Something Greater | By Elise Strong
“Lil’ Sis, you coming?” a voice called out to me. I smiled broadly and looked behind me. “Yeah, I’ll be right there!” I grabbed my helmet and life vest and jogged to catch up with the others down the road. It was my first day of kayaking camp with First Descents, and I had no idea what to expect. But I could already sense that by the end of the week, I would emerge from the river a renewed person.
The First Descents motto, “Out living it,” perfectly represents what their mission is all about: helping young adult cancer survivors see that we are not merely outliving our diseases, but that we can outlive our own expectations and limits and have an adventure that goes beyond what we ever thought was possible for us. FD reminds us that despite all that we’ve been through, we are still young, vibrant people who have a strong desire for adventure, laughter, and a sense of belonging. However isolating, discouraging or damaging cancer has been for us, it cannot take away our longing and hope for something beyond hospital walls, for something greater than even cancer itself.
I found part of that “something greater” when I participated in an FD1 kayaking trip, hosted by Sundance Kayak School on the Rogue River in Oregon. When we arrived at camp, the first order of business was to set aside our real names and come up with a new camp name. It may sound a little silly, but the camp names are just one aspect of FD that helps foster a sense of renewed self, as well as a sense of community and family between the campers. For that week, I didn’t have to keep being Elise the leukemia patient and survivor. Instead, I was now “Lil’ Sis,” the kayaker and river adventurer!
I wish I could accurately put into words just how life changing and amazing that trip was for me. The staff, the river guides, and my fellow campers all started out as strangers from different corners of the country and various walks of life, yet by the end of the week we became a family. Several of us wondered why the whole world doesn’t just go on a weeklong camp with a dozen or so strangers– there’s so much we can learn from each other.
The chance to hear the stories of others and share your own experiences with people who have also gone through something as indescribable as cancer was truly a priceless blessing. I am a stronger, more resilient, determined, caring, and openhearted person because of each of those people I paddled down the river with during that week.
One of my favorite memories from that trip was one night when all of us campers were alone in the kitchen scouting out the snacks. Somebody happened to bring up the movie The Fault in Our Stars, and that sparked a conversation. Our group migrated from the kitchen to the living room and about ten of us ended up sitting in a circle, talking for hours. As we talked, joked, and cried about our different (and not so different) experiences with cancer, it hit me that this was exactly what I had needed and been searching for so long… a community, a family… people who just got it.
On the river, we each tackled our own personal struggles, some of them physical and many of them mental. When going through cancer, there are all these things you’re either told or that you tell yourself you can’t do.
I can’t do this, I need to conserve my energy so I don’t get too fatigued later.
I shouldn’t go there, I might get sick from something in the water, air, or food.
I can’t wear that, it might irritate my port.
My past reconstructive surgery might make this uncomfortable, so I shouldn’t try anything too physical.
While those were all good reasons to stay confined to a hospital bed, out on the river they were just excuses. The camp instructors lovingly yet firmly pushed us and motivated us to go beyond what we thought we were capable of. Sometimes it was scary and I hated how out of control it made me feel. When the rough waters roared in front of me and threatened to capsize my kayak, it stirred up old feelings I had repressed from my diagnosis. It was like seeing a physical metaphor of my battle with cancer, where the control of the situation was completely out of my hands. All I could do was try to keep my head above the water and stay balanced.
But this time, I wasn’t alone. All I had to do was look to my right or left, and I’d see an FD brother or sister battling the same waters as me. Somebody was always nearby to give advice, encouragement, congratulations, or a T-rescue (it’s a kayaking thing) if needed. As the week went on, we learned about leaning into the turns and confronting the rapids head-on. One of the guides even told us to growl out loud at the rapids as we tackled them! When we finally completed the “graduation rapid,” we all came out of the waters smiling, feeling proud of ourselves and of one another.
As the week closed out, I realized that this trip had been about so much more than just learning to kayak. It was about facing the realities of what happened to me, and choosing to say that I am stronger than what tried to kill me. It was about reclaiming my life and redefining the limits of what I can do. It was about learning how complete strangers can become like family in just a few short days. It was about acknowledging that there will be rapids in life, but if you tackle them the right way and have good people by your side, you can redefine your adversity as an adventure.
(P.S. I’d like to give a special shout-out to the awesome campers and wonderful FD staff I met! Doc, Fresh, Little Mermaid, Bacon, Boomhauer, Wilson, Greyhound, Miyagi, Hybrid, Braveheart, Burn, Mama Crash, Papa Smurf, Gnomeo, Pedro, Mrs. Robinson, Turbo, Lox, Tarzan, Wallaby, and Kinja— y’all are the best, thank you for everything you taught me! Miss you guys and gals.)
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”.