I was only 23 when I heard the words, “You have cancer”. From that moment forward, I knew I wanted as much good as possible to come from my diagnosis. When I finished treatment, I remember feeling sad about everything cancer had uprooted in my 20-something young adult life. I was physically weak and unsure of who I was after cancer. I felt like life was happening to me and I didn’t really have a choice how things were unfolding. My days were filled with doctor’s appointments, chemo side effects, anxiety-inducing scans, and uncertainty about the future; all while trying to hang on to what remained of my social life and career.
Then I discovered First Descents. Looking back now, I never could have imagined the gift and lasting impact First Descents would have and still play in my life. Six months after my last treatment, I joined 15 other young adults impacted by cancer for a week of whitewater kayaking in Vail, Colorado. That week changed everything for me. I never expected to laugh so hard (almost constantly) the entire week. Our group even had a “rule” each night that campfire couldn’t end until we had all had a belly-aching laugh. I could’ve never anticipated crying so hard at the realization that I wasn’t the only one feeling the way I did about every aspect of having cancer as a young adult. I walked away from that week having learned to LOVE the outdoors. I felt a love and acceptance that I had never known before. Most of all, I experienced firsthand the healing power of adventure which completely changed the way I viewed my cancer challenges. Kayaking taught me that I couldn’t always control my circumstances, but I could choose how I reacted to them. When the river flipped me over, it was my choice to face my fears, get back in my kayak, and keep going.
Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to surf, climb, cycle, kayak, share my experience, and fundraise to pay it forward so other young adults diagnosed with cancer can experience First Descents.
On this Giving Tuesday, I reflect on my First Descents experiences and what I’m forever grateful for:
Whether they’re here with us today or not, they’ve inspired me beyond imagination and redefined what it means to “beat” cancer. I am humbled and thankful to have spent precious time with each of them.
Because of First Descents, I’ve woken up in Denali National Park to scale mountains, the beaches of Santa Barbara to surf, Glacier National Park to kayak, Vietnam to cycle, and the Gunks to rock climb to name a few. I’ve been empowered by the adventures I’ve accomplished and humbled by those I couldn’t. Each adventure inspires me to get stronger and teaches me that it’s not about where we are but how far we’ve come from our starting point. I treasure those moments when the rest of the world melts away and I’m fully present exactly where I am. Now, when I’m faced with inevitable challenges, I draw on these moments.
I’m grateful for all of the FD volunteers, guides, and lead staff who helped me realize that sometimes the only thing that keeps us from overcoming challenges are our own perceived limits. Because of their love, understanding, and patience, I was able to start saying “I can” when facing a challenge.
I remember trying quinoa for the first time at my FD Program and I loved it! It started me on a new path to learning about nourishing my body through healthy eating! I’m grateful to the incredible FD Chefs who introduced me to health-supportive nutrition. That said, I’ve also seen accomplished and healthy outdoor athletes take down an entire plate of fries – at FD, I learned it’s all about balance.
My FD adventures transformed not just my relationship with cancer but also my life overall. To this day, I stay involved by giving back to empower others in the young adult cancer community. I know that adventure has the capacity to help heal, because I’ve experienced it myself. The ability to use one of the hardest chapters of my life to help those walking in the same footprints I’ve walked is something I feel immeasurable gratitude for.
At First Descents, we empower participants to embrace a life of adventure and encourage them to climb, paddle, and surf beyond their diagnosis, reclaim their lives, and connect with others doing the same. This holiday season, our goal is to raise $150,000 to fund transformative adventures for 60 young adults impacted by cancer and MS, healthcare workers, and caregivers in 2023. Give the gift of adventure and donate today at support.firstdescents.org/giveadventure.