How First Descents Helps Young Adults Impacted by Cancer

By Liz Skree, LRG Contributor and GIST Survivor

Liz Skree Climbing

Photo credit First Descents

A cancer diagnosis at any age is life-changing, daunting, and difficult. It can be especially challenging for young adults, people ages 18-39, who are dealing with cancer while also navigating college, first careers, new relationships, starting families, and other young adult milestones.

Every year, 70,000 young adults are diagnosed with cancer, and that doesn’t include those diagnosed as children who are now young adult survivors and thrivers. As a young adult with cancer, I know it can be hard finding other people who “get it.”

I was diagnosed with GIST at age 18 and had my first surgery right before college. Like other young adults with cancer, I found a way to make it work. I switched campus jobs so that I wouldn’t have to lift anything heavy after surgery. I scheduled CT scans around classes. I determined what foods I could eat without getting sick. I showed off my scar at parties. For the most part, I was a normal college student.

Soon after starting my first job in a new city, at age 22, I had surgery again. Now, more than 15 years after my initial diagnosis, my cancer is stable. But it can be hard for even close friends to understand what it’s like to always live with cancer.

Luckily, there’s a great organization that understands the unique challenges young adults impacted by cancer face and seeks to help them be more than their diagnosis, to get busy “out living it” and experience the healing power of nature and adventure. First Descents is a non-profit organization that takes young adults impacted by cancer on free outdoor adventure trips. The organization addresses what the National Cancer Institute identifies as a major determinant of long-term survivorship health: ongoing psychosocial supportive care. First Descents’ programs help young adults with cancer improve their body image, self- compassion and self-esteem, while also helping reduce fatigue, depression, and alienation. In short, First Descents is amazing.

I was lucky enough to go on a “FD1” trip with First Descents in August 2016. FD1s are week-long programs for anyone ages 18-39 diagnosed with cancer after age fifteen. Participants can select from rock climbing, whitewater kayaking or surfing programs in numerous locations across the U.S. My FD1 was a rock-climbing trip in Estes Park, CO. I’d never been rock climbing outdoors before in my life, and I was nervous about spending a week with strangers. But when my friend dropped me off at the cabin, all those fears went away and I felt at home.

At First Descents, everyone has a nickname. It can be a name you already had or a new one. But it’s a chance to shed your former skin and be someone else for a week. I wasn’t “Liz with cancer.” I was Decoy. And it was empowering! When I was nervous on the rock, it helped to hear my new friends cheering me on, yelling “You can do it, Decoy!”

Liz Skree
via ferrata
via ferrata

In addition to FD1 programs, First Descents has local groups in major cities around the country called “tributaries.” These “FDtribs” provide weekend outdoor experiences for FD1 alumni and those new to First Descents. FDtribs go rock climbing, hiking, biking, kayaking and so on. First Descents also provides international adventure programs for FD1 alumni, called FDX. I recently returned from FDX Italy, a 10-day adventure near the Dolomites. I was joined by 14 other young adult cancer survivors and thrivers, and we had an awesome time sailing, hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, caving, biking and the ultimate outdoor adventure experience: a via ferrata* in the Dolomites.

While our days were filled with outdoor adventures, our evenings were spent talking around the campfire. Campfire time is a special part of any First Descents experience. The gratitude, love, and compassion shared there is invaluable. I didn’t realize what I was holding onto within myself until I was able to share it out loud with others who understood, and I’ve made lifelong friends through First Descents.

If you’re a young adult who’s been impacted by cancer or know or someone who would benefit from a First Descents experience, visit to learn more.

*A via ferrata (Italian for “iron path,” plural vie ferrate or in English via ferratas) is a protected climbing route found in the Alps and certain other locations. The term “via ferrata” is used in most countries and languages except notably in German-speaking countries including Switzerland and Austria, which use Klettersteig (German for “climbing path,” plural Klettersteige). (Source: Wikipedia)