Tag Archives: Cancer

The Power of a First Descent

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At the age of 13, Brad Ludden’s parents told him he could do anything he wanted with his life. He took it literally and did the thing he loved the most–whitewater kayaking. By 18 he was living his dream; he had signed on as Nike’s first sponsored whitewater kayaker, was on the cover of Outside Magazine, traveling the globe in search of first descents on remote rivers, and filming with the largest production companies in the outdoor industry.

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Brad Ludden dropping in at Khao Yai

Despite all of his success, something was missing. Brad wanted to share the positive bounty of whitewater kayaking by giving the gift of outdoor adventure to others who needed it more.

After watching his Aunt fight cancer, he started First Descents, an organization that provides free outdoor adventure therapy to young adults with cancer. The organization has helped over 2,000 young adults live beyond their disease by providing them free multi-day adventure experiences.

Brad is an excellent example of someone spreading the love. Perhaps because of his early success, and the ultimate push to ever-increasing risk that comes with it, Brad saw beyond his own experiences. He turned his striving for excellence into a desire to share his experiences with others.

Brad could have simply brought his friends kayaking. Or he could have been happy with the first 15 clients that experienced the transformative power of moving water that first summer. But that wasn’t enough.

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Brad is still in the forefront at First Descents, opening new participants to outdoor adventures, and his work is truly making a difference.

Join me this Wednesday at 8 am Pacific on The Edge Radio when I talk to Brad Ludden about his own first descents, the First Descents organization and the power of getting out on the edge.

High-Five Report: Shirley Sundt

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Shirley Sundt is my hero. She came to skiing later in life, but once she started, she never stopped. Now she’s in her 80’s, has battled cancer three times, and most recently she wouldn’t stop for chemo to save her last breast because she’d already bought her season’s pass. Instead, she told the doctor to, “just lop it off.” She didn’t want to miss a season at Crystal Mountain.

I recently wrote a story about Shirley for Powder Magazine. Check it out here, and see if you don’t just feel a little more inspired. I dare you.

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Weekly High Five Report: Lance Mackey

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Lance Mackey is a three-time Iditarod winner and a cancer survivor. He says that once you’ve battled the psychological ups and downs of cancer, 50° below is nothing. Bravo Lance!

Weekly High-Five Report: Hope on the Slopes

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“Hope on the Slopes” is a ski and snowboarding event benefiting the American Cancer Society. This past weekend at Crystal Mountain participants and donors raised over $55,000.00 to fight cancer. I had the honor of participating in HOTS this year and felt the great vibes from survivors, loved ones and volunteers. I was honored to be a part of it.

Participants worked in teams and alone to raise funds and ski vertical. Prizes were awarded for most money raised, most vertical, and best costume to name a few.

If I get buried in an avalanche, I want Newman Baugher and his human, Lynn, to come looking for me

The day was packed with activities, including an Avalanche Dog Demonstration. Newman Baugher, a certified Avalanche Rescue Dog at Crystal Mountain, showed the crowd how he finds victims buried in the snow. Even working into the wind, Newman found his buried query in record time. This is a dog that LOVES to search.

Also, thanks to Warm 106.9 for all your support and especially to Jonathan West for emceeing the awards banquet.

Here’s a big high-five to all those that made this event happen this year. Bravo HOTS participants. Let’s kick some cancer butt.

The Check Up

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Just the way I like him

Earlier this week John and I returned to Mayo Clinic for his yearly post-transplant check-up. This is the week every year when we both take a long look at where we’ve been. It all comes roaring back. As we walked quickly through the Mayo campus, jogging across the plaza, running up stairs instead of waiting for the elevator, John and I felt the change.

We stood at the crosswalk, waiting for a break in the traffic. We didn’t have to wait for the walk signal. Not this time. John looked at me and smiled. I knew what he was thinking. Four years ago we’d stood right here. We’d walked this same campus, gingerly taking steps across the street, hoping the walk signal would wait for his slow gait. Back then he couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to be well. He’d see a guy, maybe his own age, maybe younger, jog across the street, his suit jacket flying open as he ran to his appointment, and John would shake his head.

He didn’t think he’d ever be able to walk quickly again. He thought he’d be sick forever, just one step from a hospital bed, waiting fifteen minutes to hit the pain button again.

One afternoon this week, John and I found a few hours in between appointments and decided to go for a run. “Where can we go?” He asked.

