So, what is First Descents (FD)? “First Descents 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.” It’s also a place where you get to know people by nicknames like Sir Apple and Meow Mix instead of their real names. I heard about FD through friends a few years ago, and finally decided to apply last Fall. FD offers three outdoor adventure programs: whitewater kayaking, rock climbing and surfing. I picked the surfing program in the Outer Banks of North Carolina because it felt like the best fit for my compromised lower back, and I’ve always found water to be relaxing.
My first full day at First Descents commenced at 7:45am when we all woke up to freshly brewed coffee, fruit, oatmeal, and a selection of cereal all prepared by two incredible chefs and program volunteers. Unfortunately, the waves were too intense for us newbies to surf that day. We all made our way to the Farm Dog Surf School and got outfitted with wetsuits so that we could get started with our training bright and early the next morning. The Farmdog Surf School instructors were quite possibly even more excited to teach us than we were to learn how to surf! Their patience and enthusiasm were a huge part of what made this week so incredible. I fell off my board time and time again, and someone was always right there to help me paddle back out, or get out of the water for a break. The surf crew even came over for a dinner a few night so that we could get to know them better.
We had a campfire on the beach each evening, and one of the discussion questions posed was: What are you hoping to get out of this week? Responses ranged from taking a break from work and having a vacation, to rediscovering passions and forming new identities. For me, this week was about learning how to exercise again and actually enjoy it, rather than being afraid of what might happen, or how my body might feel. FD proved to me that my brain tumor isn’t holding me back physically anymore. I was able to surf and get beat up by the water all week without any seizures, migraines, or trouble balancing. Even though I had been told that it was ok for me to partake in exercise again, I still wasn’t sure if I could do it, and now I am. The only brain tumor related side effect that I felt at FD was fatigue related. I took many naps on the beach and at the house, and I received an award for honoring my health needs – Where else could I have won an award for napping?
Participants of FD programs don’t have to worry about anything the entire week. There was food already prepared when we woke up each morning, a yoga instructor to greet us at the beach, surfboards already laid out for us, and snacks always made available. This worry-free and laid back atmosphere at FD was conducive to casual yet intimate conversations. Getting to know the 13 other program participants and 8 staffers was an absolutely wonderful experience. While participants ranged from a year younger to 20 years older than I, age didn’t make much of a difference. We were all young adults looking for a week to catalyze believing in ourselves outside of our comfort zones, and we found what we were looking for.
This week reminded my body that it’s ok to be sore. I had forgotten what it felt like to be sore. Over the course of the past four years I transitioned from an extremely active and highly competitive person to someone living a sedentary lifestyle after my surgeries. While I am no longer able to participate in all of the physical activities that I once could, I can still try. FD reminded me that I should at least try. While my brain has recovered remarkably from its surgery, my back still has many limitations after spinal surgery. A week spent learning to surf has translated into two days of bed rest and reverting to sitting on a chair in the shower because I don’t feel stable enough standing up on my own. My back felt fairly decent throughout the week, but I’m really feeling the strain now that the adrenaline from this week has started to die down. I’m sure that there aren’t any new injuries, but I think that lifting the surfboard caused some serious strain and stiffness for my lower back. Regardless, the joy and state of mind that I felt all week is worth the pain. Anyone can lay in a hospital bed for weeks on end. Not everyone can push themselves to challenge their medical conditions and try something new, and First Descents facilitates that adventure.