Life after cancer: Young, fancy and free
A year ago last Wednesday – August 23rd – was my last day of chemo. The first step on the road back to normalcy. My unofficial return to freedom, to life. To life after cancer.
My last day of chemo was a big deal for me. While I still had to wait several weeks for that official ‘you’re-in-the-clear’ remission scan, I had no doubt I was completely fine. So when they unhooked my last bag of chemo and pulled the PICC wires from my arm, in that moment I was finally free. I could finally get back to the business of living without the cloud of cancer over my head.
From the ER to the Big little things
Sure, two days later I had to take my Neulasta shot. Sure, two days post-chemo I was back in the ER because I felt dizzy and lightheaded all day and fell on the stairs (but NBD – no bumps or bruises). Sure, I had to go on extra antibiotics for a week to clear the minor infection that caused the dizziness.
But the next day after the minor ER scare I was out and about, dressed up, shopping, and celebrating freedom on a date at a spot in the West Village with the cocktail I’d been dreaming about all summer. Too soon? Perhaps, but sometimes ya gotta go wild and live a little. So I got my drink. And I felt too fabulously free to let the little things stop me.
Why Cancerversaries are a big deal to me
For the past five months, I’ve been marking my one-year cancerversaries. Perhaps not everyone wants to mark these days. But I do. Because these are the dates that changed my life, forever. The first scan. The biopsy. The diagnosis. The hair loss. The start of chemo. The end of chemo. And the ups and downs in between. Because it’s kinda crazy to see how much has changed in one year. And because taking a step back provides a lot of perspective.
Day to day it’s not always easy to see the progress, especially when recovery isn’t a straight line forward and up. Recovery can be a frustrating process, and even a lonely and isolating one. You’re done, but it’s not behind you. It’s still with you, and in a way always will be.
Cancerversaries give you the perspective to appreciate the journey and to mark the progress. Being on top of a mountain sure beats being stuck in a hospital room. A quiet walk in the park sure beats walking round and around the oncology floor, IV stand in tow. Sleeping in my comfy queen bed sure beats insomnia in a hospital bed.
Cancer in Young Adults: The social factor
Cancer is a wild journey always, but as a young adult, it’s a uniquely challenging experience. So I mark my progress and celebrate the wins. I celebrate life, I celebrate me. Whether that celebration is climbing a mountain or just a quiet moment of appreciation I take for myself. Both are wins in my book. I’m still here. I’m alive. And my life is mine.
The thing is, it’s often difficult to understand the significance of it all if you haven’t gone through it yourself. Some people just don’t get it. I certainly don’t blame them, and I hope they never do fully get it. But it’s not a snap of the fingers chemo is over, you’re out. Cancer isn’t ‘done’ when treatment ends. Cancer isn’t over after that first remission scan.
Even when your prognosis is excellent, like mine fortunately is, cancer is a reality you deal with every day. Recovery takes time. Diet changes are likely a new reality. Fatigue comes and goes, and chemo-brain gets in the way. You move more slowly. Your body needs to rest. Your brain needs to reset. Lifestyle shifts are a necessity if you want to keep the cancer beast at bay. True healing takes time.
Maybe you can’t keep up the way you used to. Maybe now when you’re out you’re one and done. Maybe dancing til dawn isn’t quite as realistic or even appealing. Maybe you just need to chill. And maybe sometimes the people around you – as supportive as they may try to be – just don’t fully get it. You don’t want sympathy, and you certainly don’t want pity. But you don’t always get true empathy either.
The First Descents Fix
So when you have the opportunity to connect with other young adults who have confronted the same challenges from a similar perspective, it’s not something you can easily pass up. Which is why, as soon as I learned about First Descents, I looked it up and immediately reached out.
Serendipitously, I met another young cancer fighter at a yoga workshop last November, just a couple months out of treatment. Still, for all intents and purposes, basically bald. The (workshop) dome was packed with over 800 mostly young yogis, but at the end a mother stood up and shared her experience of being there with her daughter who was fighting thyroid cancer. At the end of the workshop, I beelined to the section they’d been and sought them out. ‘Where’s the cancer chic!?’
After a little chit chat about type and treatment, Kim immediately told me to check out FD. She’d gone on a surfing trip in California with other young cancer fighters and survivors, all paid for by the organization. Surfing in California? For free? Heck yes sign me up!
