“You look like you got laid.”
That was my friend’s response when he saw me after I returned from a week out west, canoeing down the Green River and backcountry camping.
I was exhausted and dirty. I was still finding remnants of the red rocks everywhere - in my clothes, in my shoes, in my hair…
But I was calm. I was at peace. Apparently, I was glowing.
For a brief period of time - before life’s stressors and responsibilities crept back in - I felt fulfilled. And more importantly, I felt present.
That’s what getting outside to connect outside of life’s bullshit will do to you. Will do for you.
I wasn’t alone in my trek. I was able to go on this journey because of an organization called True North Treks (TNT) with 9 other young adult cancer survivors (or “Phasers,” as we now like to affectionately call ourselves). TNT has created an incredible program that helps survivors (ahem, Phasers) get out of their stressful post-treatment environment and into the backcountry of the beautiful wilderness.
For 6 days we canoed 55 miles down the Green River in Utah, camped along sandy beaches or up in rocky cliffs, explored our surroundings with daily “jaunts,” connected around the fire, slept under the stars, and pooped in a bucket in some of the most stunning locations I’ve ever had the pleasure of taking a shit.
Pieces of that trip will sacredly remain back in those red rocks, with the part of me that got left behind. And yet so much of that trip has followed me home. From the bonds I formed and new friends made to re-upping my yoga practice to the daily intentions and mediation exercises used to help re-ground myself when life feels out of control.
I found connection as I paddled through the water, being followed by the Great Blue Heron. I found joy as I pounced up the rocks, remembering the childlike joy I used to feel stomping through the woods and climbing up trees. I found peace as I stared up at a sky so big and so full of shooting stars, it was impossible not to feel incredibly powerful and oh so small, all at once.
True North Treks and the opportunity they provided me will stay ingrained in me for a lifetime. They gave me so much in a single week - parts of myself I thought were lost were once again found because of my experience out in the wild. I'll never be able to accurately or fully describe the depth of what that week did for me and how it changed me, but I can help another experience it for themselves.
Part of the TNT model is their "Pay it Forward" initiative. I was able to go on this trip because of a past trekker's generosity and fundraising efforts. So now it's my turn to give something back and I'm asking for help. If you'd like to be a part of another young adult cancer survivor's future trek, please consider donating to or sharing my fundraising page.
Cancer effects us all. Let's help create a positive and life altering experience for another deserving "Phaser."
*Sex not included on TNT Treks. Sorry.
Today I received my 5 year CT scan. It was 5 years ago - to the very day - I received my first, post relapse, clean scan.
It feels like a lifetime ago.
In a way it was.
Because of the relapse I had shortly after my first clean scan in the spring of 2012, I had to wait 2 years before I could call myself a Survivor. You have to tread lightly with labels in the cancer world. We don’t say “cancer free,” we say “no evidence of disease.” We don’t say “healthy,” we say “clean bill of health.” Everything seems to have the silent and implied “for now” tacked on to the end. Everything is protecting (and preparing) you for the possible relapse. No one wants to be the patient who screams “cancer free!” to the world, only to have the cancer come back 2 months later (trust me, I was that patient).
After relapsing within the first 6 months, the chances of it happening again were high. Refusing the bone marrow transplant and opting for just radiation, increased those odds. I was given a daunting 10% chance of making it to year 5 without the cancer returning. 10 percent. I had to readjust my expectations of my life. I had to hold my breath. I had to wait several more years before I could declare myself “cancer free.” But when I made it to year 2, when I could once again breathe, I had apparently earned the title of Survivor.
I used to take pride in calling myself a Survivor. It was a term of power, of strength, of accomplishment. I beat cancer. Twice. I truly felt like I had survived. And I would carry that title with me for years, summoning my survivor warrior alter ego when I was faltering or, sometimes, just needed to feel like a total badass that day. Being a Survivor kept me going. It put me in a club with other strong men and women who had similar plights to my own. I wore my survivorship like a badge of honor. Like a badge of courage. It was a silent badge that said, I made it.
And then last fall, Brad got cancer. Stage 4. And at first, my warrior survivor badge gave us both courage. We’d been through this already. I took my Survivor strength and carried us both. We’d done the research and knew how to stare cancer straight in the face and tell it to fuck off. But as his cancer continued to spread and his organs started to shut down, my strength wavered. “Fuck off, cancer” started to be replaced with “Fuck you, cancer.”
And then Brad died. 101 days after his diagnosis. Without even enough time to process what was happening, my brilliant, hilarious, thoughtful 35 year old husband was gone.
And I was no longer just A Survivor. I was THE Survivor.
I wasn’t standing stronger. I was the only one left standing.
The term Survivor took on an entirely new meaning.
Survivor was no longer what I had accomplished. It was a cruel reminder of what I no longer had. This word, this single word, that used to bring me strength, now brought me to me knees. It crushed me. It was a cruel joke from the universe.
Today, lying in the cold and sterile exam room - tears rolling down my face as the machine instructed me to, once again, hold my breath - I didn’t feel like a Survivor. I felt weak and scared and alone. It was my first scan without Brad waiting in the next room. The first one without him there to sit with me and distract me as we waited for the results to come in.
It was my first scan as The Survivor.
And now I wait alone. The anxiety ridden waiting game, where a single day feels like an eternity. Where minutes slow, allowing me time to reflect on it all. Too much time. Dragged out and filled with emotions - hope, fear, pride, guilt, sadness - they are all there.
What will my fate be?
A Survivor? Or The Survivor?
And can I be both?
We’ll find out.