Challenge By Choice: From FD to the AT

By: Allison "Corduroy" Olson

I’m 1,300 miles into my Appalachian Trail adventure. I’ve spent the last 5 months trekking through 8 states. It’s still surreal to be out here, close to a decade after my first melanoma diagnosis, pursuing a lifelong dream of hiking all 2,192 miles of the Appalachian Trail. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for all the little and big moments that gave me the confidence to take the first steps, and the thousands more that have followed.

In truth, it took me a long time to realize how managing melanoma in 6-month increments was impacting my life. The physical healing that took place after every surgery felt painfully slow and my frustration with the recovery process increased with each new diagnosis. I was so focused on the physical aspects of recovery, I failed to realize that every single surgery and scan was taking a toll on my mental health. My emotional healing didn’t truly begin until after I was introduced to First Descents. 

In May of 2014, 5 years after my initial diagnosis and a few short months after my third diagnosis, I went rock climbing in Moab, Utah. Going into that week, my biggest fear was failure. All of my feelings of inadequacy surfaced, as I flew across the country and reflected on all of the ways my body had betrayed me.

But all of those feelings quickly subsided when I arrived in Utah and met other young adult cancer patients. We all supported each other as we climbed beyond the physical and emotional limitations of our disease. Our common thread eliminated the need to disguise or suppress how we felt, we shared our fears without hesitation. It was the first time in 5 years I felt heard and seen – I felt empathy rather than pity, I felt empowered rather than broken. I left that week with incredible friends and a new sense of self. 

My fear of failure was replaced with a fear of not truly living. I returned home to Washington, DC deeply changed, but struggled to truly out live it given all of the challenges that come with being an early career, young adult cancer patient. After my FD program, I began to unpack all of the ways I was limiting myself. I blamed cancer, but eventually I came to realize and accept that I was the one actively holding myself back. Instead of looking for solutions, I put up walls. I was allowing myself to become a victim of the disease that I was supposed to be out living. I wasn’t thriving, I felt trapped in a permanent survival and self preservation mode. 

Fortunately, I found continued support in the First Descents DC-Baltimore Tributary, a community of incredibly inspiring, determined, tough as nails humans who taught me how to live this beautiful life, cancer and all, all in. Together, we laughed uncontrollably, navigated the waves of grief that came from irreparable losses in our community, learned to shoulder and support one another through survivor’s guilt and ultimately discovered beauty and gratitude in both the mundane and once-in-a-lifetime moments.

Over the last 5 years, First Descents has taught me to paddle the rapids, surf the waves, and climb beyond every mental and physical limitation. As I moved from static challenges like climbing, to dynamic challenges on the river and in the ocean, I began to discover the beauty of challenge by choice. Instead of being told I was brave and courageous for surviving cancer, something I didn’t choose, I finally felt brave and courageous for actively choosing to face my fears and take on new challenges.

The obstacles that once deterred me from pursuing my dreams became problems to solve with creative determination. Slowly, things that once seemed impossible became obtainable, which is what brought me to the Appalachian Trail. Making the decision to hike the AT seemed relatively easy in comparison to all of the things I had to do in order to take the first physical step. I resigned from my job, left my incredible yoga community, moved out of my home, and had to say “see ya later” to the DC-Baltimore Tributary.

At the time, it was hard to picture how each of these steps would prepare me for the challenges I’d face on the trail. Like cancer treatment, these steps were necessary, but the real work began after I left my safety net and hit the trail, which has made each and every step rewarding. At the end of the day, I know that hiking all 2,192 miles is not guaranteed. The trail doesn’t care that I had cancer or that I gave up everything to pursue this dream, it can’t console me, it doesn’t encourage me or force me to show up every single day – it is the definition of challenge by choice, which to me, is what out living it is all about. 

First Descents provided me with the foundation and confidence I needed to take the first step in creating the life I want, rather than allowing myself to be limited by my melanoma diagnosis. This community and all of the lessons I’ve learned from my FD family continue to propel me forward on the difficult days and remind me to press pause and soak in all the beauty on the incredible days. Today, as I trek through one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, I’m grateful for the big and little moments that led me to a life all in, Out Living It. 


This year we are celebrating our 20th Anniversary. That’s 20 years of life-changing adventures provided to more 10,000 young adults impacted by cancer and other serious health conditions. But, there’s more work to be done. Click here to support First Descents programs in 2020 and beyond.

About the Author:

Allison “Corduroy” Olson is a New Englander gone Virginian, currently calling the Appalachian Trail her home. In true New England fashion, she grew up hiking, climbing, skiing and playing pond hockey before Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley stole her heart, nurturing her love for volunteering and the outdoors while she pursued her undergraduate degrees.

Corduroy moved to the nation’s capital where she pursued a career in corporate social responsibility. She became a registered yoga teacher, a marathoner, and an AYA cancer advocate. She spent her free time, adventuring through Shenandoah with her partner, Ryan and rescue pup, Lucky. In June of 2019, Corduroy left her career in CSR and her yoga community to pursue her dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail.

She became a part of the First Descents family in May of 2014, when she spent a week climbing in Moab, Utah for her FD1. Since then, been an active member of the DC-Baltimore First Descents Tributary, she’s paddled the rapids in Tarkio, Montana and went on an FDX in Costa Rica.

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