Like war veterans, cancer survivors fight for our lives and for what we love most —only our battlefields are operating tables, radiation treatment vaults and chemotherapy infusion rooms.
As a two-time breast cancer survivor, my war stories include 14 rounds of chemotherapy, 37 radiation treatments, and more than a half-a-dozen cancer-related surgeries over the past eight years. Through the worst of it, I have remained positive. And though I am thankful to have survived thus far, there are irreparable battle scars that make survivorship somewhat of a chronic condition. My once sharp mind relies on a daily rainbow of sticky notes to keep me on task. From my morning shower to the time I climb into bed at night, I am reminded physically, at least a dozen times a day that my cancer diagnosis forever changed me.
Last spring, while on a weekend getaway to Salmon, Idaho, friends told me about River Discovery (RD), an organization that sponsors free river trips for cancer survivors. (See related story.) They scrawled the information down on a piece of scrap paper and when I returned home to Butte, I looked up the website. The RD mission statement read:
“River adventures for cancer survivors that promote healing and strengthen the mind, body and spirit.”
I thought to myself, “This is exactly what I need.”
I filed my application and ended up being chosen to participate in week-long raft trip in August on the Main Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. I obtained a medical release, packed my bag and soon I was back in Salmon, making camp with a dozen other cancer survivors. It wasn’t long before we were sharing our war stories. We headed off into the wilderness and for six days, we faced our fears and challenged our limitations — physically, mentally and spiritually — together. Physical activity, healthy food, morning yoga, time for discussion and reflection, and the camaraderie of others who shared my cancer journey — all amidst breathtaking scenery — were a prescription for healing that I could never have filled in any pharmacy.
The river retreat away from daily lives and responsibilities allowed us to focus more intently on what we’d been through, where we are now, and what the future holds. We forged intimate bonds and emerged stronger and more confident individuals, and thanks to social media, with an ongoing support system of new friends who share a common journey, both on and off the river. As with our cancer diagnoses, our lives had been forever changed, only this time it was for the better.
Devin Hirschi, 30, of Park City, Utah, went from mountain bike racing in September of 2013 to being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma by Thanksgiving of that same year. Hirschi received chemotherapy and his prognosis is good, but he still struggles to recover from treatment side-effects. An avid cyclist and runner, Hirschi estimates he is operating at 85 percent of his previously “normal” activity level — leaving him feeling frustrated. Even more obvious, is the hair loss he suffered as a treatment side-effect. Hirschi has been shaving his head to compensate for the patchwork of struggling follicles — an external battle scar he faces in the mirror, daily.
“That was the hardest thing for me,” he shared.
Hirschi also found facing cancer at 28 to be an isolating experience.
“I don’t know a lot of people who have been through it (cancer) recently,” he said.
Hirschi found out about RD from his sister, who lives in Salmon. He said that the opportunity to recreate with other cancer survivors helped him better cope with some of the physical and emotional aspects he has been facing as a cancer survivor. While on the trip, Hirschi was deeply impacted by a reading by poet Dorothy Hunt, which was shared by a river guide before launching the rafts one morning.
He shared an excerpt: “… Peace is this moment without thinking that it should be some other way, that you should feel some other thing, that your life should unfold according to your plans…” Hirschi said that he hopes to carry that that mind-set with him as he returns to the daily stresses surrounding work and life as a cancer survivor, now that he’s off the river.
Julie Fry, 42, of Meridian, Idaho, first faced breast cancer in 2011. By October of 2013, the cancer had metastasized. Friends on an online support network encouraged her to apply for the RD adult survivor raft trip. Currently in chemotherapy, Fry’s physician provided a medical release for the trip, which provides a full-time nurse on staff to handle the needs of all participants. Fry described cancer as a disease that affects people on many levels — emotionally and physically — which she believes creates an unspoken bond between survivors.
“There are two sides to it. It’s not just connecting over the emotional part of it, it’s connecting over the changes we’ve all had to our bodies,” she said.
Now that she’s home, Fry said that she is continuing to receive support from fellow participants, virtually, through social media, and physically, from trip alumni who live within the Boise area.
“I know I have another community I can go to that will know and love and encourage and support me,” she said.
Diana Fifer, 69, of Nyssa, Oregon, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014 and has been experiencing an ongoing struggle to regain her strength and stamina after surgery and radiation treatments.
“I was beyond tired,” she said.
Fifer heard about RD from a patient counselor at the center where she received her cancer care. Having lived in Riggins, Idaho, and floated the Salmon River in the 1980s, she was eager to return. Fifer had her homecoming, paddling a raft during the trip, but faced her biggest challenge on land while on a group hike.
“I just wasn’t in as good of shape as I thought I was,” she said.
With the support and encouragement of fellow survivors and staff, she kept going.
“They just kept encouraging me,” she said. “I was determined to do it.”
Undaunted, she successfully completed the hike and emerged with new motivation to work at recovering fully.
Sheila Thompson, 58, of Meridian, Idaho, survived a 4th stage pancreatic cancer diagnosis in 2010.
“I went through a battle with my cancer. My chances (of survival) were five percent,” she said.
After chemotherapy, radiation, and major surgery, Thompson confessed that her lengthy treatment and recovery had left her feeling worn out. Some fellow cancer survivor friends encouraged her to apply for the RD raft trip.
“I felt so comfortable with this group. I felt immediately bonded,” she said.
In addition to the river trip, Thompson found herself embarking on an inner journey. She discovered that, without her family around, she had time and opportunity to push her personal limits and reflect on her journey in a new way. In the process, she said that she rediscovered herself.
“I found out that I was strong and that I could do the things that I used to do,” she said.
The participants on RD river retreats aren’t the only ones who walk away from the trips transformed.
Sherry Taylor, of Salmon, Idaho, a registered nurse, has more than 30 years of nursing experience, and is an RD board director. She has volunteered as staff nurse on the adult survivor trip for the past three years.
“I’m a true caregiver. It makes me feel good to help other people,” she said.
Taylor’s role on the adult survivor trip is to maintain the safety of and provide medical care for RD participants, watching over their welfare, 24/7.
“It’s a challenge. I review everyone’s records and I try to plan ahead,” she said.
Taylor, who lost her husband, Butch, to cancer, is no stranger to the challenges her charges face.
She said that she is continually inspired by the positive attitudes and courage with which those on the trip face their disease, their lives and their challenges on the river. She added that she is humbled by the cancer survivors’ willingness to share their experiences and feelings and bond with and support others on the trip.
“They’re pretty much laying their souls out there…it touches me to my core,” she said.
What she sees on the river keeps Taylor coming back to support the program each summer.
“They either grow or realize something within themselves,” she said. “It’s pretty powerful.”
Joseph Biby, of Kalispell, has been guiding river trips for 20 years. As a guide, he said that he regularly sees people discover or rediscover their physical selves and their connection to nature, while on a river trip.
“From what I’ve seen, cancer survivors are more intensely appreciative of that. They’ve pushed up against their own mortality. They’ve questioned if they are going to live,” he said.
Biby finds inspiration in the living of his own life through their example.
“It’s my own powerful reckoning with the finite nature of life,” he said. “Don’t take life for granted. Don’t forget each day is special.”