“Kiteboarding Brought Me Back to Life in Every Way Possible”

By: Brianna Hirsch

Chance often plays an all too important role in life. It was chance—and the generosity of a total stranger—that brought me to Kiteboarding 4 Cancer.

One evening last summer, I was kiting near my home in North Carolina when I crashed. My kite deflated, and I had to be pulled onto shore by a friend. He happened to know the woman sitting at the dock we landed on and she kindly invited us in to warm up. After talking with her for hours, I began to share my cancer experience with her.

I am the fourth generation in my family to be diagnosed with cancer. On April 10, 2011, ten years to the day of my mother’s diagnosis, I got a taste of just how precious life is. I was having my junior prom dress fitted and suddenly passed out. Hours later, I learned I had a massive tumor sitting on my heart, filling up my whole chest and crushing everything between my heart and my throat. Had I not passed out, the tumor would have crushed my trachea in another day or two.

My world turned upside down and came to a grinding halt.

The next day, doctors pulled a quart of fluid from my heart and told me I had cancer: Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.

The next two years were very long, as I underwent various courses of chemotherapy, antibiotics, steroids, hair loss, spinal taps, blood transfusions, bone marrow extracts, pneumonia, collapsed lungs, and other physical complications and breakdowns.

Brianna KiteboardingThen I discovered kiteboarding.

To my and my family’s complete and utter surprise, the Make-A-Wish Foundation contacted me about, well, “making a wish.”

It was on a 10-day Make-A-Wish trip to Greece that I happened upon an ad for a kiteboarding school. I had never even heard of the sport, yet I instantly knew I wanted to do it. For the next seven days, I took lessons in the crystal blue waters of the Aegean Sea.  The moment I got up on the board, I knew this sport was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Kiteboarding brought me back to life in every way possible.

It gave me the feeling of being in entire control of my body. To go from no power during cancer to suddenly full power over my body was the most thrilling experience for me. Never before had I realized this potential.

KiteboardingWhen I heard about Athletes 4 Cancer’s Kiteboarding 4 Cancer, I knew I had to be there. My passion, cancer experience and desire to help other survivors come together in this one incredibly inspiring event. That’s why I had such a desire to go last summer when I crashed my kite.

That women that invited me in to warm up, the one I talked with for hours, she was so moved by my story that she instantly offered to help me get to Kiteboarding 4 Cancer. Her generosity gave me the opportunity to participate in an event that has changed my life, and I can’t wait to get back for a second year.

To learn more about Kiteboarding 4 Cancer, or to donate, click here.

Alive365! Helps Survivors Learn to Live, Celebrate Life

By: Tonia Farman

It’s National Cancer Survivors Day, and I believe strongly that survivorship should be celebrated—because there is life after cancer. It can be tough to ask a survivor, someone who has gone through such a traumatic and challenging experience, to celebrate survivorship. Many of you reading this blog have survived cancer yourself, or know someone who has, and understand how difficult it can be to “celebrate” (Woo-hoo! Yehaw!) life after it feels like it crushed you. FunBy celebrate, I mean to pursue and relish in things that inspire you, to seek support when you need it, to find peace and an appreciation for life, and anything else that inspires you. It’s defining your life after cancer, not letting cancer define you. It’s choosing to live—to be alive—not merely survive. That’s the essence of Athletes 4 Cancer’s Alive365! Campaign, an effort to help you send a young cancer survivor to A4C’s Camp Koru so they can learn to celebrate life. (I’d encourage you to get involved. It’s easier than you think!) To start, claim your “survivorship day.” It could be the anniversary of the day they were diagnosed or the day doctors deemed you cancer free. For others, it could be the day their loved one lost or won their battle. You “give up” that day and show cancer who’s boss by fundraising for Alive365! Next, you pick a challenge—anything you want (knitting 10 hats, entering a writing contest, hiking a mountain, doing a 2-minute plank, etc.)—and see it through right up to your survivorship day. This challenge shows your commitment to fundraising, and along the way, your friends and family can track your progress and support your efforts to send a cancer survivor to A4C’s Camp Koru. See how A4C alumni Kelly and Marisa did it! We’d love to have you consider taking part. Now get out there and celebrate survivorship!

How will you leave your legacy?

Eight years ago today, the unimaginable happened that shook our family, our friends, and changed our lives forever. On June 5th, 2007, my 19-year old brother passed away from Leukemia.  What followed was something no one planned… it just happened. Athletes 4 Cancer was born.