“How about the trail?”

“What trail?”

John didn’t know about the paved trail that bisected the town and ran along the river. We set out from the hotel and waited at a stop light and jogged in place. When we crossed I turned left and he continued straight. “Where are you going?” He asked.

I sighed. “To the trail. It’s this way.”

He turned toward me. “How am I supposed to know that?”

He had a point.

While he’d been sick in the hospital those first two months, I’d run these trails alone. I knew, for instance, that about twenty minutes from downtown we’d come to Soldiers Field, where we’d watched the fireworks display on the 4th of July that first night we’d arrived. His appointments started in the morning, and while his skin had already turned yellow, the disease hadn’t really caught up with him yet. It was our last night of near-normalcy before the ordeal started.

Now, as we ran together on the trail, I realized that for John this view was entirely new. He had never seen the geese and ducks floating here on the river, opening their wings to the warm wind. He’d never sailed over this iron bridge, heard the sound of baseballs cracking in that field, watched the soccer girls run laps on this green lawn.

He’d never calculated the distance and turned back at the exact spot where we’d watched in the dark as our life together exploded in colorful fireworks above us, the long streamers turning from red to blue to silver before they faded.

Now John says he can’t remember what it feels to be sick. He cannot conjure up the feeling of small steps, the pain that sat on his right side, the doctor’s words that it was cancer.

And I’m glad. I hope he forgets those things, becoming the man who runs across the street just before the walk signal changes.

Now we run along the trail together, and I can barely keep up with him. And that’s just the way I like it.

Laura York: Cancer Survivor

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Laura York shows cancer who's boss

“Cancer can suck it,” that’s Laura York’s motto. A year and a half ago, Laura was diagnosed with stage IV cholangiocarcinoma (the same kind of cancer John had). Unfortunately, Laura wasn’t a candidate for liver transplantation because her tumors had grown outside the bile ducts. The prognosis was grim. Her doctors gave her nine months.

But Laura didn’t believe them.

Laura never believed the cancer would kill her. Instead, she fought hard, telling cancer to “suck it”. Her healthy living habits and positive attitude, plus the work of her doctors and oncologists, proved that prognosis wrong.

Last week Laura heard the news. The cancer is dead! She’s officially in remission, and her doctors are shocked and amazed.

For anyone who knows much about bile duct cancer, you’ll know why this is so big. No one goes from stage IV cholangiocarcinoma to remission, and especially not in just 17 months.

What I love about Laura’s story is her attitude. No matter what news came her way, she always found the best angle from which to view it. She exemplifies personal strength, gratitude and integrity.

We become more ourselves during a crisis. Our carefully constructed facade comes tumbling down when the doctor touches our wrist (or our loved one’s wrist) and says, “it’s cancer.”

That’s when you know who you really are. I found solace in the moment, telling myself to get through the ordeal just 15 minutes at a time. Laura had her own way. She turned toward uber-healthy eating and living, found strength in herself and utilized her support network. And it worked.

Laura York is a survivor. She’s officially a survivor.

How To Live 15 Minutes at a Time

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“Living in the moment” has become such an oft-touted mantra that it’s almost commonplace. The idea is pretty simple. The past is over, so no amount of worrying about

The easy moments

it now can change it. The future isn’t ever really going to get here. Always just around the corner, tantalizing us with both hope disguised as promise and fear dressed up as dread, tomorrow is merely an illusion.

The only moment is now.

I’ve heard this so often that it carries the strings of cliché, little webs of truth still clinging to empty strands. Perhaps, because it is so challenging, I tend to roll my eyes when I hear yet another strident student talk of “living in the now”.

Thing is, staying right here, right now is pretty hard to do, especially when you’re not surrounded by mountains or at the edge of the ocean, basking in nature’s antidote to our rushed lives. It’s not easy to stay in the moment when you’re angry or scared or merely busy bustling through the TSA line at the airport, weaving your way around yet another gravel truck on your daily commute, feeding the kids mac and cheese, or jolted out of bed by the alarm from the obnoxious clock radio at your bedside. We’re wired for thinking about the future, checking off tasks. Get this done first and then that and then, maybe you can have a moment’s rest.

But what if that moment of rest never comes? Why delay our gratification, holding off the reward for some future date that (if you listen to the moment-livers) won’t ever come? Many of us postpone our passions, our ski days, our savings for retirement. But what if you never reach retirement? Maybe all those moment-livers are onto something.

