by Beth Pointer
In March of last year, I got a random call from some dude named Mary regarding my application with an organization called First Descents. I had no idea what he was talking about. Thanks, chemo brain!
I am 37 years old, and I’m in remission—whatever that means. I wasn’t what I’d pictured a cancer patient to be. I’m a young 37, full of energy and surrounded by an amazing network of friends that supported me throughout treatment. I didn’t get into support groups, or read websites about cancer, or join any organizations for young people with cancer. I didn’t want any friends who were dying. I wasn’t going to die of cancer. Even when the prognosis didn’t look good, I wasn’t one of them. That’s what I told myself.
Yet, when I got my first clear PET scan last year, I surprisingly felt paralyzed. Everyone kept telling me how excited I must be to have beaten cancer. I didn’t feel excited. Or happy. Or relieved. I didn’t trust that it was gone—in fact, I felt depressed. While the horrors of chemo totally sucked (as expected), I had kept a pretty positive attitude about the whole thing. Then remission came along and I was like, What the eff? I’m supposed to be happy! But I wasn’t, not at all. I felt like I wasn’t fighting anymore, that I was giving in and that it would creep back up on me and kill me. I wasn’t me anymore. I was one of them. I wanted to be done with cancer.
Shortly after that, a friend sent me the link to the First Descents (FD) website. They described themselves as a group that offers young adult cancer fighters and survivors a free outdoor adventure experience designed to empower them to climb, paddle and surf beyond their diagnosis, defy their cancer, reclaim their lives and connect with others doing the same. I went to their site and thoughtlessly applied. A free kayaking or surf trip sounded like fun, though I figured that I probably wouldn’t ever go. I promptly forgot all about it, up until Mary’s”phone call.
If I had done my due diligence when applying, I would’ve learned that FD makes people pick ridiculous nicknames to create alternate identities from their cancer survivor egos. Mary signed me up for a surf adventure on the Outer Banks of North Carolina for three months in the future. I started to get excited, despite myself.
As the trip approached, my post-cancer mentality wasn’t improving; in fact, it seemed to be getting worse. The further removed I was from treatment, the less alive I felt. The week before I got to camp, I received an email from a man named Wildflower to prepare me for the trip, and I panicked. Wildflower? I hadn’t considered that this could be a week surrounded by hippies. I hadn’t considered the other people at all. I was stuck in that depressed state of self-centeredness. Less than a week before the trip, I was just realizing that there would be other people at First Descents with cancer. I still didn’t have a single real life friend with cancer, and I didn’t want any.
I drove down to North Carolina from Washington, DC and tried to set aside my anxiety as much as possible, because more than anything, I wanted a tan. I also wanted a break from reality, but spending a week in a beach house with 15 cancer kids was unlikely to achieve that endeavor. I spent the drive imagining trust falls and teary talks.
My fears were immediately set to rest when I met Uncle Pete, a smoking hot British babe with a foul mouth. She boomed, “How the fuck are ya? What’s your nickname? If you don’t have one, I’m picking one for you.” I chose Ripple, the result of a private joke with my friends back home that I’d end up with a hippie name from that Grateful Dead song. I liked it though, because it represented the agitative nature of my social justice work. And well, if you can’t beat them, join them, right?
Immediately, the trip was great fun. We were housed in an enormous and beautiful beach house with a pool and a hot tub. I met everyone in the house, including our private chef, Cha Cha. I spent time getting to know my bunkmates: there was Hot Mama, a delightfully gorgeous mother of four who had the best attitude of anyone I’ve ever met; Hairband, a snarky but shy writer who understood my anxieties better than anyone ever has; and Dotcom, a hilarious blogger who would become my closest confidant. We stayed up late into the night talking about all things under the sun, and during the day we got our asses pummeled by some Nor’easter-spawned waves. The waves were insane by North Carolina standards, and the first couple of days we weren’t allowed to surf due to the dangerous conditions. My new friend Hardcore and I rocked some boogie boards instead.
Never have I been so relieved to be wrong. These cancer people weren’t what I imagined. They were sarcastic, smart, and alive. I felt like I belonged. For the first time since being diagnosed, I felt normal. All of my friends and family, while super-loving and supportive, couldn’t help but treat me like a sick person. It was so nice to just be normal – no one pitying me for having cancer; no one giving cancer much mind at all. I hadn’t realized how lonely I had become in my isolation.
The motto of First Descents is Out Living It, which is a clever pun, though I found it to be really accurate. I walked away from camp feeling more secure, and happier than I had been since I got serious. I also walked away with a bunch of new friends and new confidence in my physical abilities. I wasn’t a great surfer, but I walked to shore with my extra-long foam board feeling better able to take on all of the challenges in my life. It’s been about 9 months since I attended First Descents and the effects are still with me. I keep in constant touch with folks from camp (thanks, social media!).
Yet it wasn’t until almost a year later that I finally put together why I was really so anxious heading into camp. I didn’t want friends with cancer – not because they talk about cancer and do trust falls, but because people with cancer sometimes die. It’s hard enough to face your own mortality, let alone have to face it with people you’ve come to love. This past weekend, my dear friend Hardcore lost her hard-fought battle with cancer. I miss her so much already. I am so happy to have had her in my life, even for such a short time.
I didn’t want these tears. I didn’t want friends with cancer. But I am so grateful to have them.
Beth Pointer makes her living doing social justice work in Washington DC. She enjoys a well-timed practical joke, a good meal, giving the perfect gift, and pets of all varieties. She hates cancer.