When someone passes at the young, future-filled age of 19, the word “legacy” does not first come to mind. We barely form identities at 19, let alone establish any footing in this world. It usually all changes when you’re 30 again anyway. We definitely don’t think about how we’re going to leave this world at 19… we’re just entering it!

Scott’s “legacy” came in the form of the hundreds of cancer survivors who have attended an Athletes 4 Cancer retreat or program. I remember Scott telling me once as he lay in his hospital bed at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital, “I just want to do good things for people.” That stuck with me so hard, I claimed the title of “Director of Good Things” over the standard “Executive Director.” As the organization grew, Scott’s legacy extended, impacting a greater number of lives affected by cancer each year.

When I attend one of our survivorship retreat programs, leaving the world with some sort of “legacy” is a hot topic around the campfire. In fact, it’s one of the most pressing thoughts on  survivors’ minds: “What if I die tomorrow? What did I contribute to the world? Who’s life did I impact? Did I do any good? Can I rest in peace feeling good about my life?”

Many cancer survivors wake up every day and wonder if they are going to live another day, week, month or year. And many of them, through programs like Athletes 4 Cancer and others, discover how to start living with a new perspective of living with positive intention and leaving this world in a better place. We can all learn from them.

Start living your legacy now. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Treat others with compassion and respect. Listen. Give selflessly of yourself in ways that benefit others who really need it. Volunteer. Donate something to a local charity. Wake up every day and find a way to leave this world in a better place than the day before. You never know when your legacy will begin.

~ Tonia Farman
Director of Good Things
Athletes 4 Cancer

A4C’s Funding Goes Straight to Our Mission

By: Tonia Farman

A few weeks ago, the Federal Trade Commission, all 50 states and the District of Columbia accused four cancer charities of scamming donors out of hundreds of millions of dollars. It saddened us to see the generosity of donors abused and the field of cancer nonprofits smudged. It angered us to see survivorship mocked by the very existence of these scams. That’s why we just want to take this opportunity to say: Athletes 4 Cancer (A4C) is an authentic and full-time nonprofit serving cancer survivors every day, making real, positive change in their lives.

We know every scar, every strand of hair loss to chemo, every sharp, shooting pain and every tear among our campers is real, and we would never take advantage of that. All of the funds raised for A4C goes straight to our mission of helping young cancer survivors reclaim their lives after cancer through outdoor adventures. HopeTransparency builds trust, and we want every one of our donors to know that their donations give energy, love and new life to many survivors who are at a tough place in their life. Here’s what your dollars have done through Athletes 4 Cancer since it’s beginning:

  • 306 cancer survivors directly-served, having learned life-transforming techniques to move forward after cancer
  • 1530 friends and family of survivors served through our Circle of Influence impact, in which the lives of those closest to our cancer survivors have been positively impacted by the services we provide
  • 18 outdoor retreats & ambassador connector events
  • Achieved through 1 full-time employee, 2 part-time employees and a volunteer staff of 75

But “results” can’t always be so tangibly measured. Sometimes, it’s the beauty of transformation that reflects the real impact of donations. A4C campers’ testimonials express that transformation.

“Camp Koru changed my life. Only a year out from treatments I didn’t realize how broken I was. The last thing I wanted to do was be with a group of cancerites. Little did I know the best thing I ever did was be with a group of cancerites! I felt like it was ok to be my true self, a side I hadn’t shown in years. The staff and other campers truly helped the transformation from cancer victim to cancer survivor.” –Kiko “Camp Koru…it’s good for the Soul.” –Vida “Camp Koru is the most positive thing that could have ever happened to me. The lessons I learned far exceeded how to surf and paddle. It taught me my strength both physically and mentally. It allowed me to form an amazing bond with others around the world who get it. I learned to get busy living! Koru energized my mind, body and soul. I gained more than just friends, I gained a family, memories and the knowledge that although I had cancer, it doesn’t have me.” –Dragon   

These are the stories that hit home, that show A4C is using our funding (responsibly!) to change lives. We’ll keep sharing them with donors so they know how their dollars help young cancer survivors. If you’re interested in sending a survivor to Camp Koru, check out our Alive365! Campaign or email us at survivorship@athletes4cancer.org.

Putting My ‘Old Normal’ to Rest

Samm's latest haircut.
Samm’s latest haircut.

