Over the Edge

By: Zachary "Aquaman" Fyke

In July of 2021, I was mountain biking with friends when I got a little too “sendy” and landed upside down on my head. Although I felt okay, I wanted to rule out any brain bleeds or fractures, so I headed to the local ER. After passing all the preliminary tests, I pushed for a CT scan. The doctor came back to tell me that there was no brain bleed or fractures, but they’d found a large mass on my brainstem. That was how my unexpected cancer journey started.

I quickly moved me home to Michigan where I could be near my family for six weeks as I underwent chemo/radiation treatment plus a 12-month chemo regimen which ended in September 2022. 

It was around this time that a friend from college reached out to me and asked if I had ever heard of First Descents. He had a bout with cancer in high school, and attended a rock climbing trip in Colorado which deeply impacted him. I immediately knew that I needed to apply. I envisioned this as the perfect way to celebrate the end of treatment and applied to rock climbing program in Moab. 

Soon, it was October and I was packing for Moab. I remember feeling overwhelmed with emotions and questions. Who was I going to meet? How would I fit into the overall group? I boarded my plane and set a course for Grand Junction, CO. When I touched down, I met another brain tumor survivor at the baggage claim while waiting for our shuttle driver to show up. He went by Furnie, and I knew instantly that we would hit it off. 

The first morning while sitting around breakfast, we started to mingle and introduce ourselves. The group ranged in ages from 28 to 42, and there was a wide range of cancer diagnoses. One thing that I knew for sure was that this was finally a safe space to open up about my cancer journey. While going through treatment over the past year I felt like no one understood me, and that there were missing puzzle pieces of myself that I was searching for. I did not expect going into my FD trip that I would find a place where everyone finally understood that feeling. Each participant intimately understood how I felt, and I did not have to spend the time laying the groundwork in the conversations. The reality is that anxiety and depression go hand in hand with a cancer diagnosis and unless you have gone through something similar it is hard to explain how it feels.

I did not expect going into my FD trip that I would find a place where everyone finally understood what it felt like to lose pieces of themselves, and a group of people who would also be trying to rebuild themselves through therapy and different types of medication.

On the first day of our adventure, we practiced rappelling down a few different 60’ routes. This was my first time ever rappelling, and I was extremely anxious when I backed up to the edge of the cliff, but as soon as I was over the edge, letting small lengths of rope through the ATC, I felt empowered and alive! Before I knew it, I was safely on the ground. I remember saying that I was only going to do “one and done,” but before I knew it, I was back up on the edge of the cliff, and ready to rappel down a second time. 

Over the next three days, we climbed and rappelled in breath-taking locations including a 125’ descent into a canyon. I was the first one to do this rappel and even today I can still feel the jitters in my hands as I write this. As I crawled towards the edge the Colorado Mountain School guide, Hidalgo, tethered me in. I was extremely anxious and did not think that I could do it, but Hidalgo assured me that I could, and it would be over before I knew it. As I started walking backwards towards the edge, I got more and more anxious until all my weight was hovering over the edge of the canyon. After the first 20’ or so, the wall dropped away and I was free hanging as I lowered myself down to the ground. My anxiety spiked as I started to spin out, looking out over the red rock canyons in every direction. I realized that I still had 100’ of space between myself, and the safety of the ground but once my feet finally hit the ground, I felt like I could do anything!

After my time in Moab, I finally knew what it meant to be Out Living It! Although we were all cancer patients, we could still overcome incredibly hard things.  I formed friendships that have extended well beyond our week in Moab.  I now have people in my life who understand and support me, and we continue to check in with each other on a weekly basis. I realized how many beautiful moments there are to be lived in this life, and even a cancer diagnosis should not stop us from getting out there and living life to the fullest!

Inquire About our 2023 Programs

Join us for a FREE, week-long adventure this year to experience the healing power of adventure. This year, we have over 45 surfing, whitewater kayaking, and rock climbing adventures for young adults impacted by cancer and MS, healthcare workers, and caregivers to choose from.

To apply for a 2023 First Descents Program today, head to firstdescents.org/joinus!

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3 thoughts on “Over the Edge”

  1. I have so many feelings about this young Zach’s adventure: overwhelmed by his bravery, sad about the lonliness and depression one experiences with cancer, joyful with his accomplishment. GO Aquaman.

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