Battling cancer can often feel as if you’ve been tasked with suddenly overcoming a massive mountain, and Colorado-based nonprofit First Descents approaches this figure of speech quite literally when it comes to its programming. But mountain summits aren’t the only thing you tackle in the organization’s “adventure-based healing” experiences—steep rock walls, raging rivers and roaring waves are also thrown into the mix. As intimidating as it may sound, these programs are an empowering catalyst for coping with cancer as a young adult.
“[The programs] are designed to foster resilience and self-advocacy and social connection and really kind of help restore faith in one’s physical abilities which are often compromised as a result of their diagnosis and their treatment,” says First Descents CEO Ryan O’Donoghue.
O’Donoghue first became involved with First Descents about a decade ago, soon joining the organization full time after two years volunteering. Prior to First Descents, O’Donoghue worked with the LIVESTRONG Foundation and founded the adolescent and young adult (AYA) cancer organization Rise Above It after losing his brother, Colin, to head and neck cancer at the age of 28.
“We learned a lot through that journey. It definitely fuels my fire,” says O’Donoghue. While his brother had support, he lacked an organization guiding him in connecting with people who understood what he was going through—something that O’Donoghue believes he could have benefited greatly from had it been available.
The psychosocial effects of AYA cancer can be debilitating. During a time of new careers, new friendships and new romances, a diagnosis is a surefire way to uproot someone out of their budding independence. When confronted with the loss of an imagined future, a 2015 study in the journal Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience reports that warriors ages 15–39 feel isolated, depressed and lonely as they lose a sense of identity and autonomy with their healthy counterparts.
First Descents hosts free outdoor adventures coast to coast for AYA warrior groups, caregivers, frontline health care workers or people with multiple sclerosis. Though an outing may be centered around hiking a trail or kayaking a river, the experience is about a lot more than that.
“A lot of the people who come into our programs just don’t have any experience with some of these activities, whether it’s rock climbing or surfing or whatever the case may be,” O’Donoghue says. “But it’s this idea of adventure combined with experiencing new things with their peers, and then ideally walking away with some of those lifelong bonds.”
While First Descents’ program leaders won’t prompt discussion about your cancer diagnosis during an adventure, it does tend to come up casually among participants. And even when it doesn’t, there is a general air of compassion and understanding of having gone through a similar lived experience.
“People are navigating cancer during pivotal years, and they find a community that they can plug into,” says O’Donoghue. “We have hundreds of anecdotal stories of people who have made really big life decisions based on their experience with us and, more importantly, with the community.”
Gaining the confidence to make important decisions, self-advocate and navigate a diagnosis or survivorship can be attributed to the physical challenges First Descents places its participants in. Although much of the organization’s goals are community-based, the adventures you partake in while making connections are not a breeze.
“Participants are overcoming legitimate outdoor challenges while also experiencing some of the most beautiful places in the world with their peers,” O’Donoghue says. Rock climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park or at Wisconsin’s Devil’s Lake, surfing on the coast of Santa Barbara, California and kayaking western Montana’s Blackfoot River or in the Berkshires north of New York City are only a handful of the challenging choices at your fingertips.
Outings are overseen by trained staff members, often alongside local outfitters guides. The organization does take accessibility into account, adapting programs as needed to ensure a safe and inclusive environment from free lodging and gear to modifying activities for those with physical disabilities. With this in mind, First Descents encourages participants to push themselves on outings.
“Adventure experiences are designed to help participants progress through the experience to achieve whatever goals make the most sense for them,” says O’Donoghue. “A lot of times, they are out doing things that even their peers who are healthy aren’t doing. It really offers a sense of accomplishment.”
At every program O’Donoghue has attended, there are participants who express feelings of betrayal by their bodies or a sense of loss of ability when diagnosed with cancer. First Descents’ programming exists to counter these feelings.
“These experiences remind us that we’re alive, and that we can try new things,” says O’Donoghue. “When you’re in the throes of cancer, you can get stuck there and it’s really hard to get back to doing things that we enjoy or are exciting. These experiences really help people address some of those perceived limitations.”
In addition to testimonials, First Descents has clinical data to support this mission. In 2015, the organization partnered with the University of Michigan to evaluate the psychosocial benefits of its programs. The findings saw an increase for participants regarding self-esteem, body image and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to cope with cancer.
For First Descents, this research has reiterated the importance of providing structured outings in nature for AYA cancer warriors. The organization continues to expand its programming, including plans for its first-ever “Out Living It” festival in July 2022 that will encompass what First Descents is all about.
“We’ll bring together our community of people who’ve been through shared experiences and really get grounded again in the healing power of adventure,” says O’Donoghue. “Ultimately, we hope to make adventure community an ongoing part of the healing process.”
First Descents provides life-changing outdoor adventures for young adults (ages 18–39) impacted by cancer and multiple sclerosis as well as for health care workers. For more information on First Descents and to find an adventure near you, visit firstdescents.org.