By: Samm Newton

After chemo, I had this conversation frequently with friends:

Friend: “Your hair is so curly.”

Me (In my head): “Yeah, it’s not supposed to be this curly. I fucking hate it! You know, I don’t know how to deal with this. It took me 25 years to learn how to deal with my own hair, and then now I have brand new hair that I don’t know how to deal with!”

It was just this thing that I was kind of angry about.

Because before cancer I was one way and now I am another.

I used to be able to do this and now I can’t.

I used to like certain things that now I don’t.

This new normal isn’t what I want, I want the old normal.

The younger me, before cancer changed my life forever.

My former hair.

My former self.

My former self is idealized by a wig that sits on a high shelf in my bathroom. It is composed of about two feet worth of long, brown, wavy, perfect, beautiful, synthetic hair. Almost two years after my own hair fell out, and with a solid set of new locks growing in, I still haven’t been quite able to part with it. What if I need it again?

So there it sits, startling plumbers, guests, and occasionally, even myself, floating on its faceless styrofoam pedestal. I had picked this specific wig because it most resembled my favorite hairstyle before diagnosis, and when I remember myself in my twenties this is the hair I remember.

But recent revelations have forced me to reevaluate both the person I remember and the one I am now.

Experiences such as Athletes 4 Cancer‘s Camp Koru, where I met other young cancer survivors, helped me realize that they too struggle with reconciling their old and new normals. This has helped me learn that comparing now to then is a roadblock to personal growth after trauma. I’m not the same, and I’m never going to be the same because, yes, cancer changes you. Really though, life changes you. It changes all of us.

Honestly, if I had to choose a wig again it’d probably be different. Shorter, curlier, more like my current hair. I’ve recently noticed that my hair has started to flatten out a bit, and I feel like it’s a sign to start a new chapter after cancer. That chapter begins like this: “I can embrace it. This is the new me. This is my new normal. This is my new life.”

Camp Koru Gave Me Back my Long-lost Belly Laugh

Kelly and Tonia, Athletes 4 Cancer's Executive Director, smile for the camera after Kelly finishes her big run.
Kelly and Tonia, Athletes 4 Cancer’s Executive Director, smile for the camera after Kelly finishes her big run.

By: Kelly, power name “Zephyr”

When I was declared cancer-free, my worries and fears didn’t magically go away. While my friends and family were celebrating that I was finished with cancer and getting back to ‘regular’ life by working again, I felt more alone than ever.

Gone were the days of hosting epic St. Patty’s Day parties. (I didn’t invite close friends over for dinner anymore.) Gone were the days of laughing out loud with co-workers at the lunch table. (I ate alone at my desk.) Gone were the days of happy hours with friends. (I didn’t even reach out to the amazing people who supported me through my treatment.)

I had endured stage 2B IDC breast cancer at the age of 36: four months of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, dozens of medications, hormone treatment, radioactive scans, uncontrollable pain and lots of side effects.

Those things were behind me, yet still with me. I was dark and miserable and lost and fearful. I didn’t know who the real Kelly was, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to.

These feelings were with me as I entered the lodging facility for Camp Koru Snow in March 2014.

Trying a new sport with a new body was intimidating. I was frustrated. I cried. I wanted to quit many times. But one day, it finally clicked. Nalu, a camp counselor, noticed I was having trouble with my turns on the bunny hill. “Just curl your toes!” she shouted. I tried it, and it worked! From there, it was smooth sailing—at least on the bunny hill.

On my final day, I tried the real run. I was terrified of this uncharted territory. People were zooming by and I was getting pissed off and intimidated. Nalu coached me along the way. At some point, I lost control and started down a black diamond route. “Heels! Heels! Heels!” shouted Nalu, encouraging me to stop.

Nalu pulled me back out of the abyss and back onto the easy run. My legs were tired, and I needed to stop a few times. But the next thing I knew, I was at the bottom of the hill and the feeling of celebratory accomplishment and pride overwhelmed me to the point of tears. “I can’t believe I did it!” I remember crying to Nalu. “Thank you so much. This is an amazing moment.”

After a week with the camp staff and fellow young survivors—supporting each other on the slopes, connecting individually, laughing over meals and sharing in our nightly circle—I found a new family. I discovered strength, hope, confidence and courage I thought was lost. I was even reacquainted with my long-lost belly laugh.