This is all well and good when things are going smoothly. When our biggest struggles are really minor hassles—the car needs a tune-up, the bills are overdue, the coffee pot broke—that’s one thing. But when the doctor tells you that your husband needs a liver transplant in order to live, it’s difficult to just stay in that moment. And then, when he puts his hand on your husband’s wrist and says the problem, really, is that it’s cancer, and cancer patients usually can’t have transplants, it’s even harder.

When I was faced with the most difficult double black diamond moment of my life, I told myself I could get through just 15 minutes more. I could forestall the panic for a few more minutes, listen to the doctors words so I could scrutinize them later, be present to my husband’s shock. It took great effort not to create lists of questions and solutions, a diet plan to match the cancer treatment, a plan of any kind that could whisk me away from the “cancer talk” moment and put me somewhere, anywhere else.

As an EMT and ski patroller, I had experience with emergencies. I could stop major bleeding, affix defibrillator pads, search avalanche debris with my rescue dog. I had learned to hold off the panic and simply act. I had learned to be okay with uncertainty, with the tenuous nature of our hold on life. And it was these lessons that I brought with me into the hospital room where Dr. Williams sat on the corner of John’s bed and asked him if all of his family members were present. He wanted John to gather us around him like armor against the bad news. He probably wanted to only have to say it once, “it’s cancer”.

The room was silent for a moment, all of us breathing in so sharply that the air seemed to escape. I searched for a private tile on the floor to study. My mother held my hand and squeezed it gently. Dust settled onto the molding around the floor, into the metal Kleenex dispenser and onto the instruments ready at the head of the hospital bed. I told myself, you can do this. Just get through the next 15 minutes, don’t panic, do not cry, listen to Dr. Williams explanation. Listen to the plan to kill the cancer, to save my husband’s life. I knew that I had to stay in the room and just be there. I couldn’t run out and leave John to take in the diagnosis alone. I could not hyperventilate into the panic.

Sometimes in our darkest hour, life, the universe, God, whatever you call it, steps forward with a gift. In that moment, I received enough grace to be strong. It happened all in an instant, this skill in breaking down life into 15 minute increments. I suddenly learned how to calm down and just be there for whatever the world presented to me.

Mt. Rainier view from a "euro-chair"

But even now, I keep it with me. It’s a little trick I hold in my pocket, fingering it gently, like jean-pocket lint, rubbing it into a ball. But now, after John’s miraculous recovery, the trick is to use it during the brightest moments, to settle into happiness and joy, to let it wash over me and hold it there, not let it seep away into the cracks of my to-do list.

This weekend I skied Green Valley, the moguls as soft and breakaway as any I’ve skied. The wax on my bases kept me going across the flats and I sailed over the next lip, everything working in unison: ski edges, hips, pole plants, smile. I concentrated on my skiing, on the moment of turning, on the warmth of the sun on my shoulders and the backs of my knees. It felt so good to be there in that moment. I didn’t rush through it, or think about the line at the bottom of the chair or even a strategy for the second half of my run. Instead, I carved from one side of the run to the other, letting my body momentarily feel the joy of flying.

I’m not sure if it’s possible to learn to break life down into smaller moments without experiencing the kind of ordeal John and I went through. Sure, I’d paid lip service to the notion since college, but to really live that way took a difficult passage through sheer terror where those skills became a matter of life and death.

What about you? Have you learned to hold onto each moment or even to endure each moment? Is it possible to take the lessons someone else has learned and apply them to your own life?

The Next Fifteen Minutes Publication Date

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My memoir, The Next Fifteen Minutes, is going to be published October 1st, 2011 (just in time for Oprah!) by Behler Publications. Here’s a sneak preview of the cover. Currently, I’m knee deep in final revisions (well, hopefully final!) tightening and polishing the manuscript one last time.
Strangely, the rain at Crystal (yes, that’s right, the dreaded “r” word) has been a hidden blessing. I’ve been able to take a few extra days off a week from patrolling in order to finish the draft. So I’m making the most of this drizzly, decidedly non-La Nina weather pattern and sitting my butt in the chair and pouring over my new computer (yes, my insurance came through after my old one was stolen).
Of course all bets are off once the snow returns. I am, after all, a powder girl at heart.