on the board. I was riding the waves. Something I never thought I could do. I learned quickly to love and laugh at every failure as there were many. Each instructor was there to help you learn to catch the waves, while the rest of the group cheered you on through it all. We were all like little kids again, just floating, falling, and taking it all in. By the end of day, I was successfully able to surf on my knees, and I couldn’t have been prouder.
Getting on my knees the day prior had lit an inner fire. I now knew my body could do this, even if my arms were too sore to lift above my head the next morning. On my first ride of day two, I stood up and rode my first wave. I was hooked. Catching that wave which later led to many, was one of the best feelings of my life. When you’re on that surfboard, it is just you. All you are worried about is surfing and being present in that incredible moment. Nothing else matters. It was finally just me and the ocean again. Not to mention, we had the most amazing photographer catching all of our experiences. This meant so much to me as I am usually the one taking the pictures. First Descents really gave me back my confidence in myself. Thank you all for pushing me to new heights and never doubting me for a second. As a group we laughed harder than I thought possible, rose to and conquered new challenges, coped, saw the most stunning views, formed our own personal relationship with the ocean, had one of the best weeks of our lives, cried at every goodbye, and successfully surfed the Outer Banks. I believe we will all continue to hold First Descent’s motto “Out Living It” close to our hearts.
First Descents really gave me back my confidence in myself.
I am forever grateful for this amazing organization and all it has given me. Cancer has taken a lot from each of us, but I couldn’t be more blessed that it led me to all of you. I showed up to the airport as Ashley Kindler, the girl who had always talked about surfing and was afraid to live after cancer. I left the airport as “Quahog”, the girl who loves to surf and can’t wait to get back.
2022 is the year to start #OutLivingIt. Join us at one of our epic program locations across the country and experience the healing power of adventure. Inquire at firstdescents.org/joinus to learn more and stay up to date on all the programs we have to offer this year.