Most importantly, I started to feel like Kelly again. My Camp Koru experience gave me the push to take the next step in a post-cancer life, and I will be forever grateful to those who gave me this opportunity.

[Editor’s Note: Kelly is fundraising to send another young survivor to Camp Koru through our Alive365! Campaign. Help her here!]

How Cancer Camp Made Me a Better Artist

Written by Bri Sabin

I have been a participant and a volunteer staff for cancer camp, and the experiences all have led to tangible personal growth for me. Much of that growth has been related to my self-confidence and the way I interact with others, but along with that has been my growth as an artist.

bri 2

Camp Koru offers an art table, where supplies are made available for open-ended artistic endeavors. It was at that art table I ended a four-year stretch of keeping my lifelong love of art at arm’s length and started painting again. Last fall, I opted out of a traditional career path in order to pursue my love of making art. The following are some of the things I learned from my time so far with Athletes for Cancer that have made my art more daring, more engaging, and more satisfying to make:

The soul speaks many languages, many have no words at all. It’s hard enough for most of us to fully express ourselves with words alone. When you add chemo brain to the mix, there are times it feels nearly impossible to talk about how we feel, what we have been through, what we hope for. Thankfully, there is a plethora of other ways to get it all out. Music, adventure sports, creative high fives, theatre, photography, pantomime,  dance, painting, sand sculptures, and on and on and on. When you put your soul into something, you find you are speaking clearly without having to speak at all.

bri 4

Open up and be vulnerable. Let them see your scars. Port scars, shingles scars, surgical scars, all the places your spirit tore and was stitched back together or left to heal on its own over time. Announce when you are scared, when you are frustrated, when you are filled with joy. Push past all your hang-ups, all the boxes you live in, all the ways you guard yourself. Put your story on the table. Tell the gross stories, the strange stories, the bodily function stories, the loss stories, the giddy pleasure stories, the gallows humor stories. Let go of what other people think about your stories. Someone outside your inner circle may need to hear what you have to say. Offer something of yourself to others so you can make room for their stories.

Close your mouth and open your ears and eyes. You have lived and you have a lot to share, but the same is true of the world around you. Turn off your inner monologue, set your own stories aside, and pay attention to the stories being told. Connect with friends, strangers, the pulse of the city, the rhythm of the ocean, the opera of a storm, the whispers of the trees. Really hear what’s being said. Take it in. Ask questions. Turn a conversation into a an interview for “Most Interesting Person in the World Magazine,” with the other party being your cover story. The things you will learn and the connections you will make will be significant.

Processed with Moldiv

Embrace silence, quiet, and pregnant pauses. Prolonged silence can channel new pathways of creative thought; quiet can lead to clarity; pregnant pauses and awkward silence can say so much more than the words not being spoken. All are important to human connection and artistic endeavors, but our own anxieties, eagerness, or misunderstandings about communication can cause us to undervalue such moments. Likewise, the “empty” areas in a piece have as much to say as the places one fills with detail or line or color.

Take breaks. Stretch. Eat a snack, hydrate, and reapply. It’s amazing to paddle out and catch waves over and over and over, and it can be wonderful to sit at the drawing table for nine hours at a time, but you need to be nice to your body or you will get hurt. No matter what you are doing, you will do it better if you stop every once in a while to stretch well, refuel with something healthy, drink lots of water, and put on more sunscreen. Okay, maybe sunscreen isn’t necessary for painting indoors, but it doesn’t hurt to use a stretch break to also sweep eraser crumbs off the desk, walk the dog, or wash the dishes. You will come back to it reinvigorated and ready for more.

Challenge yourself. Push through discomfort. Standing up on that first wave, pushing past the crux on a climb, talking about things you are used to choking down; all of these take strength of will and a little faith in yourself and those around you to get to the next level. Similarly, sticking to what I am already comfortable with artistically tends to yield unsatisfying results. Taking on the challenge of improving my technique or learning a new discipline may be more difficult, but the reward of finally getting the hang of something new is a rush of small victory endorphins and another set of vocabulary with which to communicate. It’s okay to suck. You probably won’t stand up on your first wave, but you can’t get to headstands and tandem rides without trying until you nail it. Every painting won’t be a masterpiece…in fact, maybe none of them will be. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the trying, the little victories, the culmination of hard work and patience that leads to a breakthrough.

Art heals. Enough said.