You are a young adult and you have cancer. You have cells in your body that have gone haywire, that are defective, that are going to kill you. You are going to have to have chemotherapy/surgery/radiation/a bone marrow transplant. You are going to feel worse than you have ever felt, pray to die, pray to live, lose relationships, have your career/family plans completely derailed. You will have to watch for a recurrence of your disease the rest of your life. You will have to deal with the physical and emotional ramifications of treatment the rest of your life. You will wonder how much is left of the rest of your life. You will feel isolated. You will fight quietly, trying to participate in as much as you can to spite this disease. You will fight loudly, crying and yelling, laughing in the face of cancer. You will develop stronger bonds with the people who stay close. You will have small victories that lead to bigger victories over your cancer. You will have setbacks. You will see your priorities lit like spotlights on a dark stage. You will learn to stand up for yourself, speak for yourself, trust yourself. You will get to know your body better than ever. You will know your mental happy place and how to live in the present. You will channel inner strength from a well that seems to have no end.
And if you are lucky, you will go to surf camp and you will meet impossible people.
I spent a week at Camp Koru, surf camp put on by Athletes for Cancer. A4C is a non-profit that provides surf- and snow camps for young adult cancer fighters, giving them a chance to meet other fighters, reconnect with the natural world, and feel like more than a patient. My week at camp changed my life. I came home confident to start this new life, no longer scared and lacking in self-confidence. I came home with a most powerful community in my heart.
Camp was a rustic cabin set-up at Oluwalu on Maui, right on the edge of a popular snorkeling reef. I showed up nervous: would there be cliques I would have to navigate? Would my cancer journey be cancer-y enough? Would I have to (shudder) talk about my feelings? To my immense relief, I found myself in a tropical paradise surrounded by people I had been waiting to meet for years. Fighters, survivors, ass-kickers, kind hearts, warm smiles, gallows humorists. We spent all morning on the ocean and the afternoons snorkeling, relaxing, and taking trips into Lahaina or the little store up the road from camp. On my birthday, we paddled outrigger canoes and visited Paia. We ate every meal like royalty, thanks to the incredible talents of our volunteer chef... who just so happens to work at one of my favorite restaurants in Portland. In the evenings, we sat around a tiki torch campfire and talked about our lives.
This would have been a marvelous vacation on its own, but it was so much more than that. The staff was warm, welcoming, and fun. Most of them have been affected by their own cancer experience, or the cancer fight of a loved-one. My fellow participants - all of us women except one lucky guy - are the definition of strong. Strong-willed, strong-spirited, strong-hearted. We talked in the ocean, in the vans, at meals, on the beach, at campfire. We swapped war stories, jokes, love stories, and tales of heartbreak. We whooped in encouragement when someone caught a wave, we cried together when shit got real, we shared comfortable silences. All of us people who were given horrifying diagnoses, who refused to submit to tragedy, who insisted on being more than our diseases. I marveled all week at the people around me, who rolled their eyes at terms like "inspiring" despite the fact that every one of them is. We spent a week just being ourselves, fully and without being "the brave cancer survivor" of the group. I found myself talking about the things I can't name with my family and friends, and learning a ton from what other people shared with me. As the week went on, everyone pushed past their own obstacles. Everyone took care of one-another. Every one of us have been living with diseases that wanted to take our lives and our happiness, and every one of us are defiant. On our last day of surfing, I looked around at all my new friends in amazement. Here were people who would have died without treatment and walked through fire just in case it worked. People who understood like no one else the truth of their own mortality. People who were riding the ocean, laughing and cheering and spotting sea turtles. Impossible people. My ohana.