Surviving and Thriving
RSM’s Pursue Your Passion program gave me fantastic opportunities to learn about myself and to grow in my cancer survivorship.
The first part of my project involved attending CancerCon in Denver, CO. CancerCon is an annual conference for young adult cancer patients, survivors and advocates. I attended CancerCon last year, where learned about various organizations that help young adults affected by cancer. I also met Billy and Cara, co-founders of Hope for Young Adults With Cancer, an organization that provides direct financial assistance to young adult patients and survivors. This is something I immediately identified with. The list of things to worry about with a cancer diagnosis is long, but funding my treatment was near the top of my list.
When I returned to CancerCon this year, I was thrilled to present Billy and Cara with a check for cancer patients and survivors in need. Hope for Young Adults With Cancer is a growing organization with rising recognition, but since Billy and Cara (and the rest of their organization) are volunteers, fundraising isn’t growing at the same rate as the number of patients and survivors applying for grants. Larger donations, like the one RSM enabled me to make, helps. They were extremely grateful for the generosity RSM allowed me to display. I’m excited to continue my relationship with Billy and Cara, and so appreciative to RSM for allowing me to make this donation.
While with Billy and Cara, I discussed RSM’s Pursue Your Passion program, telling them that, along with the money, I received nine days of paid time off to ‘pursue my passion,’ and that I intended to go on a weeklong outdoor trip for young adult cancer survivors. Billy’s response: “Dude, you had cancer. You had better use all that PTO and take some time off. Why don’t you go on second trip?”
I took his advice. Going through cancer is hard, and Billy’s comment was a reminder that my friends, family and I went through a lot, and that I should use cancer to make my life better. The two organizations I traveled with were First Descents and Epic Experience.
First Descents offers weeklong rock-climbing, surfing and kayaking trips to young adult cancer patients and survivors. I originally applied for a surfing trip in North Carolina’s Outer Banks because I thought it would be the easiest of the three options. Not that I thought my 6’2” frame would be a great surfer, but I thought surfing would be the least physically demanding. I later changed to a kayaking trip on the Clarks Fork River in Tarkio, MT. I wanted to challenge myself, and I thought jamming myself into a kayak for a week would really do that. (Not only am I tall, but I’m not very flexible.) I was right.
Once I arrived in Tarkio, I was welcomed by a spirited group of camp staff members dancing through the lodge, and a group of fellow survivors wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. One of the first things we noticed was that all the staff members had unique names: Panda, Tops, Farkle, Paco and Bandit to name a few. After introducing myself as Jacob, I was told I needed a camp name. I went with Grizz, my nickname in college. Since we were in the mountains, it seemed fitting. The next morning we hit the water. We were accompanied by excellent guides, who also had fun names like Sir Cuddles, Muscle Hamster and MacGyver. Each day we tried tougher rapids and learned different techniques. By the end of the week, I became surprisingly ‘okay’ at kayaking, and the instructors told us it was because we were no longer thinking about what we were doing on the river, but that we were “just kayaking.”
Each evening after dinner, everyone at the camp sat around the “campfire” (There was a burn ban going on in Montana at the time so we sat in a circle on the lawn.), and the staff would ask a different question. This is when I learned a lot about myself, while hearing other survivors’ stories. One thing I appreciated: I didn’t hear the staff say the word “cancer” once. An unassuming question was posed to the circle, and those who wanted shared answers that always seemed to gravitate to a part of their cancer experience. It was powerful.
One of the realizations on this trip was that I need to take more time for myself, and “check-out” of life more often. At First Descents, I didn’t have to think about anything. My days were planned for me. When I had taken time off in the past, it was to go see friends or family, or go to a sporting event, etc. Since my diagnosis, I never really took a day or two for myself to just relax. At First Descents, I was given this opportunity, and realized that I need to do that more.
My second trip was with Epic Experience, which offers weeklong winter and summer camps at a ranch outside of Gypsum, CO. A unique aspect of this camp was that all of the survivors were Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (HL) survivors. This allowed everyone to connect on a unique level, as we all received some of the same treatments. I even learned that, when I was in treatment, I had the same oncologist as another 25-year-old at my camp.
The morning after we arrived, we headed to the Colorado River for whitewater rafting. After a day on the river, we came back to the camp and had dinner and another group “campfire”-type activity, giving me a unique opportunity to relate extremely closely to the other campers.
The rest of the week, we did various other activities, including inflatable kayaking, fly-fishing, stand-up paddle boarding, horseback riding, hiking and soaking in natural hot springs. One of my favorite parts of the week was the last “campfire”. We had a short meeting with all the campers and then the Epic Experience staff handed out large envelopes with our names on them. Inside were letters from the camp staff whom we had all gotten to know throughout the week, as well as other friends and family members; mine contained letters from a bunch of my college friends.
I learned that the Experience staff used our emergency contact information to request heartfelt letters for each of us. I’d listed my college friend, Rusty, because he lives in Denver and was physically closer than my family in Idaho and my girlfriend in Baltimore. The result: my envelope was filled exclusively with letters from college friends reminiscing about the shenanigans we had gotten into during undergrad at Notre Dame. Reading these letters, reminded me how amazing my support network was while I was going through treatment. (When I was sick, I would receive at least one gift or letter a day from friends from all across the country.)
The relationships formed and rekindled during these two trips are the most valuable things I brought home with me. Many of my new friends and I have since connected on social media, and I regularly talk with some of them. I’ve become good friends with one survivor who lives in Baltimore, where she works for an organization that advocates for young adults with cancer. And through her, I’ve been able to network with other young adult cancer survivors close to home.
I am very proud to have been able to make the financial donation to help other cancer patients and survivors. I will always be thankful to RSM for helping me grow in my survivorship, give back to the young adult cancer community and become well connected to that community so that I can continue being a steward for young adults with cancer.