You might not expect to find a cancer patient kayaking down a river or scaling a mountain. But First Descents is all about challenging perceptions of cancer patients by prescribing adventure.
First Descents' mission is to provide outdoor experiences free for 18- to 39-year olds diagnosed with cancer. The weeklong and multiday adventure experiences include activities like whitewater kayaking, rock climbing and surfing. Since its founding in 2001 by professional kayaker Brad Ludden, the program has steadily expanded to include over 12,000 unique experiences across 100 programs in the U.S. and abroad.
"What we have found is that the last thing anyone wants is to be labeled," said Ray Shedd, director of development and marketing.
Every year there are over 70,000 adolescent and young adult oncology cases diagnosed. First Descents targets that age bracket, helping patients deal with the psychosocial distress of having cancer during this transformative part of life.
"A cancer diagnosis at any time is brutal, but especially when you're in the prime of your life, starting your family and leaning into your career," Shedd said. "We learned very quickly that this concept of using your body in beautiful places with people who understand what you're going through is a wonderful recipe for healing that can't be provided in a pill or hospital stay."
The transformative nature of the program lies in the re-branding of what a life affected by cancer can look like.
"If someone was feeling like a cancer patient before their first descent, they leave as a rock climber, as a mountain biker, as a supportive peer," Shedd said. "Cancer is no longer the identifier for our participants."