Healing Through Adventure: First Descents

“I was in a place where I was just hitting my stride at a new job when I received a breast cancer diagnosis,” begins Anna Noland, a Firefly Sisterhood Guide. “During treatment, I hit such a low that I felt like I couldn’t go on with it anymore. One sleepless night, I got on the internet and searched for something—anything—that would help me feel less alone. I stumbled upon First Descents, and it saved me.”

Anna’s story shines a light on the unique circumstances that young adults with cancer often find themselves in, challenges that other age groups do not: fertility, relationships, dating, intimacy, sexuality, parenting, insurance, finances, career planning, education, and age-appropriate peer support.

The statistics for this age group (ages 15 – 39) are not very good (https://www.cancer.gov/types/aya):

  • 70,000+ adolescents and young adults are diagnosed with cancer every year.
  • 10,000 young adults die annually due to cancer.
  • Cancer has become the number one disease killer in young adults.

First Descents (FD), a national nonprofit organization based in Denver, Colorado, believes that shared adventure can translate into healing for young adults with cancer. Participants like Anna agree, “Before our trip even began, we are put into a secure online Facebook group so that we could get to know one another before the trip. By the time we met at the destination airport, we all knew each other and could recognize each other from the photos we had posted! It was instant connection!”

First Descents offers three adventure options for those wanting to participate:

  • Week-long programs (FD1) offer young adults impacted by cancer free adventures in rock climbing, white water kayaking, or surfing at locations across the United States. Anna participated in a rock climbing adventure in Moab, Utah, choosing this adventure because “If it requires a helmet, I’m in!”
  • International adventures (FDX) include a broader variety of activities and cultural immersion experiences. These excursions are for FD1 alumni and include a “Pay it Forward” component, where participants raise funds not only for their trip but also to help someone attend their first week-long adventure with First Descents. Anna chose to attend a FDX trip to Thailand. “It was an amazing adventure and cultural experience—we even stayed with a family as part of the trip!”
  • Local Adventure Communities (FDTribs) are local, single-day or multiday adventures intended to connect people with other young adults impacted by cancer right in their “backyard”. These regionally-focused adventures can include stand-up paddle-boarding, mountain biking, sailing, kayaking, and other adventure activities specific to a region. Anna has enjoyed taking part in the Minnesota FD Tributary adventures like rock climbing and believes strongly in the power of the program. “I’ve put on a local FD “Minne-Ball”—a spoof on the national First Descents Ball—to raise money for FD because they were supportive during my journey,” Anna shares. “I want other young adult cancer survivors to experience the healing power of adventure.”

First Descents adventures are for anyone ages 18-39 diagnosed with any type of cancer, and no experience is necessary for any of the adventures! All programs are led by qualified outdoor experts who teach participants the necessary skills for their chosen adventure and all FD staff have wilderness and medical backgrounds (EMT Certification). In addition, First Descents promotes high quality nutrition during their week-long adventures by implementing a nutritional program of whole-food, plant-based cuisine prepared by professional chefs. Their events are held in some of the most beautiful locations in the United States: Hood River, Oregon; Adirondacks, New York; Rogue River, Oregon; Cascade Mountains, Washington; Jackson Hole, Wyoming and many more locations.

Anyone interested in participating in a First Descents adventure must fill out an online application and receive approval from their medical provider.

A huge thank you to Anna Noland for sharing your experience and First Descents for sharing your program information! Firefly Sisterhood’s mission is to make connections, and one way we do so is by sharing resources that offer unique support to anyone experiencing a cancer diagnosis and treatment. When you make connections and receive the support you need, we all shine!

Written by Amy Tix, Firefly Staffer and breast cancer survivor, who would love to participate in one of these adventures!

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