First Descents

Inspiring Young Cancer Patients To Exult in a World Beyond Their Diagnosis

First Descents

The world is full of inspiring stories about young people who have survived cancer. According to a February 2017 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, children who have beaten the disease are now living longer than ever. Ground-breaking medicine is a major factor in these successes, but the medical community has long understood that a positive outlook, as well as the support of others, is also crucial.

Nevertheless, being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness can feel like an insurmountable summit, an apex so high that even reaching it can feel like an impossible task. One young survivor characterizes the feeling of being diagnosed as a kind of reverse awe. Another describes it as the future actually turning into a mountain, drawing itself up into a fearsome pinnacle.

However one sees it, having cancer can be a major, albeit completely beatable, challenge. It would be easy to assume that having it when you’re young would be even more daunting, but by the same token, being young also equates to being resilient, which implies that triumphing over one’s diagnosis is not only possible, but hopefully likely.

That’s the philosophy that Denver-headquartered First Descents embodies. Founded by professional kayaker Brad Ludden, the program, which facilitates outdoor activities in Colorado and elsewhere, empowers young adults to “climb, paddle and surf beyond their diagnosis, and connect with others doing the same.” That means riding waves, skydiving, scaling heights that would make a mountain goat think twice, and taking on other challenges that are generally custom-designed for the courageous, determined and intrepid.

Technically, “first descent” is a term that means paddling over a body of water that’s never been crossed before — a feeling that might resonate with cancer patients. First Descents organizes Colorado-famous activities like white water rafting and rock climbing throughout the year. All excursions are week-long events, so there’s plenty of time for participants to get into the joys of ice climbing in Ouray, or taking on 14,000-foot peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park. Since its inception, the program has impacted the lives of hundreds of young adults in Colorado; 99 percent of Descents alumni say they would recommend the organization to other young people battling cancer.

According to cancer survivor and First Descents alum Lisa “Wombat” Butch, the program also has the added advantage of allowing patients the freedom of being around other young adults who aren’t going to feel awkward about being around them. All of which equates to an experience where all awkwardness, including the stigma of having an illness that most of one’s young peers don’t have, is stripped away to make room for the essentials: fresh air, great scenery and reconnecting with one’s body again.

Today, First Descents has what the organization calls tributaries, or outposts in most major outdoor destinations throughout the West, as well as several locations throughout the Midwest and East, like Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin; Richmond Island in Maine; and Hunter, New York, in the Catskills… there’s even a climbing expedition in the Italian Alps coming up. But the program has also put itself on the map for another reason: all excursions are free for patients and survivors. The non-profit organization works with the Colorado Mountain School to facilitate their adventures, and guiding companies cover the cost of supplies.

In other words, any young adult who has survived or is actively dealing with cancer is welcome to apply without having to consider their financial situation. Medical care is always available on-site, even when “on-site” means being out in the middle of the wilderness, and an oncologist is present on every trip. Meals, including those that entail special dietary restrictions, are also provided.

This summer, young adults in Colorado will rock climb in Estes Park. According to Ray Shedd, First Descents’ director of development and marketing, the organization will be spearheading four week-long rock climbing programs for young adults, with each session designed to accommodate 15 participants. Climbers will “camp out” at First Descents’ home base at Overlook Ranch in Estes, which features panoramic views of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Potential candidates can always find out more about Descents by watching Out Living It, the inspiring (and enthusiastically crowd-funded) 2012 documentary about the organization, which features extensive outdoor footage from First Descents outings, detailed descriptions of how the program works, and interviews with alumni and directors.

According to a February 2017 report in the New York Times, cancer continues to be on the rise for young adults. As epidemiologist Rebecca Siegel of the American Cancer Society points out, people born in 1990 have “double the risk of colon cancer and quadruple the risk of rectal cancer” compared to Baby Boomers. Thankfully 21st-century medicine has a way of keeping pace with these statistics. The ground-breaking “CyberKnife” robotic system, for example — which can essentially  “tattoo” its way around malignancies — has revolutionized treatment by allowing doctors to zero in on areas of the body that are specifically affected by cancer. This method can drastically reduce the need for chemotherapy, which is traditionally dispensed throughout the body, and in turn into healthy cells; according to Radiation Oncologist Abraham J. Wu of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the system has been instrumental in “targeting … radiation very accurately by pinpointing the precise location of [tumors] during treatment.”

You might say, then, that while cutting-edge treatment is busy targeting cancer, First Descents is busy targeting the joys of life, a combination that represents the best of both worlds: medicine and morale.