Words by Jenna Mahaffie
Photos courtesy of Mindy Siks and First Descents
70,000 young adults are diagnosed with cancer each year. The disease is the leading cause of death in the 18-35-year-old bracket, and with so many diagnoses annually, it is the fastest growing and most underserved oncology age demographic.
This means that throughout their diagnosis, 70,000 young people will explore and discover their own ways of coping, fighting, and healing. Our partners at First Descents are on a mission to help them out live it – but not within the confines of any walls.
Founded by Stio Ambassador Brad Ludden, First Descents aims to provide the healing power of the outdoors to young adults impacted by cancer. Brad is a professional kayaker who sought to do something more with the sport he loved. “When I was 18 I kind of realized that that kayaking was going to be my path for a while and that I was in this unique position to create that transformational experience for other people,” Brad explained. “And I thought it was such a gift. The first program was in 2001 on the Colorado River, and the next year we did one more and we haven’t stopped since. We now serve well over 1000 young adults across the country and internationally each year through a multitude of outdoor adventures.”
First Descents believes deeply that the prescription of adventure is something that has the power to be even stronger than any medical treatment from a bottle. In 2015, they partnered with researchers at the University of Michigan to study the success of their programming. At the end of the study, 81% of participants reported increased self-efficacy in physical, emotional, and mental aspects of life, 99% wanted to stay involved with the program, and 100% said they felt an increased ability to deal with cancer and its effects.
The keystone of the organization is their free, one-week outdoor adventure programs that empower participants to reach beyond their diagnosis, all while connecting with others and reclaiming personal strength. Last summer, we were lucky enough to witness the power of a whitewater kayaking program here in the Tetons. Over the course of five days, participants learned to kayak starting on flat water and building up to class III whitewater down the Snake River.
While learning, paddling, and overcoming fear on the river is powerful, perhaps the most memorable part of the week was the common connections that formed between participants over such a short amount of time.
The last day of the program, participants took to the bigger whitewater of the Snake River. The energy was tangible, especially as they approached Big Kahuna, which was the designated graduation rapid. One by one, they dropped into the big water, with others cheering on from the side.
Everyone crushed it. And the metaphor of conquering whitewater and fighting a disease suddenly felt more palpable than ever before.
Perhaps Brad put it best: “When you're facing these diagnoses and when you're going through these treatments, it can be hard to think that it will ever end or it will ever get better. The same is true with kayaking - when you're in a big raft and getting your ass kicked, it's hard to think it'll ever stop. But eventually, the river does let up and you have the chance to gather yourself. If you can just endure those rapids, whether it's in life or on the river, you’ll reap that reward of having done something so challenging and standing on the other side.”