Whenever I have trouble falling asleep, I focus in to that day on the river. Sitting in my kayak, I paddled as slow as possible, hoping that this moment would never end. I took every second I could to soak in the beauty around me: The tranquil flow of the Snake River, the ascending dry yet tree-covered mountains to either side, the crisp blue sky above, and the occasional eagle, perched on the tree-tops, watching us all float by. As I approached the turn, I could hear the rush of whitewater as my heart pounded with anticipation. Turning the corner, a series of rapids crashed ahead. I aimed my kayak straight towards the meat of the first wave, gripping my paddle perhaps a little too tight. It was my first time during a week-long crash course in whitewater kayaking where I had to navigate through rapids by myself. With no guide to follow, I had to trust my instincts. To go with the flow of the river. To be completely present.
This was the last day of my unforgettable week in Jackson Hole, Wyoming with First Descents, an organization that puts together outdoor adventures for young adult cancer fighters and survivors. This is more than a trip, it is an awakening for young people like me who have gone through the grueling physical and emotional trials of cancer to embrace the simple, yet transformative culture of #OutLivingIt. It was an opportunity for me to connect with nature, other young adults, and myself.
When I was diagnosed with brain cancer at 12 years old, I learned a valuable lesson to live life to the fullest. After my surgery and years of recovery, I took that lesson to heart. I strived to experience as much as possible. I hiked through the rainforests of Madagascar, tagged sharks, and sailed a tall ship through the bioluminescent high seas under a star-studded night sky. I explored and scuba-dived the exotic underwater world of Indonesia. For me, scuba diving was what made me feel whole. It was the last obstacle for me to overcome since my first seizure in 2003. I had to wait to be 5-years seizure free without any medication until I could take my first breath underwater. When that moment finally came in 2011 over a shipwreck off the coast of North Carolina, I was hooked.
In July of 2014, when I had my first seizure in 10 years, I lost my ability to scuba-dive…the one activity that made me feel me. More so, when diagnosed with my recurrence just a few months later, I felt fragile. After over a year of radiation and chemotherapy treatments, I felt nervous to simply take a trip from Boston to D.C.. I felt lost, and unable to recognize who I was.
When I paddled through my first set of whitewater with First Descents, I was overcome with emotions. I finally found an activity that made me feel the same way as scuba diving. Like the ocean, the river was the ultimate equalizer. Despite my physical limitations on my right side, I could paddle…and paddle well. When I scuba dived, time slowed down. Immersed in an underwater world, all that mattered was the beauty surrounding me. The same was true on the river. The river forced me to be completely present. The moment I thought about deadlines, bills, or anything other than the whitewater ahead of me, I was flipped over. Like challenges in life, the river necessitated taking each rapid step by step. If I was surprised by a wave coming in from the side, or a rock ahead, I was taught to lean into the obstacle rather than shy away from it.
My week with First Descents was so much more than kayaking. What made my experience truly special were the people I shared it with. When the program started, I was given the nickname Siren. The entire week, up until exchanging Facebook contact info on the last day, I only knew the people around me by their nickname. This may seem weird at first, but it was integral to the transformative nature of the week. With my nickname, I felt in some ways reborn: able to come into this new experience without the baggage of my past. I was enabled to embrace where I was and the people I was with. I took on the new experiences and challenges not as Jeremy, but as Siren (my #OutLivingIt alter ego). Eventually, by the end of the week Jeremy became Siren, and Siren had become Jeremy. Both identities intertwined as I moved forward.
The staff, guides, volunteers, and especially fellow young adult survivors were some of the most inspiring people I have ever met. They have left a lasting imprint on my life, and remind me to #OutLiveIt every day. What made my solo kayak on the last day so special was that in fact, I was never alone. As I turned the corner and approached the first set of whitewater, I saw one of our guides hanging off to the side watching. While I had to face the set of obstacles ahead of me by myself, I had the comfort of knowing she was there to help if needed. This was like my journey facing cancer. Yes, I had to face some parts of my experience alone, but I always had my caregivers…family and friends…there to support me and lend a hand when life flipped me over.
After the last wave, I wiped the water from my eyes and paddled into the eddy. As I rounded the corner of the rock wall, I saw every staff, guide, volunteer, and young adult survivor who I had the fortune to spend an entire week with. This is what it was all about. While each of us participating in the First Descents program had our own unique personal journey that we had to paddle through, in the end, what mattered most was that we all had each other. A new FD family.
One of my guides shared with me a fantastic quote by Jack London:
“I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out
in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom
of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.”
My week with First Descents taught me what it feels like to be truly present. That no matter where life takes me, I will be content if I am present doing what I love, surrounded by people sharing the moment with me. I shall use my time knowing that I am always striving to #OutLiveIt.
I wrote this because I want you to know how special First Descents is. Brad Ludden, the organization’s founder, is a finalist for this year’s CNN Heroes! If First Descent’s wins, they will receive $100,000 to send more than 100 additional young adults on outdoor adventures like mine. My week with First Descents was one of the best treatments I could have ever gotten, and every young adult going through cancer deserves to have this experience. So PLEASE follow this LINK and VOTE, VOTE, VOTE! (p.s. you can vote up to 10 times!)