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Photo by Ash Daniel
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Photo by Justin Vaughan
Amber Berry after receiving her all-clear in June
A Colorado-based outdoor adventure program helps young adult patients at VCU Massey Cancer Center defy their diagnosis.
Fast-crashing rapids nearly drown out the instructions that river guide Adam Tremper is shouting to a raft of five other people. “Forward stroke!” he yells, as the raft plummets headlong into class IV white water on a downtown stretch of the James. “Dig! Dig! Dig!”
At the front of the raft, 29-year-old Amber Berry rows as she was taught to do earlier that morning near Pony Pasture in the James River Park System. Employing her upper body strength, Berry rhythmically pulls the oar back and forth through the water to help keep the boat from capsizing.
A year ago, Berry could barely gather the strength to enjoy a river cruise on the Rappahannock with her dad. The North Side resident was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in January 2013, and the chemotherapy she underwent until the following July made her weak and sick.
Earlier this year, Berry’s oncologist at VCU Massey Cancer Center suggested to her that she participate in an upcoming outdoor adventure program for young adults with cancer. “I thought [it] could be a nice opportunity to meet people who were around my age who know what it’s like,” Berry says.
Massey Cancer Center, which treats about 275 young adult patients a year, heard about First Descents through Sports Backers, a local nonprofit sports advocate that produces Dominion Riverrock. It partnered with Colorado-based nonprofit First Descents on the latter’s first program in Virginia during Riverrock this year. The two organizations are a natural fit, according to Massey’s assistant director of development events, Lauren Kiger. “We embrace a similar mission — the whole idea of ‘outliving it’ with cancer.”
It was a foggy morning in May when a group of 15 people, including Massey patients and employees, First Descents alumni and trip leaders, gathered at the VCU Cary Street Gym Outdoor Rental Center to start the journey.
On Thanksgiving weekend of 2011, Berry was camping with her family. Sitting around the campfire, she noticed a sharp pain in her back every time she took a sip of wine that went away about five minutes after drinking. “I just figured it was a pulled muscle,” Berry says.
For the next several months, she continued to have a pain in her back when she drank alcohol. Finally, in April 2012, she researched her symptoms online. “One of the first things that came up was Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” she says, but she didn’t think much of it: “Everything you Google somehow leads to cancer.”
Almost a year after her first symptom, in November 2012, Berry noticed a hard bump on her neck. A doctor at the Patient First on North Thompson Street thought it might be swollen lymph nodes, but when the bump didn’t go away within a couple of weeks, she followed up with her general practitioner. A biopsy confirmed the cancer diagnosis.
“I definitely was scared,” she says. “I was just figuring out my life, what direction I wanted to go in with work, things like that. This puts your life on hold.”
Berry started chemotherapy treatments on Jan. 22, 2013, and within a few months, her white blood cell count dropped abnormally low, and her immune system weakened. She had to limit the amount of time she spent in public to reduce her chances of getting a cold, which for her could quickly develop into pneumonia. Berry, who was on a broomball team through River City Sports and Social Club and is a member of the Junior League of Richmond, went from having an active social life to being isolated from her friends for almost a year.
“It was hard to not be able to be a part of things,” she says. “I would have days when I was sad or angry and I just wanted to know why this was happening to me.”
An Unmet Need
A competitive kayaker, Brad Ludden started to develop First Descents when he was 18 years old. He led the first excursion — a weeklong kayaking trip in Vail, Colorado, — when he was 20. The now-33-year-old, who has been named one of Outside magazine’s top 10 adventure athletes in the world, first confronted the disease when his aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer in her late 30s. She couldn’t find any support groups for her demographic. “That planted a seed of awareness for the need to support young adults with cancer,” he says.
More than 2,000 people have participated in First Descents in the past 13 years, having heard about it through their oncologists, the cancer charity Livestrong and word-of-mouth. The nonprofit outdoors adventure program holds 45 trips a year that cover rock climbing, kayaking, surfing and mountaineering in 12 states and three countries. Any young adult between 18 and 39 who has been diagnosed with cancer is eligible to participate in the free program, regardless of physical challenges, diagnosis or prognosis.
In 2012, First Descents partnered with behavioral scientists and clinical psychologists at Stanford University to study the impact of outdoor adventure experiences on psychological issues such as depression, anxiety and fatigue that are common to young adults with cancer. “It’s a wild and exciting time as young adults,” Ludden says. “To be diagnosed with something as devastating and disruptive as cancer derails a lot of the progress we’re making and sends us into a really unnatural state.”
The study confirmed what Ludden had been hearing from First Descents alumni since he founded the organization in 2001. On average, participants saw increases in positive body image, self-compassion and self-esteem after completing the trip. “A lot of the manifestations from [a cancer] diagnosis are physical,” Ludden says. “When they get to the top of that rock face or they stand up on a surfboard, that simple act can restore a lot of confidence lost in their bodies. [That] can be really helpful going forward in the fight.”
The Next Step
In the flat-water lulls between rapids during the seven-mile journey, Berry talked with other cancer patients who were around her age. “We never really talked in-depth about what everybody was going through,” she says, “but just getting the basic rundown, seeing them thrive and hearing their stories of doing First Descents before was motivating.” Later that evening, Berry met up with a few people from the trip at the Byrd Theatre for a film festival, and went to dinner with them in Carytown. She is now connected with the Washington, D.C.-based First Descents alumni group on Facebook and plans to attend to one of their upcoming meet-ups. “The sense of togetherness came naturally,” Kiger says of the group dynamic. “It was all kind of organic.”
On May 23, a week after the rafting trip, Berry had a surgical lung biopsy to test tissue that a recent PET scan indicated might still be cancerous. While she waited for the test results to come back, she signed up for a weeklong kayaking trip at Glacier National Park in July. “[First Descents] really helped me prepare for [that] next step,” Berry says. “Just being around others who have gone and are still going through treatments and surgeries made me feel more confident about taking on [the] surgery.” The results, which came back in mid-June, showed that the spots on Berry’s PET scan were benign, so she’ll set off on her next journey cancer-free.