I hadn’t been out of my element to this degree since my college days, when I drunkenly debated the lyrical merits of the song “99 Red Balloons” with a philosophy major. Yet, there I was. Floating downstream in a kayak on the Klickitat River in Washington state, ready to take on some rapids and holding my paddle upside down.
Thanks to the good folks at First Descents, a nonprofit that provides free adventure trips to young cancer survivors, I was able to give this whole kayaking business a go. It was the next phase of a much larger, multi-step plan that forced me to abandon my comfort zone, to get out there and live.
Since my whole cancer ordeal began in 2013, I’ve slowly made my way out onto that limb. I’ve posted pictures of my breast reconstruction on my blog (for the benefit of fellow breast cancer patients, and perhaps some random pervs), joined an annual 200-mile charity bike ride (despite the fact my last bike-riding experience had been 30 years prior, on a pink Huffy with a banana seat), momentarily forgot my intense fear of public speaking with a speech to about 200 people (with the assistance of about $100 worth of hotel booze) and now, clumsily attempted whitewater kayaking.
|Photos courtesy of First Descents and Wet Planet
The kayaking trip had a slightly “Breakfast Club” feel to it, minus the teen-angst-fueled drama and animosity. We were strangers when we arrived, all from different backgrounds, seemingly little in common. Artists, college students, writers, firefighters, athletes and parents—these were our labels out in the wider world. In some cases, we were separated by an age difference of 20 years or more, as evidenced by the belief that the Spice Girls was “oldies” music and the quizzical stare at the mention of “Hammer pants.” But there was one label we all shared: cancer patient. And though we were all at different stages of our respective cancer journeys, it was a powerful common ground. We were part of a club that none of us really wanted to belong to, but which had afforded us this amazing opportunity: the Cancer Club.
When the 15 of us descended upon a remote lodge tucked in the forests of Oregon, none of us really knew what to expect from the week ahead, but we had our reasons for being there. In need of physical challenge or new adventure. To replace something cancer had taken. To regain a sense of normalcy that so frequently eludes you following a cancer diagnosis and treatment. I think I can safely speak for all of us when I say we were looking for a safe space, a place where it was OK to not be an inspiration or a fighter, but rather just be.
The teens in “The Breakfast Club” knew what it meant to be pigeonholed. And so do cancer patients. How many times have you heard a cancer patient being described as a brave warrior? It’s not a bad metaphor, per se, but it’s a metaphor that’s never quite sit right with me. Warriors sometimes lose battles, and I don’t like to think of people with cancer “losing,” as if they didn’t fight hard enough. As with many things in life, the cancer journey is primarily made up of just putting one foot in front of the other. I’ve been told, “I could have never handled it like you did.” To these people I say, “You’d be surprised what you can do when you’re just trying to stay alive.”
Having cancer is kind of like wandering through Wonderland. It’s a place where negative results are positive—“My PET scan came back clean!” It’s a place where you will time to move both slowly and rapidly, so you can simultaneously savor moments and speed towards those that are in the distant future, because not being alive for your child’s high school graduation is a heartbreaking prospect. And sometimes, you have to face your own mortality to learn to live again. The latter was my reason for awkwardly planting myself in a kayak and heading down river.
As I approach my five-year NED (no evidence of disease) anniversary, my anxiety level has been ratcheting up. No woman in my family has gone five years cancer-free. I’m the only one alive. For years now the “I’m the only survivor” spin has had a negative connotation. But not anymore. Heather, you’re not dead. And if hurtling down a river doesn’t prove it, I don’t know what does.
I suppose one of the biggest lessons I took away from this week was to, literally and figuratively, “just go with the flow.” It wasn’t an easy lesson. For the better part of the past five years, I’ve been fighting against the current, trying to beat back cancer and do everything to prevent it from returning. But out there on the river, such defensive efforts just left you upside down in your kayak, in said river. It’s a tough lesson for someone who needs to feel in complete control at all times. You can’t control everything in life. You can’t control the river.
Was the trip amazing? Yes. The people, the food—thanks to Bumblebee and Gem for helping me “get regular” again for the first time in years—the kayaking, the instructors. Everything. Amazing. Did I relish smelling like basement mildew thanks to a wet suit that never quite dried? Nope. But it wasn’t anything a shower couldn’t take care of. Was I awkward as all hell? You betcha. Kayaking put into sharp focus the range of motion and core strength I had lost thanks to cancer and surgery (plus my overall lack of athletic prowess).
But I gave it my all. My grit, as it turns out, was not a casualty of cancer. Nor was my opinion of “99 Red Balloons.” I still think that song is total bullshit.