Hurtling across the ocean toward the island of Maui, I am unsure of what awaits me at Athletes 4 Cancer’s Camp Koru. My cancer has been gone for years and I want to believe I’m over it, but I know that is impossible. So I keep pushing on to go through it, rather than try and do the impossible and get over it.
I was diagnosed with Osteogenicsarcoma or Bone Cancer at the age of 18 and spent the next three years in and out of the hospital as the cancer spread to my lungs and lymph nodes. My treatment consisted of countless rounds of chemotherapy, and surgery after surgery after surgery. Ultimately, my left leg was amputated above the knee, and then the cancer slowed and eventually stopped growing and spreading within me. At the time I was given a 30 percent chance to live through the year. I’m now going on nine years remission and am picking up steam on leading the life I want to live.
As the plane continues it’s journey across the ocean, I find myself ignoring the fact that I am heading to a surf camp with only one leg to stand on. Ignoring this because it scares me and no matter how hard I try to pretend there isn’t, there is still a part of me that thinks maybe I won’t be able to surf. And if that is the case what am I doing on a plane heading to Maui? Better to just ignore that than prepare for it…right.
As the number of years I’ve been in remission continues to add up, I’ve tried to get back to living a more active lifestyle, like the one I led before cancer took my leg. This has been a challenge, as it is something I’ve avoided to spare myself the pain of directly experiencing what I can no longer do without my leg. That is not who I am though, I’ve never been someone who shied away from a challenge, in most cases the greater the challenge the more I gravitate towards it. Maintaining peak mental and physical strength, throughout three years of life draining cancer treatment, is a near impossible task. And as much I would like to think the moment you are done with treatment, you get all this strength back in an easy and intuitive manner, you don’t! That is why programs like Camp Koru exist.
Many of us young cancer warriors have fought a grueling battle and won, but that battle took just about everything we have. We need a little boost to get back to grabbing life by the horns!
On the first full day of camp, myself and 14 other cancer warriors headed to the beach to see what kind of surfing chops we had. I stood on the beach, unstrapped my prosthesis, passed it off, and found the same feeling welling up inside of me that appears every time I try a new physical activity. It is a feeling of anger, sadness, and frustration that combines into a ruthless form of fearless determination. My ego is still wounded deeply by the loss of my leg. Every time I try something new my head is filled with the memories of my past, of running five minute miles, sprinting to the finish-line in cross country races, dominating pickup games of soccer and basketball and never ceasing to compete no matter how outmatched I was. These feelings used to overcome me every time I tried to do anything physical. But after fighting back death I refuse to live a life of fear.
So I hop around on the beach full of anxiety, wanting to get in the water and not wanting to at the same time. The Camp Koru staff patiently encouraged me to get in and go for it.
Getting in the first time was the only hard part, from then on I was hooked. On the first day the surf instructors were pushing me into waves, by the end of the week I was a machine, paddling into every wave I could. My one-leggedness did little to hold me back, I made adjustments and adapted without even thinking about it. I surfed standing up on one-leg, on all fours, and found my groove with a two point, one foot and one hand form. Feeling the power of the ocean below me and knowing I had the strength to propel myself forward and join with the ocean was exhilarating and mind blowing to say the least.
In the last year I’ve made a commitment to myself to do whatever I can to take the negative emotions cancer has left me with and turn them on their head. These are very powerful emotions, but I am realizing they don’t rule me, I can harness their power and use it for good rather than let it depress me and keep me from living the life I want. Which is where Camp Koru comes in; by giving cancer warriors the chance to do something tangible and concrete, such as learning to surf, they give us physical evidence of the abilities we still possess, no matter what cancer has ripped out of our weakened grasp. This physical evidence becomes mental strength and gives myself and other cancer warriors the ability to take all the crap cancer has left us with and use it to fertilize our minds and bodies rather than let it drag us down and hold us back.
As I’ve touched on, the most challenging consequence of my cancer is the raw feeling of the physical loss of my leg. For a very long time I looked at my amputation strictly in terms of can’t and to be frank, there are things I used to do that I can no longer do… at least not in the same way. But does any of that really matter? Does the fact that I can’t do what I used to do mean I shouldn’t do anything moving forward? Of course not! I’ve realized turning the can’t of my amputation into a can is an ongoing and gradual process, but with Camp Koru I took some very long strides forward on this journey! The next time I start to freak out when I am going to try something new I’m going to stop and think about all the waves I caught in Maui and remember that the strength I felt then is always present within me.
I can’t thank Camp Koru and the John Wayne Cancer Foundation enough for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime and for blowing my mind! If you are a cancer warrior struggling to carry on then apply to camp!
~ Peter Greenwood, aka “Roar”
First-time Camp Koru participant in Camp 9, October 2013