As we head into the holiday season I wanted to share this blog I wrote for the First Descents website several months ago just in case you missed it. The original blog post can be found here. As you think about who you donate to this Giving Tuesday I wanted to make sure that my friends and family were aware of how this incredible organization changed my life and continues to impact me everyday. First Descents helped me redefine my cancer experience and reclaim an adventure filled life. If you’d like to add them to your Giving Tuesday list you can donate here.
The following is my reflection on the week I spent rock climbing with First Descents in Moab, Utah. First Descents is a non-profit that offers young adult cancer fighters and survivors a free outdoor adventure experience designed to empower them to climb, paddle and surf beyond their diagnosis, defy their cancer, reclaim their lives and connect with others doing the same.
I left on my First Descents trip just two and a half weeks after I finished a year’s worth of treatment for breast cancer. I found a lump just a few months after my 30th birthday and spent the following year getting 20 rounds of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and 33 rounds of radiation. Over the course of that year my life and identity became completely overrun by cancer. My schedule succumbed to constant swings between illness and recovery. My body was measured, poked, treated and scanned like the subject of a science experiment. I wore cancer all over my tired face which went without eyebrows, eyelashes or hair for much of the year. I was weak. I was sick. I was sad. I was scared. As hard as I’d fought and as positive as I had tried to remain I still felt like cancer’s victim.
When treatment ended I felt abruptly thrust back into the “real world” unsure of who I was or what I was doing there. I couldn’t picture any life beyond cancer, couldn’t see myself as anything but a cancer patient. I couldn’t imagine living. I could only imagine more cancer. I could only imagine that it would eventually kill me. When I first arrived at the airport I was filled with fear. I was afraid of dying, afraid I didn’t know who I was anymore, afraid others wouldn’t understand me. But most of all I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to make it up that rock.
Our first night in Moab together I half expected we’d spend our time doing cheesy ice breakers. Turns out when you fill a room with cancer fighters and survivors the ice doesn’t require much to melt away almost immediately. We turned to stories of poop, surgeries and chemo brain for small talk the way most people turn to the weather. Our cancer stories, jokes and heartaches spilled out in drips, and sometimes in droves, during meals, car rides, in the bathroom, and from our bunk beds with the lights turned off until we couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore. I had finally found myself in a place where I was understood and could understand; where my stories were not the exception but the norm.
While sitting around talking about cancer all day might have been helpful all on its own the real beauty of the First Descents experience became apparent when we were all out on the rock. The first day I was terrified about whether I would even be able to get off the ground. I had been the weakest person in the room for a whole year. When I made it to the top of my first climb with relative ease I hesitantly started to get excited about what might be possible. The second day as we approached the rock Jupiter and I decided we’d try and tackle what looked like one of the tougher climbs right off the bat. As we looked up in anticipation we consoled each other with the idea that we could totally live with ourselves if we just got to the little ledge about halfway up.
Fortunately, for us, however, Peanut, the intrepid climbing magazine journalist who was tagging along for the week, went up the rope first and found a good vantage point from the top where she could take photos. It also turned out to be the perfect spot to give motivational speeches. After I got to the ledge Peanut suggested I try and go a little further, and so I went up until I thought my arms were going to give out and told her that was about as far as I could go. Peanut still wouldn’t let me off the hook so I tried to go a little farther. After feeling like I was at my wits end, yet again, Peanut still wouldn’t take no for an answer despite my shaking arms. It was at this point that I decided I would do anything I could to get myself up that rock. I scooted myself up on my back, splayed my legs out in crazy directions, dragged my body up by my fingertips, crept my toes up inch by inch. It was exhausting and excruciating but I wasn’t backing down. Below I could hear a steady stream of cheers for the nickname I had given myself, “Go Crush!” “You’re crushing it!”
I was just a painful few inches away from the top and felt completely spent when I reminded myself about all the physically miserable moments I had persevered through in the last year. I knew that if I could make it through all that misery that I could make it up this rock. Finally my fingertips reached the last hold and I hoisted myself up. I had done it. When I got back down I nearly cried. I had physically fought for every inch of the end of that climb and I had made it. But I had not done it alone. I not only had Jupiter physically holding me on the other end of the rope but I had Peanut demanding more from me than I thought possible and a whole crew of guides, First Descent staff and fellow campers at the bottom cheering me on.
This was a turning point in my climbing experience. I no longer looked up and wondered if I could do it. I looked up and wondered how I would do it. I now knew that my body would find a way and that my First Descents family wouldn’t let me give up. And whenever I did find myself plagued with doubt I didn’t need to look any further than the next rope over. There, fighting up the red rock walls of Utah, were some of the bravest souls I have ever encountered. They fought through tears, blisters, bruises, a healthy fear of heights, aches, pains and self-doubt to push themselves as far as they could on every single climb. We cheered each other on yelling up as we watched Jupiter, Tweeder, Kiss, Coconuts, Boots, Big A, The Enforcer, and Madrona crush climb after climb. We pushed each other secure in the knowledge that the fears we faced down together out on those rocks were not even close to the scariest things we had encountered.
Somewhere between the delicious meals, the difficult stories, the cancer jokes and the climbs we built a space where we could all open our hearts wider than we could have imagined. As one of the guides said, “In life we can either choose fear or choose love and this is a place where everyone always chooses love.” Even though we might not all have been best friends had we met in the “real world” we found an unconditional acceptance of one another, a deep respect for each other’s perseverance and an enduring empathy for our shared struggles.
The week I spent with First Descents was quite possibly the best week of my life and I left those rocks a completely different person. Before I had seen myself as a victim of cancer and now I have a whole community of tough-as-nails fighters and survivors all around me redefining cancer as an opportunity to show unbelievable strength, unending fearlessness and unconditional love. Before I could only imagine dying. Now I can only imagine living. Even if cancer eventually takes me, whether it’s tomorrow or in 60 years, I know that cancer cannot take my spirit down with it. It could stop my life but it cannot stop me from living. I came to First Descents a cancer patient and I left a rock climber and a proud member of the toughest tribe on earth.