During treatment, a fellow survivor friend raved about her experience with an organization called, First Descents (FD). FD is a nonprofit that takes young adult cancer survivors on free adventure trips. Yes, yes and yes. I liked them on Facebook, signed up for their newsletter and went on with the business of getting well.
After surgery and completing chemotherapy, I started to feel more like my adventurous self again. Also around this time, I received an email about First Descents 2016 programs which included rock climbing, whitewater kayaking and surfing at various locations throughout the United States. All of them sounded like fun, but I chose surfing in Santa Cruz, California. I’d never surfed before, but have tremendous respect for the sport. I’d equate watching surfers to watching fire – mesmerizing. The intuition to read the ocean, defy the odds of a wave and staying calm during an inevitable wipe out are all impressive and admirable qualities. Surfing and cancer don’t sound so different.
Arriving at the San Jose International Airport, I was immediately spotted by the other campers. The short hair and baseball hats are usually dead giveaways for us women cancer survivors. After a curvy drive over the coastal mountains, we arrived at our home for the next week – Pigeon Point Lighthouse on the Pacific Coast Highway. It was a stunning location.
The next day, we arrived at Cowell’s Beach in Santa Cruz and were lead by Richard Schmidt’s Surf School. Little did we know then what a legend Richard Schmidt is in the surfing community. Surf Splendor Podcast even called his school, “the oldest and most prominent in the world.” Richard and his instructors were extremely kind, humble, encouraging and considerate to our motley crew and we all felt honored to be taught by masters. Once we got our wetsuits on and a beach quick lesson, we were let loose in the water. The first day, I struggled and never got up on my board. Surfing is hard for a strong, fit person, but it’s even harder when you’ve been taken apart and pieced back together by surgeons like many of us had been. We all kept at it and to my surprise, the next day and the rest of the week, most of us were able to get up and ride some pretty sick waves, as they say. A day of surfing was reminiscent of how you feel as a child after a day of swimming – happy, satisfied, starving and exhausted.
Some of my favorite moments throughout the week had nothing to do with surfing, but from being in a group where I could joke about cancer. This is not something I’m able to do too much in my regular life because it’s usually met with a stern “not funny” look from my husband or other family members. We all cracked up when someone made an origami fortune teller and joked that’s what doctors use to determine the number of rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. Or demanding to see a port scar as a means of entry into our living area. Laughing about having cancer flare-ups to protesting something we were about to do. Joking that if you put all our body parts together, we made up a whole person. How refreshing it is to be in the company of people who could actually understand these types of morbid jokes and genuinely laugh with you.
Another powerful moment was when us girls stood in the living room revealing our scars. Mine have never been seen by anyone other than my husband and medical staff, so this was pretty big. I saw many nipple-less breasts and they saw my ginormous abdominal scar, which is the shape of a Mercedes-Benz logo (the actual surgical incision name). It was a liberating moment and I would’ve never done this with any of my non-cancer friends.
I’ll remember this experience and the stories of my brother and sister cancer fighters forever. First Descent’s motto is “out living it.” We had all been through so much, but were still here, out living what has killed others, together, in more ways than one and that was pretty rad, as they say.
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a ride'” – Hunter S. Thompson
To learn more about First Descents, check out their website at www.firstdescents.org