What's Cancer Camp?

When I told my friend I was going rock climbing at a cancer camp in Colorado, he asked the same question everyone asks. “So, what’s cancer camp?” A month ago, I didn’t know the answer either.

I discovered First Descents through a support group a few months after I started chemotherapy for stage three breast cancer. Everyone familiar with the program encouraged me to look into it as a fun opportunity to get away when treatment was over.

I quickly discovered that First Descents, a free outdoor adventure program, was so much more. It’s an experience designed to empower young cancer survivors with new skills and improve long-term survivorship; a chance to reclaim our lives and connect with others doing the same.

From the first day of the week-long program, I felt like I had found a space to ask the questions that had been hanging over my head for months. At camp, everyone gets a new name based on their personality and shared personal trivia; mine was Miracle.

At some point, I described our group as misfits but a group into which I fit perfectly. “For once, we weren’t ‘the friend that had/has cancer or the family member with cancer’ we were just ourselves and there was a lot of freedom in that.” Everyone had a port scar, everyone had a story to share. Everyone understood the unspoken opportunity to swear, crack inappropriate jokes, laugh or cry whenever we felt like it. We supported one another, regardless of what that looked like.

On the first day, we headed out to a local climbing park to learn the basics of safety, technique and the knots that would be our foundation for the rest of the week. What we didn’t know was that we would be responsible for belaying each other for every single climb. Nothing develops trust and confidence faster than handing your lifeline to someone you literally just met. It was terrifying, but at the end of the day, we knew we had each other’s backs.

I remember staring up at a seemingly sheer 200 foot rock face wondering if I could really make it all the way up. I shielded my eyes and considered the route options, asking myself if I really had the guts to trust footholds no bigger than my thumb. 20 minutes later, I strapped on a harness, tied in, and scrambled my way to the top. My confidence grew even deeper over the next few days around the campfire, on yoga mats, in the kitchen, or on the rocks as we shared the fear and gratitude that only comes from a shared trauma. We offered our pain and experiences to each other and held onto the knowledge that we weren’t alone. As recently as 10 days before we got to Colorado, some of us were still in hospital gowns. We were certainly still healing but were also out living it.

It’s hard to know what to say about my week in Estes Park, CO. It was intense, to say the least, but as my buddy Sprinkles said, it was so beautifully impactful. Last month, cancer brought 25 of us together, and over the week, we bonded in incredible and unexpected ways. From the first day, we literally held one another’s lives in our hands as we rappelled down a VERY steep rock face. From sunrise yoga to car karaoke, we spent every waking minute together. I may not know everyone’s real names, but I do know the character within these incredible people and First Descents gave me back a piece of myself that I really thought was lost. All I can say is thank you.


Note: This blog was an experience that occurred pre-Covid. 

Photo courtesy of author.