Lessons in Living from my First Descents Family | By Katie “Crush” Campbell
Getting diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 30 was by far the loneliest thing that has ever happened to me. Much of the loneliness stemmed from the fact that few people my age, including me, had any firsthand experiences with cancer. The day I was diagnosed I didn’t know the difference between radiation and chemotherapy or what an “oncologist” was (and that it would require three of them to treat my cancer). As I slowly became an expert in all things cancer from anti-nausea medications to how to pass the time at a chemotherapy infusion, I felt myself feeling increasingly alone. I was in unchartered territories for my generation and had to forge a path for myself. This included making my own decisions about everything, from choosing to share my diagnosis on Facebook to foregoing ever being able to breastfeed in favor of the most aggressive surgery available.
While my friends were incredibly supportive few could relate to what I was going through and it was becoming increasingly difficult to relate to them. I was figuring out how to survive the next treatment, how to draw fake eyebrows and how to face down my own mortality while friends were planning weddings, switching careers, moving, starting school, getting pregnant. I was stuck, head down, suffering through while all around me it felt as though people were bounding blissfully towards the next big thing in their lives. I didn’t know anyone else like me and so, I went out in search of them.
Slowly I began to find other young adults like me. I started out with support groups designed just for young adults with cancer. It was there I met people who encouraged me to try out First Descents. The one week I spent rock climbing with First Descents last September helped me to build an entire family of fellow fighters. I came home to Washington, DC from that trip thrilled to find a strong and vibrant First Descents Tributary here which has become a whole new family to me right in my backyard. In the short few months I’ve been with the DC Trib we have gone rock climbing, escaped to West Virginia for a weekend of skeet shooting and hiking and hosted multiple fundraisers to support our work in the DC area. And when one of us is in need the family is there to distract us from our “scanxiety,” visit us in the hospital or just provide some kind and understanding words when cancer and all its potential setbacks have got us down. Finding my First Descents family and getting to know them has completely changed my life. They’ve not only made my life feel less lonely, they’ve also taught me how to really live.
For young adults with cancer “YOLO” is not a hollow overused hashtag. Every one of us, no matter the cancer, the stage or the treatment has been forced to peel back the curtain on life to reveal that it is not the magically invincible thing we once imagined but rather a fragile and vulnerable creature. We know that sometimes there are things we just cannot control and, unfortunately, whether we get to live to be 35 or 95 is one of them.
I remember the day I realized that my cancer could kill me. It was a few months after my diagnosis and I was finally dusting off the remnants of denial and realizing that I could not just take some medicine and make cancer magically disappear. I found myself trying to Google my way into a guaranteed survival realizing that it was an impossible task. Medical journals like to describe my diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer with phrases like, “poor prognosis,” “highest rates of recurrence,” and “most aggressive.” No one, not even Google, could guarantee I would still be around in 5 years.
Getting to have children someday, pursue a career and grow old with my husband were not things I had previously considered I might be denied. But young adults who have had or have cancer get it. We are guaranteed nothing. And so we embrace the days we have. I have friends who hike up mountains carrying coolers full of medicine so they don’t miss their treatments along the way; friends who have gone rock climbing, surfing or kayaking with cancer in their brains, their livers, their ovaries, their lungs; friends who have fought against a cancer that keeps coming back or doctors who wanted to give up; friends who have lost their ability to speak, to read, to write, to walk, to dance, and even to eat, to cancer but who still refuse to miss out on life’s joys.
One of my friends, without cancer, once told me that I made her feel stronger because she knew that if I could get through this then she could as well. That is how I feel about my fellow young adult cancer survivors and fighters and my extended First Descents family. They make me stronger and braver and better. They make me feel like I am not alone. And they remind me to not take anyone or any life for granted, especially not my own.
Katie (Crush) Campbell is originally from Michigan and currently lives with her partner, her dog and her cat in Washington, DC. By day she works on international food policy at ActionAid USA which gives her the opportunity to travel all over the world. By night and on the weekends Crush can be found in her local climbing gym, biking, hiking or camping with friends, playing around with one of her many cameras or whipping up a delicious vegan meal.