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When I finished my 40th round of chemo I thought that was the end of cancer for me. I was ready for that chapter in my life to be over. It was a difficult time but it was done and I was ready to move on. I felt I didn’t want to be connected to it anymore. I had a trip planned for 2 months later with First Descents and I thought it would be just a free kayaking trip. I was moving to Thailand soon after my FD trip and that was my real focus. This was just something fun to do before I left. I didn’t realize that trip would have such a deep impact on me and the direction my life was about to take.
I arrived in Jackson and could spot out the other cancer patients from a mile away. Not just because some were bald or wearing a head wrap but something about their presence made it obvious to me. We were immediately bonded together. We would spend our days facing our fears on the river, pushing our limits and celebrating our failures as enthusiastically as we did our successes. When we returned to our campsite we would have dinner and then meet around the campfire. What I saw there completely changed the direction of my life. Here were people from all different walks of life going through the same thing. We had college students and we had doctors, mothers and fathers, people who had been out of treatment for almost 10 years and some who were only a couple months removed. We had one thing in common other than our diagnosis, and that was the need to be heard and understood.
Some were more comfortable than others when it came to discussing their experience. I had become much more open and I was happy to share, especially since it was so fresh in my memory. Being around a fire in nature is much more relaxing than being in a hospital under fluorescent lighting. Sometimes you could barely make out the faces of the people around you. Just quick glimpses as a flame raised near their face. The brief moments of silence were never awkward with the crackling of the logs. As I would begin to share my story I would look over and see someone drop their head and start weeping. The pain and shame that we can hold on to when we feel like no one can understand is overwhelming. Here were people who had moved on with their lives, returned to their careers, and still had these feelings deep inside them. In just a couple days I saw so much growth and strength in each and every person. Their personality was shining and everyone looked a few inches taller. I couldn’t help but wonder why this wasn’t mandatory for everyone post treatment.
Since my FD trip I have moved to Thailand and begun volunteering at a yoga/meditation center outside of Chiang Mai. I teach a breathwork class based on Wim Hof. I had been practicing for about 6 months when I arrived and had seen huge improvements in my physical ability, mental clarity, and stress management. I start off my class with explaining how I got into this kind of breathing and I’d share a brief summary of my cancer journey. One thing I have learned is that everyone has been touched by cancer in some way or another. Either they themselves have gone through it, a parent or grandparent, sibling, friend, neighbor, someone in their life had been through this. I still see this need for anyone affected by it to make sense of it, to share their experience and get some understanding. Many people who have loved ones who have been diagnosed are dying to help and ask questions but felt too uncomfortable to ask. I wanted to be the person they could ask these questions and get some perspective. What does chemo feel like? What could I have done to help? How do I get them to break out of their depression and get back to normal? I spend hours after every class answering as many questions as I can. Giving back is so healing for me as well. If I can make this nightmare any easier on anyone else I feel I let go of a little more pain that I still have inside of me.
I started to get connected to other young adults who had recently been diagnosed. Some of them I knew and some I had never met. Every person had a different diagnosis and was at a different stage of their treatment. Listening to their stories I was immediately back in that same place. I remembered those appointments, those sleepless nights, those surprise surgeries and I was able to give to them what I wish I had when I went through it. Sometimes it was advice and sometimes it was just being an ear to listen and say I understand. I had been writing about my experience just to help me process it all. I found there were a lot of things I had done or lessons I had learned that I could share with others to make their treatment easier. In my own journey here in Thailand I had found a 10 day vipassina a couple hours outside of Bangkok. I spent those 10 days in complete silence making no eye contact and meditating for over 10 hours a day. I learned how much of our experience in life, as well as cancer, is based on our mindset and our attitude. I got out and started www.itsinyourhead.com, which launched in July, 2019. It will be a website where I pass on what I’ve learned, alternative treatments, and motivation all with the focus on mental strength. I believe to change our lives we first need to change the way we look at it.
First Descents showed me the power of community and love when healing from cancer. That trip gave me the strength and confidence to step up and help others. It taught me that I have an experience to share. It showed me the strength that I have. What started off as just a free kayaking trip has turned into what I believe will be a life long passion for me in helping others.
About the Author:
Hunter LaFave grew up in Illinois and moved to Louisiana immediately after graduating high school to pursue a career as a commercial diver. He then moved to Austin, TX where he lived for 9 years. He was diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer in July of 2017 and completed 40 rounds of chemotherapy and 28 rounds of radiation in July of 2018. He is currently in remission and residing in Chiang Mai, Thailand where he continues his search for health, happiness and peace. Check out his new website www.itsinyourhead.com