I really don’t like the term ‘survivor.’ As a cancer patient for whom there is no remission or resection, that term doesn’t apply. Still, I’m done for the foreseeable future; I did the surgeries, the radiation and the chemotherapy, and the tumor in the center of my brain looks consistently stable so by all accounts, I am a survivor. That being said, I have to live with this mass inside of me for the rest of my life. The typical picture of survivorship doesn’t apply to me, and so it becomes tricky trying to rethink living while in a perpetual state of limbo with this disease.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to live as a ‘non-survivor.’ I’ve done therapy and young adult groups. I make art and I’m very open about my situation and experience, and it all helps contribute to a state of wellness. I believe I truly started healing though in late August of this year when I went on a six-day trek in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota with True North Treks.
True North Treks, or TNT, is a non-profit organization that hosts treks several times a year for young adults with cancer. These treks take place all over the United States and are what some call adventure therapy. TNT’s treks are completely free to the young adult, who in return agrees to participate in a pay-it-forward program, which means raising the funds necessary for TNT to send another young adult on a trek in the future. When I learned of this opportunity I was at a point where I was about to go into my last round of chemotherapy. I was really struggling with depression, anxiety, and fatigue, so I decided to apply. I was desperate for something immense to change. Luckily, I got the last spot on this particular trek and August couldn’t come fast enough.
The actual trek started with a portage into the Boundary Waters on a Monday. Between then and Friday, we canoed through a small portion of the endless labyrinth of lakes and islands. The nine of us who came in as strangers bonded instantly, and within hours it became a trip with close friends. During the day we fished, swam, enjoyed the scenery and set up that night’s camp. At night we sat by the campfire, talked of our experiences, and practiced mindfulness.
I truly can’t condense this time down into any account that accurately reflects how much it affected me; there is just too much to say about the experience. A small aspect that really stuck with me though was the lack of my phone. Before we left we each made a conscious decision whether or not to bring our phones. Wanting to engage 100% with the experience, I left mine in our outfitter’s car in Ely, miles and miles away. I don’t remember the last time I hadn’t had access to my phone, and all that it had access to. For six days I didn’t touch a screen or a piece of technology, there were no artificial sounds or lights, no alarms, no contacts, texts, emails, notifications, alerts, updates. There was nothing. Nothing to possibly be a distraction from the present. Nothing with which to waste time. In fact there was no time, no clocks or watches. The whole trek I never knew the time. It was such a foreign feeling, simply responding to each moment that came, as it came. We had the freedom to eat when we were hungry and sleep when we were tired, and that simple act of listening to our bodies and responding to them was monumental. It’s not a luxury we’re often afforded or that many of us treat ourselves to in our daily lives.
And speaking of kindnesses we ought to give ourselves more of, I paused to recognize that I never saw myself while I was there. There were no mirrors, and so all that I saw for six days were the eight other people I was with. That was huge for me; not seeing my face, or the body that I’ve come to hate, or the hair that’s thin and straggly from chemo. I only saw other people, people who were kind and caring and understood trauma. I didn’t see myself or what I looked like, so there was no visual perception that differed from or didn’t live up to the mental perception of myself. I only had how I felt in my mind, and I felt happy.
Taken together, these small variations from daily life made all the difference. I cannot express the gratitude I feel towards TNT, the people I met there, or the Boundary Waters themselves. I came back from this trip utterly changed. I went into it hoping it would be the reset button I needed in my life, and it was that and so much more. I cannot say that all is well and easy now because it isn’t. I’m still struggling, but I definitely came back with a hope that I didn’t have before. I came back with tools and practices to get me through the days and the knowledge of what is possible. I know I can feel good and full and live a mindful life, and that precedent is how I will survive.