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First Descents: Outdoor Adventures for Young Adults with Cancer

by Whitney Lange, Director of Programs

Photo by Cancer Type

Kevin Lebret-White was 36 years old when he received the devastating news. Married, a father of two young daughters, his life dreams just beginning to bear fruit, his oncologist told him that his colorectal cancer had metastasized and he had two years to live. His subsequent battle through a series of chemotherapy sessions sapped his strength and optimism. Then he learned about First Descents and its programs geared toward helping young adults with cancer, like himself, regain a sense of control over their lives.

Kevin’s story highlights the plight of young adults with cancer – the fastest-growing segment of people diagnosed with cancer and by far the most underserved. With a focus on the 18- to 39-year-old age group, First Descents provides whitewater kayaking and other outdoor adventure experiences to promote emotional, psychological, and physical healing. Each summer, the organization conducts week-long camps on rivers across the country, creating a vital outlet for these young adults to connect with their peers and share experiences. The camps cost nothing for participants to attend; all expenses are paid through donations.

Founded by world-champion whitewater kayaker Brad Ludden in 2001, the name First Descents comes from a term in the whitewater kayaking world referring to someone’s first-ever attempt at a section of a river. It represents the individual’s need to overcome fear and take control in order to accomplish a goal – a theme woven into the very fabric of First Descents’ mission. A renewed sense of control over their lives, along with confidence and a new network of supporters, is what every participant takes away from each camp.

“Each camp is a legitimate challenge to the participants,” says founder Brad Ludden. “We put them on real rivers and in real situations, and in that sense, we give them back what cancer took away by showing them how much inner strength they still have.”

Although the experience is challenging, participants are never placed in dangerous situations. For each program, First Descents partners with professional outfitting companies and has emergency medical staff on-site. All applications are reviewed by a team of medical professionals, ensuring a safe and successful experience for each participant. The Medical Review Team and the First Descents Medical Director work closely with participants’ primary care physicians, and the Fist Descents staff caters programs to challenge each individual to his or her own personal limits.

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If you are a young adult cancer survivor who would like to apply to a First Descents program, call (970) 926-2444 or visit FirstDescents.org. Here, you can also find additional information about First Descents, including comments from past participants.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2010.