In this shitstorm of fighting cancer, I’ve learned to identify what I like to call the #cancerperks. This includes strengthened relationships, a flexible work schedule, warm blankets at the hospital, new friends from chemo, a fearlessness to sky dive, dye my hair pink and get a tattoo, a more heightened perspective on life, and the list goes on.
I just completed a weeklong adventure with First Descents, a non-profit organization that sends 18-39 year old cancer fighters and survivors on kayaking, surfing, or rock climbing adventures at no cost to the participant.
Unsure of what to expect, I did little to mentally prepare for this past week. I had a sneaking suspicion I’d fall in love with this group of strangers, but I was in no way prepared for the intense physical and emotional journey I would experience in the seven days I spent on the river in Tarkio, MT.
First Descents provides participants with nicknames upon arrival. I’m Emoji. Having a new name helped me forget the baggage I carry with my stage IV, incurable uveal melanoma. I met Broccoli Head, Oasis, Specs, Dare Devil, TZ, Swerve, Orca, Kimchi, Backdraft, Trucker, Sweet Pea, Toastie and Goldie.
First Descents provides a whole team of guides and volunteers who ensure our week is epic. Mamas Goose and Picasso were our house moms. They made sure none of us lifted a finger during the week. They picked up after us, bussed our dirty dishes, gave us back rubs and Tylenol and countless hugs.
Hollywood was our dedicated photographer. He captured moments in the kitchen, on the river and by the campfire. Scrat was our M.D. He spent time with each of us on Day One to understand any physical obstacles we had and was by our sides the entire week, again, on land and river. Big City and Jo Bear Stone Fist made us nourishing breakfasts, lunches, snacks and dinners every day. I have never eaten so well in my life.
Farkle Sparkle and Quickie, both top kayakers in the country, were our team leads. They pushed our limits on the water and around the campfire and were a dream team. They, along with Uncle Dirt, Jus, Skinny Hips, Sir Cuddles and PK, took the fourteen of us on the river and taught us so much about the sport of kayaking and how it parallels our lives and relationships with cancer.
Before our graduation ceremony on Friday, PK, our toughest guide who loves so passionately, gave a moving speech after lining our blue, pink, red, yellow and green kayaks in the left bank of the river. He told us that he hopes when we see a river in the future, we will look for the eddies, the line and the rocks and remember the metaphor the river is to our lives. We can go in with a plan based on what we see, but things will happen to alter that plan.
He talked about how kayaking is a challenge by choice and that our cancers are a challenge with no choice. He was proud of us for how much we’d each grown in the past week. He reminded us that graduation symbolizes leaving something behind and starting something new.
“Eddies are like a break in life. When things get tough, remember to edge over and take things little by little. Life is the greatest adventure, you never know what is going to happen,” he said.
We processed down the second to last rapid one by one with our guides waiting in the eddy to cheer us on. We locked kayaks in a tight circle, and the twenty-seven of us carried each other through the last rapid of the week.
On Friday night, we talked about what we will take with us from the program back to our daily lives. Trucker talked about the river. It is dark and scary but also brings so much joy, like cancer.
I shared that the program reminded me of how precious this life is. It jolted me back to appreciating the love and laughter in my life and the gift of cancer – the gift that has taught me to see this life in the most beautiful way.
Just like I knew it would happen, the last day was filled with tears, hugs, and I love yous. Oasis told me on the way to the airport this was one of the best weeks of his life. It truly was. Spending seven days learning a new sport and forming a bond with my First Descents family released a slew of emotions I want to bottle up forever.
Dare Devil said it best in a Facebook post, “Life is so much clearer now, and I truly am learning to live life again without the negativity and fear of what if…. Cancer isn’t a death sentence it’s a way of saying it’s time to wake up and truly live each and every moment like it’s your last.”
Now that we are back to reality and facing scans and work and the demands of real life, we are in constant communication to support and validate each other. It feels so great to be this understood.
Words cannot express the gratitude I have for this program. The week was flawless and unforgettable. I felt lucky to have cancer as I learned so much about myself during the past week. As a group, we shed anger, fear, anxiety and lots of tears. We embraced life, the river, new challenges and each other.
First Descents truly is the greatest #cancerperk.
Katie “Emoji” Doble is a First Descents Alumni, writer, and speaker. She has shared her powerful story and unique perspective at FD events like High West Oyster Fest, and continues to thoughtfully contribute to the AYA cancer space through her blog.
“My posts and stories are meant to inspire and educate. I want to inspire those facing hardships to trust that happiness is possible. I want to help those dealing with illness to know their power to take control of their health.”
To read more from Katie, visit her blog, Future Happy Self.