Rushing waters help young cancer patients adapt to challenges

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(Photo: First Descent)In the remote wilds of Idaho two weeks ago, 16 young men and women took turns kayaking down one of the state’s most iconic and, some say, dangerous rivers. Among their peers, the group was considered lucky. Members ranged in age from 22 to 40, and all had battled, or were still battling, cancer. They lived as far away as Texas and New Hampshire. And they had come to the river with a Colorado-based company named First Descents, which, for the past 14 years, has offered extreme outdoor adventures to cancer patients.

First Descents has long touted its program’s benefits. But in August, a Stanford University study confirmed the same.

The study in The Journal of Psychosocial Oncology focused on the psychosocial effects of First Descent programs on young adult cancer survivors aged 18 to 39. Using one “participant” group attending the program for the first time, and a control group of young adults on a waitlist, researchers found that participants' body image, self compassion, and self esteem increased during and after the program. At the same time, their feelings of depression, alienation, and fatigue decreased.

(Photo: First Descent 2)For a week in late August, participants paddled the river, played Bocce ball, and camped on white-sand beaches.

Among them was a 28-year-old Nate Post who, several years ago, battled a rare cancer that hit several of his major organs. One morning, Post said that while his doctors, modern medicine, and prayers had saved his body, his participation in kayaking events had saved his life. Thirty-eight-year-old Kathy Smith, who has inoperable lung cancer, talked about her cancer. It reappeared in her only remaining lung after she had spent more than eight years in remission.

“With my cancer, we’re there’s not a whole lot of protocol that’s going to work,” she said, smiling. “But being out here, in this amazing place and with this incredible group of people, it makes going through what I am just a little bit easier.”