What it Feels Like: Paddling to Beat Cancer

A young adult battling cancer finds strength kayaking the Nantahala River

BY SARAH STEERS / PHOTOS BY CHRIS GRAGTMANS

It's easy to take so many things for granted. For years I took my health for granted.
And then at 19, I was diagnosed with cancer for the first time. March 19, 2014 will be a day I never forget. From that day on I would live with the label of cancer survivor. In many ways, I've felt alone since the diagnosis. Not many teenagers and young adults are diagnosed with cancer. Do you know any? Living in constant fear of recurrence and being so isolated from other people who understand this unique turmoil is not easy, to say the least. The worst part however wasn’t the isolation, or the surgeries, or the pills — it was dealing with my own mortality at such a young age. There’s an image of how a life should be — one with kids, marriage, careers, backpacking through Europe. It’s hard to reconcile that vision with physical facts: Your body, one of the most essential pieces of living, is trying to kill you and could do it again and again.

Though I’m two years out from that diagnosis (and a year from my last treatment), dealing with these mental roadblocks was interfering with my life. I was spiraling, becoming withdrawn and turning down invitations I would have previously jumped on. I found it hard to do anything except sleep and watch TV endlessly. But I was desperate to try and find something else and find support in the area from other people who had been through similar experiences. What I didn't think I'd find would be the single greatest experience of my life.

Last April, I decided to go to CancerCon to try and find those people. On the second day I enjoyed some enlightening lunch conversations with other thyroid cancer survivors. One was a representative from First Descents (FD), an organization dedicated to providing young adult cancer survivors with opportunities to experience the outdoors in new ways. I decided then that this was something I needed to do. I wasn’t going to let fear stop me from enjoying whatever time I had. Luckily, they had one last-minute spot open on a whitewater kayaking trip in the Great Smoky Mountains a month later (some participants have to wait a year), and I signed up right then and there.

Then I started to get nervous. I'm not a fit person, I thought, what if this wasn't something I could physically do? What if I couldn't connect to the other survivors because I hadn't gone through chemo or had a particularly grueling cancer experience? Not to mention the doubts about a weeklong trip with people I knew nothing about. However, on May 29, I got up at 4:30 a.m. to catch the airport train anyway. After landing in Atlanta I waited for the other participants with butterflies in my stomach. When I saw the group I approached cautiously. As soon as I said hello, everyone stood up to hug me at the same moment. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't overwhelmed, but I hugged them all anyway and sat down to prepare for the three-hour drive to the lodge.

On the ride we covered the typical introductory topics. Of course cancer came up and I was excited to discover that I wasn't the only thyroid cancer survivor in the group. We also discussed nicknames, an FD tradition. Of all the ones we came up with, mine was the only one to actually stick: Peaches, Peach, Sweet Peach, or Peachy. I'll now likely respond to all of them for as long as I live.

Over heavenly food we all got to know each other better, but some of the more personally powerful moments from the week happened on the water. On the first day we kayaked on Lake Fontana to get comfortable and to practice some essential techniques. When I slipped while carrying the kayaks and sprained my ankle, I thought I’d be setting a negative tone for the week, but everyone rallied to help, which in turn helped me grow closer to everyone. (Thank goodness you don't really need your ankles to kayak!)

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We continued to kayak and raft throughout the week, improving progressively. We went from barely moving in a line on still water to going over Nantahala Falls, a Class III rapid on the last day. I spent every morning worried that I wouldn't be able to do what we had planned for the day, that finally my body would tell me that it was enough and I had reached my limit. Instead, every single day I left the water feeling better than when I had first launched. I constantly wanted more and I continued to be surprised that I was doing so much more than I thought I was capable of. I was so used to setting physical limits on myself that I hadn't ever taken the time to actually try and test them. Kayaking taught me that I was putting too many restrictions on my life and that no matter what I thought I could do, I could always do more.

On the fourth day we kayaked down the Tuckasegee River, and at lunch Quickie told us all to grab two rocks. We then wrote the things we didn't like about ourselves on one rock and the things we liked on the other. I spent a lot of time thinking about each rock and after I finished I was surprised at what I found. Everything I wrote on the positive rock was about who I was as a person; everything on the negative rock was about what I looked like. It made me sad to realize that I was putting so much emphasis on my body and constantly saw it as the thing that was holding me back. When we tossed the negative rock into the river and held onto the positive one I did feel a bit lighter. This trip had already shown me that my body was amazing and could do so much, so why did I constantly have to hate on it?

On the last day we kayaked the Nantahala. It was a beautiful river that was so cold there was always a little bit of fog. Even though there were points in time where my glasses were so fogged up that I couldn't see, I paddled on. I kept paddling and savored every moment because I didn't want it to end. I knew that once I got off the river I would have to leave and the best week of my life would really be drawing to a close. But, of course, eventually graduation rapid was upon us. We each set off one by one to pick our own line through a rapid without anyone guiding us. I opted to go first. I picked the harder path because I was constantly amazed at how capable I was of doing it. And sure enough, I completed graduation rapid and pulled over to hug all the staff waiting at the finish line and to watch all my fellow kayakers finish their journeys too. It was amazing to see the culmination of everything all of my companions had learned. I was so proud and excited and sad for all of them. Some rolled up crying, others were soaking wet because they had flipped, and everyone couldn't believe it was over.

There was still one last challenge: We had the option to complete a Class III rapid if we wanted — the highest classification we could do on this trip. Immediately I knew that I was going to do it. I wanted to push myself one last time. When the option arose to lead through the rapid, instead of following the staff, I chose that as well. I wanted to see myself through it. I wanted to prove that my body — the body that I always felt was holding me back, the body that had tried to kill me twice before, the body that was bruised and sore — could do it.

So I sat at the launch and saw my friends go and complete the rapid. I thought about everything we’d done on and off the water. How one of the greatest things this group did with me was laugh. They laughed every time I made a joke and I felt like I was finding myself again, whacking through layers of self-doubt and displeasure that I had buried myself under. They brought out the Sarah I had been all my life. They brought me back. A group of people who had been through so much in their individual lives had managed to bring me back to mine.

Finally it was my turn to run the Falls. No matter how long we had looked at the falls beforehand from above, it was so different staring straight at it. I didn't even have time to think. I just went and trusted that I could do it. I saw the line I wanted and I went for it, leading myself through the most difficult obstacle we had to face that week. When I reached the bottom I couldn't believe it was over. I had done it. My heart was pounding and my cheeks hurt from smiling so much. I had done something that I never thought I would be capable of.

I lost a lot going over the falls. I lost all the worries I had about what I was capable of. I lost some of the hate I had for my body. I lost my fear of the unknown. I also gained an indescribable amount of stuff. What I took away the most: I can do anything.

The last night we had together was one of the hardest of my life. We were saying our goodbyes and reflecting on everything from camp and way beyond. I cried so many tears that I had no idea where they were still coming from. These people had quickly become such an integral part of my life. This family of 21 people changed my life. Sometimes it only takes a moment.

Thank you First Descents and thank you CPTO, Quickie, Big Toe, Moose, Basil, Compton, Lamb Chop, Big Papa, Downtime, Mojo, Aunt Flow, Sweet Pea, HooHah, Redrum, Boohoo, Eno, Mako, Rainbow Brite, Thrill, and WIP.

— Read more on First Descents and its founder, Brad Ludden.
— Check out 6 Paddling Nonprofits that are Making a Difference.
Q&A with Matthew Burdine on his Paddle for the Cure.

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