That part of the water looked still and dark, yet the raft kept moving forward as if pulled by a large river turtle. As I jumped in, the shock of cold needles washed the sweat off my skin. We kept advancing. I held on tight onto the outside handle of the inflatable boat. Lifting my body to the surface, I floated alongside for a while. The tree tops framed the bright blue sky and rolled in the opposite direction in which we were headed. The chilly water nipped on every inch of my body. With a half-submerged head and my ears under the water, nature sounded muffled. Still, I could hear the splash of liquid against the blue plastic. Breathing deeply, I reflected on how fortunate I was to have the chance to share that moment with that group of humans. From what I could tell, they carried their stories and struggles with grace as we all headed towards the inevitable, together.
Noticing a slight acceleration, I pulled myself onto the raft. Someone grabbed me by the back of my shorts and pulled me inside. As I sat down on my spot, an exhilarated sound came out of my mouth. I felt so alive! The sun felt fresh on my goose-bumped skin. As the sound of water hitting a solid surface increased and we all advanced towards a fall, I wondered how high, how fast, and how strong to grip tight. It was my first-time white water rafting and I had no idea what to expect.
The current moved the boat faster and drifted us towards moderate rapids. We all held tight and shrieked with excitement. The stream was sufficiently slow that it allowed me to notice that large rock in the middle of the river – steadily splitting the river in two. Splashing onto the rock, the water obliged and re-routed around the hard surface. The rock was there just in case we needed to stop or slow down. It was simply there. As the image of my brother flickered and washed away in between drops of bitter-sweet memories, I smiled and held on tight. After passing the rock, we started to descend faster towards the deep fall.
I was one of the chefs in a week-long young-adult retreat in Massachusetts. Most of us were either cancer survivors or patients. My guess is that all of us had been affected in some way by that dreadful disease. As a chef, I had the chance to nourish the participants with three healthy meals and snacks using mostly organic and local ingredients. It was a lot of work waking up before the sun to brew their coffee, stir the oatmeal, scramble some eggs, and cut fresh fruit. Every night I went to bed completely exhausted yet satisfied of our culinary creations. All that work was rewarded by their sweet smiles, compliments, and appreciative gestures. Not only was the retreat an opportunity to connect with one another, it was a glimpse of how healthy meals can also be delicious and satisfying.
Spending so much time in the kitchen didn’t allow me to live their day to day at the retreat. Until my one day off in which I had the chance to experience the unpredictability of the river with the participants. It was, simply put, a magical moment. I didn’t know all their stories, nor what the future held for any one of us. But in that instant of bliss, we were all gripping onto the top of that raft, in between rocks and dashing whites towards unfamiliar waters. Although we shared a common life experience, I can imagine that not one of us was thinking what had brought us there to begin with – I know I wasn’t.
Perhaps my post-cancer experiences and recovery would have been easier with a community like First Descents. Don’t get me wrong, I had a lot of help from my own community back then, my family, and my friends. It’s thanks to them that I was able to make it through. But despite the helping hands, we trudged down completely unfamiliar paths. I knew very few people who had gone through a similar experience and was still alive. Sometimes the river felt ice-cold as I swam down a slow current with no one around to say, “I know – that sucks.” At times, that was all I really wanted to hear.
That day on the river, the descent was so intense it’s hard to recollect all the details. I do remember the free-falling sensation after passing that one edge. The loss of all control and being at the mercy of mother nature. The rapids splashed us, bumped us against rocks and gushing water, spun us backwards and then forward again. The river took us where it pleased while we clutched onto the handles and rafted together.
Life went on and I learned to cope, to hold on to the rocks I needed, to swim, and to hold on tight when the river got tough. It would have probably been easier knowing that someone else was going through similar experiences – but it wasn’t. On the positive side, not having the similar-to-me forced me to question my own perceptions of reality even more. Hence, the yoga practice, psychotherapy blended with a “Course in Miracles,” plant-based diets, and all the alternative wellness methods I had been open to exploring. A lot of them were influenced or introduced by my sister. Although I didn’t have the comfort of a community around me knowing how cancer felt from a patient’s point of view, I did have the benefit of exploring different life-style treatments. Alternatives not entirely proven by science at the time. Hence, I didn’t get to sit on the victim chair for too long before someone kicked my butt from it and got me excited about learning something new.
Today, we can have the best of all worlds when life surprises anyone with the unfortunate news that it’s time to deal with cancer. There are wonderful organizations, like First Descents, that help adolescents and young adults (AYA’s) share stories, ride the rapids together, and learn from one another. Also today, there are proven alternative wellness methods that help cancer survivors cope with PTSD, trauma, survivor guilt, and post-cancer effects. A community can have a very positive influence, and no one should go through that experience alone. At the same time, it’s important to learn how to identify the circumstances when a similar-to-me will not be able to help. Being willing to search for help is key during recovery. But, in my opinion, remaining open to getting a butt-kick, as needed, takes the self-learning process to a whole different level.
Once the rapids calmed down our raft floated gently towards deeper waters. We enjoyed the tranquility of the current as we shared smiles and high fives. Many journeys – and just one river.
More than a disease, physical discomfort, and a challenging life moment, cancer is an expedition of self-discovery that starts even before diagnosis. Although the illness might be gone in a survivor, I’m not certain that the personal transformation ever ends after remission.
Written in honor of all my rocks, those people who showed me a different path, who were there, who didn’t let me get comfortable in self-pity, who saw me as I really am and showed me how to appreciate my inner beauty. Also in honor to the one person I knew back then that had survived cancer and currently lives an amazing life.
Do you know an AYA impacted by cancer? Here are some AYA organizations that can help:
Teen Cancer America
Leukemia and Lymphoma Society – for young adults
AYA Cancer Program Seattle Children’s Hospital
Stanford AYA Cancer Program
Cancer.Net Resources for Young Adults
By M. Patricia Diaz