The Path to Out Living It

By: Jesseca "Dahl" Collins

According to my mom, she always knew when I was out of my crib.  She would hear a loud thud and then I would appear. Allegedly, I would climb to the top of my crib railing and just jump out. As a toddler I don’t remember creating this plan but I do remember my years of gymnastics and other sports and activities my parents enrolled me in likely to both of our benefits. “Quiet” and “still” are not words that people who knew me well would have ever used to describe me. They were not concepts I understood well until January 2013 when my Thyroid Cancer diagnosis emerged and my life changed.  

After treatment, I was forced to change my activity level, and I often had no other choice than hanging in my bed.  In January 2013 a biopsy confirmed I had cancer in the right lobe of my thyroid, and had also metastasized to the lymph nodes in the left zone of my neck. Surgery and radiation ensued and by the spring of 2013 my body and mind were sufficiently abused from the treatment. Many with my cancer diagnosis seem to fare just fine, but the removal of my thyroid triggered cycles and years of struggling, and I’m still battling.  In time, once I could actually get out of bed again, I began the healing process by wandering outdoors, often solo, reconnecting with myself and my ability to be active.

Five years later, my experience with First Descents set me on a new journey forward. I knew about First Descents for years, but didn’t feel like I deserved to go. You see, when diagnosed with my version of Thyroid Cancer doctors will report that you have the “good” type of cancer. You just remove it, replace it with a prescription drug, and life proceeds.  When my cancer experience went a direction that I didn’t like, I was told to “accept my new normal.” This would have been filled with excessive weight gain, brain fog, exhaustion, and an inability to complete mundane life chores without tears. The fear followed me like a shadow. While there was some truth to that statement, I refused for the “new normal” to accept complacency.  Here is my social media post the day that I flew to Portland for my First Descents trip in June 2018. To be honest I was a little torn about attending. I had cancelled going once blaming it on work not giving me time off. At that time I felt like I’d prefer to be on vacation with my family and friends like everyone I knew without cancer.

“And so I find myself at the Portland airport, not on a work trip, instead waiting to be picked up by staff who will be taking me to an experience. One I know I need and that I know will humble, inspire, challenge and continue to expand my perspective and gratitude in this life. But full disclosure, I’d really choose not to be here (at least on this side of it). I donated to this organization years ago before I ever was diagnosed. I’ve been calling it Cancer Camp. This is really not the right attitude.  I have a week of learning to whitewater kayak and to meet other young adults with cancer in front of me. Amazing right?! Yes for sure, but not easy to say yes to when you are used to being and prefer to be the volunteer not the recipient. Unfortunately to attend this vacation the qualifier is your age and that you’ve had the big “C”. I’ve avoided this, felt like I shouldn’t access it because Thyroid cancer is the “easy cancer” and I should be stronger. But you know what? It hasn’t been easy. So Hood River and First Descents here I come! In advance, thanks for the week ahead.”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to be thrown back into the cancer world even though I had never left it, but I knew I needed a community that was on the same page. While many people in my life cared they didn’t fully understand.  People want to move on, they want it to be over and unfortunately for you it is not. It’s not over in so many ways.  So began my love of First Descents.

It is hard to describe in words what occurs during time with FD.  It is so much more than it claims to be. It was certainly something that I needed.  It is a magical combination of a beautiful location, rad people (guides and survivors alike), healthy food and a challenging adventure.  Combined, these things oddly create a safety bubble. It’s a non-judgmental place where everyone gets it and all involved can inspire and grow.  My favorite part of the week was watching my peers reap the benefits of outdoor recreation. Some of them had not experienced or desired life outside and that was alright.  To participate and watch our group find presence and gratitude, face fears, be vulnerable, extend boundaries, find resilience, sit with awe over the views, and experience enoughness on the river was priceless.  Since my return from Hood River just over a year ago, I have felt inspired to continue my journey #OutLivingIt and striving to ignite and encourage that mentality in my peers. It’s my way of taking back the reins, and continuing to create adventure and community with my FD family.

So far, it’s been a blast.  I’ve learned that we can all out live it with our own style, and that there are ways to out live it in every season! In the past year with my FD connections I have experienced hiking, rock climbing, yoga, skiing, an 80’s ski party, a Man of the Cliff lumberjack competition, meals at local restaurants, getting my Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certification, and even kayaking in a race at the GoPro games.  I have put on cowboy boots to attend a concert, heels to attend the FD Ball, and boots/outdoor gear of every variety.  I have spent time with my peers and my guides from my week in Hood River and made more friends from my local group and the online Facebook community.  FD makes sure the experience doesn’t end after your first trip. Sometimes I’m the one rallying my fellow FDers for an FD Ski day at Arapahoe Basin, and sometimes I’m just along for the ride – reminding myself to say YES to the adventure opportunities and events that come my way.

The stoke is high and the fire continues to burn, ignited on the first day I sat in a kayak in Hood River, Oregon.  I promised myself I will continue to fan the flames. The out living it mantra is something I embrace whether I’m doing an adventure or buying groceries.  I cherish each smile, random conversation and connection that comes my way. I’m continuing to learn that pushing myself and harnessing my fears outdoors helps me navigate cancers aftermath.  I’m continually reminded it’s all so much bigger than my bubble. If this is my “new normal” I am ready to accept it.  Bring it on!

Out live it your way. With Love, Dahl


7 thoughts on “The Path to Out Living It”

  1. Dear Jess,

    Great blog! Your journey has not been an easy one but you always forge ahead. I admire your strength and know that you will inspire others to do the same.

  2. Not surprised at how very wonderful the sharing of your life and thoughts and experiences are Jess.
    I love you dearly and admire you tremendously.
    Uncle Jim

  3. Yay Jess, I am happy reading your blog and learning more of your journey. This blog has encouraged me to connect with outdoors more. Thank you. Keep em coming.

  4. Reading this makes me so happy! I’m attending next weeks FD@Outer Banks and my cancer journey sounds very similar to yours (stage iv follicular variant papillary thyroid cancer). I too have wondered if I deserve this experience being that I have the “good cancer”. Thank you for sharing your experience! Love and hugs

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