It almost sounded too good to be true, but I checked it out and it was all legit. And they did indeed have surfing trips. After my spontaneous trip to Costa Rica pre-diagnosis and the fun surfing lesson I’d taken, I was pumped at the prospect of doing more surfing. And I always love a good excuse to go to California.
The DL on FD: Choose your own Adventure
As it was November and the trips are outdoor adventures, the season was over with the exception of ice climbing (not exactly my thing given that I get cold all the time). So they put me on the list and told me to keep an eye out for program enrollment for the following summer in the new year.
Sure enough, the first email came in January. But, to my great disappointment, there were no surfing trips in California. They were in North Carolina, and very soon before a busy month of traveling already on my schedule. As beautiful as the Outer Banks are, I was not enthused about those options. And as I learned more about the programs, part of me, perhaps subconsciously, was looking for a totally new experience. A brand new adventure in a brand new state.
Alas, white water kayaking did not appeal either. I’m not much of a water person unless we’re talking Caribbean temps. And I’m not into kayaking. Rock climbing in the Adirondacks sounded ok, but I spent much of my childhood skiing up there. Again, not brand new. And let’s be honest, did I really want to go rock climbing? Rocks are hard. And rough. My hands are soft. I’m not exactly outdoorsy.
So, I did nothing. There was mention of programs later in the summer, so I thought I might wait for word on that. The very end of March brought another email with more programs: a slew of whitewater kayacking, and a few August programs rock climbing in Estes Park, Colorado. Still, I did nothing. I was distracted by my courses and planning my other trips. August was too far away to think about.
Out Livin It
Mid-May rolled around, and I got another update with trip availability. More kayacking. And one spot left each for a climbing trip in the Adirondacks in June and a Colorado trip in August. I looked at the one spot left for Colorado. I had no plans for August. I’d never been to Colorado. I was still unsure about the rock climbing, but the Rocky Mountains sounded quite lovely. I do love nature. Nature heals. I missed the mountains. So, hesitantly, I replied. ‘I’d love to go to Colorado. Yes, I think.’
After assurance that it’s low pressure and as much about hanging out in a cool place with other people who’d been through a similar experience, I finally got on board and replied. Let’s do it.
And, I’m so glad I did. The Rocky Mountains in the summer were as beautiful as I’d imagined. And it really was just as much about bonding with the other participants. As luck would have it, the other participants were awesome. We shared our experiences in a way we can’t with people who haven’t gone through what we have. By virtue of our crazy cancer diagnoses, we automatically bonded. We laughed, we cried, and we became instant friends.
As it turns out, I’m actually pretty good at climbing. And, I actually liked it. All that gymnastics growing up served me well. We all took on new challenges many of us never thought possible. We climbed vertical rock faces and on our last day we all rappelled down a nearly 200 foot cliff. I’d have thought you were insane if you told me I’d be doing that, ever.
Queenie got a Nickname and other FD trip perks
As per FD tradition, upon arrival, we all got nicknames. Not big on nicknames, I was not sure how I felt about the whole thing. I launched into a spiel about this almost immediately, indicating that something girly or feminine might be appropriate. I was dubbed Queen while still at the airport. So much for not sounding high maintenance, but ok, I can totally take on royal status. So I was officially Queen for the week.
Queen of the lodge and its majestic surroundings. Seriously, we had amazing views from our windows and doorsteps. I meditated with the sunrise to my back, facing perfectly-shaped pine trees and mountain peaks. I taught yoga with the sunrise on my face and the mountains in the distance. The sunsets were spectacular, and the starry night sky was pure magic. Layers upon layers of sparkling diamonds lit up the darkness. We even caught a small glimpse of the eclipse glow, in spite of the cloud-cover.
To top off all this fabulousness, the staff were all amazing, and the food was spectacular: super healthy, cancer-healing-friendly (organic, vegan, paleo, dairy-free, soy-free, allergy-free, you-name-it-friendly), and, crucially, delicious. Having been so focused on cleansing and clean eating for well over a year, not having to prep or even worry about my food for an entire week, and then actually enjoy it (yes, I have high standards on this front) was seriously fabulous.
