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Sometimes it’ll just hit me all at once out of nowhere.
I’ll be in the car driving home, or walking around on my college campus and then suddenly… I’m crying. And I mean like ugly crying… hardcore sobbing with streams of tears rushing down my face. My hands usually start trembling and my knees go weak. I just want to curl up in a ball and disappear. Sometimes it gets so bad I can’t even see anything in front of me. All I can think of is, Cancer…I had cancer.
And the strange part is, most of the time I don’t even really know why I’m crying about something that happened to me over two years ago. I don’t feel anything except the numbness that echoes through me like footsteps in an empty hall. But still, my whole body tenses as if I’m staring down an invisible enemy. In my head, I know I’m not in any immediate danger. My brain is telling the rest of me to get it together and suck it up. Don’t be such a baby, you’re fine now, I try to tell myself. But of course, that doesn’t help.
Something insignificant triggers a piece of a memory, and then at once it all comes back to me. Half-second memories and nightmares flood my mind, causing each breath to feel like a desperate gasp for air before drowning. I try to stay focused on the present, but visions of the past demand my attention and force me under. Needles going into my chest port, painful bone marrow biopsies, liters of neon yellow chemotherapy, blood and platelet infusions, being violently ill, wheelchairs, electrocuting pain all over, wondering whether the chemo or the cancer would kill me first, wondering if it will just come back one day anyways…
As I drop to my knees shell-shocked, I realize… I am drowning inside of myself, and no one else even knows it.
Eventually, I reached a point where I had to talk to somebody about what was going on. Thankfully, I was able to receive free post-cancer counseling therapy through a local nonprofit. Talking with my counselor about these thoughts and feelings has helped immeasurably, and I would highly recommend anyone who has been affected by cancer (whether by their own diagnosis or that of a loved one) seek professional counseling. My counselor told me I exhibit many signs of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and anxiety, but that it’s not uncommon for survivors to experience those issues after treatment ends. It hadn’t really occurred to me before that this might actually be a common struggle for many other adolescent/young adult (AYA) cancer survivors, too. Maybe I wasn’t just “being a crybaby.” Maybe this wasn’t something I could just force myself to “get over.” Maybe this was somehow… normal?
After talking with my fellow FD campers, my suspicions were confirmed. PTSD is a fairly widespread issue among AYA cancer survivors, often accompanied by other underlying issues such as “survivor’s guilt,” depression and anxiety. Not everyone experiences these problems to the same degree, and some do not experience any of them at all. But for those of us who do, these mental and emotional struggles can be every bit as crippling as the physical challenges of cancer and treatment. Unfortunately, there is still a large gap in information, research and resources available that address AYA cancer survivors’ mental health issues during and after a cancer diagnosis and treatment.
First Descents plays a crucial role in filling part of this gap by providing AYA cancer survivors with the chance to connect with one another and find healing through incredible outdoor adventures. FD provides survivors with a chance to redefine their physical and mental limits by learning a new outdoor skill. Furthermore, FD helps survivors reclaim their bodies from disease to use as strong, capable tools for adventure and fun, rather than seeing themselves as broken or sick victims.
I wish I could tell you that during my FD1 kayaking trip I mastered the roll, or even a simple T-rescue. But I didn’t. I was too scared to be willingly flipped over in my kayak with my head underwater. The fear of being out of control, trapped, and drowning was too overwhelming for me. At the time, I didn’t understand why. But now I can see how to a large degree, it was my PTSD and anxiety that held me back. The feeling of drowning was all too present in my daily thoughts for me to be able to enjoy those underwater exercises. I chose to stay upright in my kayak as much as possible that week, and honestly, I still felt every bit as happy and accomplished as any of the other campers by the end of the week.
That’s part of the beauty of FD. They encouraged me to go beyond what I thought my limits were (both physically and mentally), but they never forced me to do something I didn’t feel safe doing. The motto of the week was, “Choose your own adventure.” For someone who hasn’t had much say in what’s gone on in her life, it was refreshing to have choices.
I learned tons of valuable lessons about myself and about life in general during my week on the water. I learned that life will throw you rapids, and sometimes your only option is to ride straight through them. They may end up being the most fun thing ever, or can be as scary as hell. Either way, it’s up to you to decide how you’ll tackle those rapids and what your mindset will be when riding through them. Your mindset probably won’t change your circumstances, but it certainly will change your experience of those circumstances.
I also learned that my body is stronger than I thought it was. I am (surprisingly) not made of glass! Or cancer! Who knew? After my week on the river, I was inspired to spend more time outdoors enjoying nature and being physically active. So I started out simple by go for long walks, then I started running, then I moved on to horseback riding, and soon I hope to get back in the kayak and master those skills I wasn’t ready to try before.
With PTSD and anxiety, there are good days and bad days. Counseling, friends, family, writing, art therapy and being active outdoors have all played a part in helping me outnumber the bad days with good ones. As I apply the lessons learned on the river to my everyday life, I’m finally reaching a point where I can roll myself upright from the waters of a bad day. I’ve finally found the creative outlets, resources and people that can help give me a T-rescue when I feel the rapids of PTSD pull me under. Even though the panic attacks and episodes come every now and then, they don’t scare me as much as they used to. I’m getting stronger, one day at a time. And who knows? Maybe, just maybe I’ll go on an FDX trip soon, and I’ll be able to roll and T-rescue with the best of them. After all, I’ll have had lots of mental practice. 😉
Elise Frame (“Lil Sis”) is a 23 year-old student at the University of Texas studying Communications with a focus on Nonprofit Development. She was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at age 20, but recently finished chemotherapy and was declared cancer-free in October 2014. Elise participated in an FD1 kayaking trip last summer and discovered a previously unknown love for the great outdoors. She now enjoys stand up paddleboarding and kayaking on Town Lake in Austin, Texas, where she currently lives. As a passionate young adult cancer awareness and prevention advocate, she has served as an intern at The LIVESTRONG Foundation, and currently contributes to The Huffington Post’s young adult cancer blog series, “Generation Why”.