Thursday, September 9, 2010

Lessons Learned from Colorado

The last weekend in August, I was in a canoe paddling down the Colorado River. Well in truth I was not doing much paddling, but I will get to that later. I had the opportunity to go on a canoe trip with 13 other single cancer survivors for a three day camping trip starting near Grand Junction, Colorado canoeing into Utah on the Colorado River.

Since I returned, I have spent the last two weeks trying to write this post about my experiences. For some reason the words have just not been flowing. I have started several drafts beginning with how the trip came about for me, but for some reason as soon as I got to the point where I wanted to write about what the trip meant to me, the words failed. I am not totally sure I can find the words, but here is my effort. There are probably many reasons why this is tough for me to write about, but I think the main reason is this trip was very emotional for me. It was challenging to me not only physically, but mentally as well. In truth I think it was life changing, or at least changed the way I think about things.

I can’t think of a time over the last year that I had a better time than the six days I spent in Colorado. Don’t get me wrong, I have had some wonderful times with family and friends, but for many reasons this trip was different.

I went out early and stayed with a friend and visited some of my favorite places and found some new ones. Colorado is beautiful and driving through the mountains and floating down the river with the rock walls on either side was breathtaking. But that was not the most incredible part of the trip. If you have ever seen pictures of that part of the world, you are probably wondering what could be more beautiful than the landscape.

There are two reasons for this. The first was just being able to be out on the water and camping again. I used to be a huge outdoor person; hiking, camping, and kayaking were just some of the ways I spent my free time. But all of that was pre-cancer. I had not been camping in over 3 ½ years and my hiking boots and camping gear had gathered dust. For the past three years the closest I have come to communing with nature was swinging in my hammock. Don’t get me wrong, spending afternoons in the hammock is a wonderful thing, but compared to hiking in Yosemite or kayaking with whales, it was really not cutting it as outdoors experiences go. The real story is I almost let cancer take away something that I truly loved. I almost let the fear of not being physically up for something stop me from even taking the chance.

The other and most important reason can be summed up in two words - the people. I had the opportunity to spend 4 days with people who not only get it, they have experienced it. We represented all parts of the cancer spectrum. Some were diagnosed when they were teenagers and were 10+ years out of treatment and others were diagnosed as adults and were just completed treatment a few months ago. The cancer types and stages varied from Stage 1 Ovarian to Stage IV Hodgkin’s and everything in between. Our age range was 22 to 59 and we came from all over the country. We had lots of differences, but two main things in common. We are all survivors and all single. These other men and women have all been told the three horrible words “You have cancer”. They have all endured surgery, radiation or chemo and the terrible side effects that come along with it, but most importantly they have all survived.

I have never been as humbled as I was as I got to know these other survivors and probably never been as inspired. I am so thankful that I got the chance to meet them and hear their stories.

I did not feel great during the trip. In fact, most of the time I felt like crap. The nausea, headaches and general body pain that have been plaguing me for several months reared its ugly head. I was worried that I was a burden to others on the trip and that I was not pulling my own weight. Thankfully, I was paired with a great canoe buddy and he did almost all the paddling. He even put up with me leaning over the side of the canoe puking up lunch and never once commented on the horrible sound effects I was serenading everyone with. Everyone went out of their way to make sure that I had a great trip.

As I am reading over this, I realize that I am not conveying one important thing that I have learned from this trip and that is hope. Somehow over the last several months or so I lost hope. Hope in living, hope of being happy, hope for a future, and hope of getting better. I don’t think it was a conscious thing or even an unexpected thing keeping in mind my diagnosis, but someone on this trip reminded me that without hope, you really don’t have anything. I was so tired of being scared, disappointed and preparing for death that I forgot to live. I forgot to find the things I truly enjoyed and find a way to do them. A year ago I was so determined to live in the here and now and find happiness and enjoyment in everything I did. In spite of my determination to live life to its fullest, I got caught up in the mundane of being sick. Looking back I now know that I have been wallowing in my own self pity because I felt crappy and did not have the energy to do the things I enjoyed. I learned from this trip to Colorado is you can feel like shit and still have a lot of fun.

I used to be called a dreamer, but sometime during the last three years I stopped dreaming. I think in many ways I have given up on life. I guess I thought if I did not hope for anything past this moment, then I would not be disappointed. I was letting cancer win. That is not something I can do. Cancer may still cut my life short, but I need to find ways to make sure it does not take away my happiness and most importantly change who I am. Cancer changes a lot of things about a person. It has changed the way I look, the things I am able to do, but it does not need to change my personality. It cannot be allowed to change the core of who I am.

I have not yet figured out how to make sure I keep have hope or even what I want to hope for. I have a lot more reflection and journaling to do, and plan to talk to the people I met on the trip and other survivors to find out ways they have kept hope their lives even in their darkest moments. Acknowledging that I need to change the way I am thinking is the first step. Now I just need to figure out the next ones, but I know I can do it because I have a lot of people in my corner to help me.

Thank you to all that made this trip possible, it has meant more to me then you can imagine.


Doug A. said...

No, Thank You Alli. If it wasn't for you coming along, the trip wouldn't have meant more than it did to all of us. You are the reason we are all here today, hope, dreams, life is what we all strive for and the courage you mustard to come on this trip was even more meaningful to us. Truthfully I cannot wait for another experience like that again, ever since getting bit by the CMAD bug, I have really appreciated what cancer really means to all of us. Based on what I've experienced through Camp Mak-A-Dream and our Canoeing Trip to Colorado through Tracy and Tamika, I really want to help others experience the things I've experienced and the way that I've felt through this journey.

Please don't hesitate to call me if you're ever in Portland, Oregon, or wherever I am. I will always have my status and location updated with where I am, so definitely keep in contact. :-)

kris said...

Alli, reading your post was like doing a mediation for me. You may have struggle with what to write and how to express yourself, but in the end you were quite eloquent. I felt just a little bit like I took the trip with you. You're right, you were able to spend time with people who know your experience, down to their very DNA, and that's a good thing.

It's easy to lose yourself along this journey, as you work to cope with the diagnosis, the treatment, the side effects, the fears and the tears, as well as trying to help friends and family make sense of what barely makes any sense to yourself. I think it's these camps, adventures, encounters, challenges and risks, that bring us back to really living in the now and being able to keep the flame of hope alive along the journey. While we may get to the point where the hope of a cure or long life isn't realistic for ourselves, we can still hope to remain true to our personalities, to help others along the journey, to make a difference in even a small way, and hope to continue to find small joys in the life we have.

You are a blessing to know and I wish that we could meet one day.

Many hugs, Kris

Denise said...

Nice to meet another Ovarian cancer survivor.