Shout-outs to my tribe
I can’t reiterate enough how amazing the people were – both the staff and the participants. The people are what make an experience like this so unique, so special. So once again, shout outs to the whole warm, supportive, and inclusive crew for making this week so incredible. In no particular order:
- Shout out to Spearmint for being an awesome roomie, meditating with me, and sharing the omg-yes-me-too commonalities in our hit-it-from-all-angles approach to kicking cancer’s ass.
- Shout out to Dawg Pound and Huckleberry for their badassery on the rocks, showing the rest of us the way, and for actually allowing themselves to show their vulnerabilities, the most difficult and badass thing any of us can do.
- Shout out to Bumble for her can’t-stop-won’t-stop fabulousness and for attacking the rocks like a champ all-day-errday even in her bday elf suit.
- Shout out to our resident comedians Buttercup and Scooter for keeping us laughing the whole damn trip. DGAF defined. In the absolute best way possible. Don’t ever stop, even if the Queen isn’t entirely thrilled.
- Shout out to Pistil for showing up in the middle of treatment, two days post-chemo, and pushing through like a champ all week. Inspiring doesn’t begin to cut it. And for having the best name IRL 😉
- Shout out to Dexter for her fierce determination and never giving up even when the going got a little rough. Your kids are so lucky to have you. And shout out for indulging my Mexican craving at the airport and suffering through the too-spicy guac.
- Shout out to Rocky for both the sweetness and sarcasm and the persistent #Imwinning attitude, complete with the fresh out of radiation glow. You are a role model of strength to your kids and all of us for sure. (It’s really too bad we all hate sarcasm though.)
- Shout out to Cricket and Peanut for their calm and quiet yet deep presence. They tackled the rock with an enviable cool confidence and indefatigable determination and kept on keepin on.
- Shout out to Pyro for having one of the most badass jobs I’ve ever heard of and for scorchin those rocks all week. Boom.
- Shout out to Big Papi for the inevitable and immaculately timed one-liners. #nailediteverytime And for powering through insane challenges like a true champ. Soon-to-be coolest-dad-ever. Congrats buddy.
- Shout out to Pow Pow for being a super-chill and super-positive dude, mature beyond your years, and with legit taste in music to boot.
And to the staff and volunteers who made it all happen and casual-cool encouraged us all to push our limits:
- Shout out to Shaman for patching us up all week, for big smiles and quirky humor, for encouraging me to teach yoga for the first time in years, and for being a tiny being with a giant heart.
- Shout out to Ice Cream Man and Rio Gordo for the constant support, for lugging our water around all week, and for volunteering their time to do the millions of dishes none of us wanted to deal with. (Seriously, thanks for that.) Chillest father-son duo eva.
- Shout out to HD for the bestowing upon me the best name ever, and for clambering around the rocks to get the best photo-ops and angles of us all week long – undeniable evidence that we all rocked it.
- Shout out to Bumblebee and CK for toiling away in the kitchen all day every day to keep us well-fed and uber-nourished. Healthy deliciousness defined, made with lots of love.
- Shout out to our climbing guides Meatball, Hans, and Again for making us feel safe, enabling us to trust ourselves, and for the slick undercover nudges to reevaluate our own limiting perceptions of our abilities. We climbed again, and again, and again. Because science, And T-swift, And meatballs Apparently equal a winning combo. Who knew. And FTR sarcasm sucks.
- And last but most certainly not least: MASSIVE shout-outs to Paco and Princess Bear for making it all happen. For stretching our boundaries and helping us push past our perceived limitations. For putting up with the Queen and her subjects. For indulging the campfire shenanigans. For the sick beats all week. And most of all for genuine awesomeness.
Video Cred: HD aka Rebecca Elliot
Finally, shout out to all ya’ll for elevating the Queen’s best-week-ever status, in true royal highness style.
I celebrated my one-year finishing chemo-cancerversary on top of a mountain, next to a waterfall, surrounded by amazing people who just got it. Queen of the mountains. Young, wild and free, with a life full of possibility. With all ya’ll around me. Ain’t Nothin’ sweeter than that.
Interested in participating? You totally should! Check out their site and don’t hesitate to reach out to me with questions.
And if you think the program is as cool as I do, check out the ways you can get involved and help other young adult cancer survivors get out living it.
Truth be told, there’s not a huge amount of resources available to young adult cancer fighters and survivors. These organizations definitely deserve the full credit their due.
Photography: Rebecca Elliot @ Sunnybrook Photo