First Descents

A unique nonprofit organization pro­vides young adult cancer patients with opportunities for rewarding challenge in awe-inspiring settings that foster transformative personal growth.

By Diana Price

In 2012 when Amber Vance first heard about First Descents (FD), an organization provid­ing outdoor adventure experiences free of charge to young adult cancer fighters and survivors, her initial response was, “I don’t need to go to cancer camp.”

Fast-forward four years, and the Hod­gkin’s lymphoma survivor from Raleigh, North Carolina, has attended three FD pro­grams and says the opportunity to challenge herself physically and transform emotional­ly alongside other young adult survivors has been life-changing.

A former marathoner, Amber had lost confidence in her physical abilities and wor­ried about lingering injuries in the years since completing treatment. But after first attending a weeklong surf camp with FD in California, then doing a climbing camp, and most recently scaling Italy’s highest peak with an FD team, she feels as though she has fully reengaged with all the pieces of her life. “The FD experiences brought me back to what I was before I was diagnosed. Now I know I can do anything,” she says.

Pushing herself to, first, commit to a week away with a group of people she didn’t know and, second, to step out of her physi­cal comfort zone and into the challenge of a new activity allowed her to see the true ex­tent of her capabilities. “I came to the reali­zation that the only person holding me back is me,” Amber says. “I had a successful ca­reer, but so much of my life outside work had become self-limiting, and I didn’t realize how isolated I had become until I went to FD.”

The What: Challenge, Adventure, and Community

Professional kayaker Brad Ludden, who watched his aunt battle can­cer as a young adult, founded FD with the mission of “re-creating the experience of a ‘first descent’—the first time a person successfully kay­aks a river or section of river that has never been done, an undertak­ing that offers challenge, adventure, community, and personal growth.”

Since FD’s launch in 2001, the nonprofit organization has creat­ed a range of programs (see side­bar “FD on Tap”) and ongoing support offerings that place young adult cancer fighters and survivors in inspiring outdoor settings across the country, where they can pursue activities that provide physical chal­lenges and offer the opportunity to connect emotionally with other par­ticipants.

The Why: Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone Takes You Places

So what is it about an outdoor ad­venture that makes it such a trans­formative experience for young people facing the challenge of can­cer? Outdoor pursuits that require physical focus in an awe-inspiring setting provide innumerable lessons for navigating life: learning you can climb a rock, surf a wave, or paddle a kayak can show you that you can overcome other challenges, too, and that you’re more capable than you ever knew; stunning natural beauty offers welcome perspective, peace, and space to process the experience away from the trappings and stress­ors of “normal” life.

Together these elements allow participants in FD programs to learn that they have the power to propel themselves forward, whether to catch the next wave or to move through the next phase of cancer treatment, career, or relationships. “These challenges teach you that you can put yourself in a really vul­nerable position—trying something new or pushing yourself past what you think your limits are—and that, yes, you can fall, but even if you do, you’ve succeeded just by being there and stepping outside your comfort zone,” Amber says.

The opportunity to move through challenges among other young adults who understand the issues you face provides a unique community, one that most young adult fighters and survivors don’t have ready access to in their lives at home. But, Am­ber notes, while a shared experience with cancer may bring the group together, FD is a bit different from many young adult programs in that campers are encouraged to put aside their identities as cancer patients and just be members of the team. “Can­cer conversations are almost second­ary,” she says, “because you’re shar­ing experiences that aren’t cancer related; you’re just a group of people challenging yourselves and cheering one another on.”

Ultimately, FD experiences are a gift that young adult fighters and survivors give themselves: a week away, free of charge, to jump in and step back at the same time. By committing to a social and phys­ical challenge that shows them who they are and what they can do, they can launch back into their world with that knowledge, ready to take on whatever challenges come their way.

For more information about First Descents, visit

Facilitators of Fun: FD Staff and Volunteers

In describing her experiences with FD, Amber is quick to point out the critical role that FD staff and volunteers play in designing invaluable experiences.

In addition to roles managing all the logistics necessary to provide a seamless experience for 15 participants—everything from meals and gear to transport and lodging—staff and volunteers (including lead staff and two general support staff, along with a cook and a sous chef, pho­tographer, and medical volunteer) offer meaningful emotional support throughout the program. “Staff members engage with campers in seem­ingly casual interactions that are transformative,” Amber says. “They are completely available, and each camper is their priority.”

Joanna Smith is entering her fifth summer of helping “facilitate fun,” as she puts it, as an FD lead staffer. A former teacher, Joanna first connect­ed with FD as a volunteer before becoming a staff member several years ago. Joanna says that “seeing the transformations in campers from the beginning of the week, when a camper might be uncomfortable, to the confidence they display by the end of the week is incredible.” And, she notes, the relationships that are built among the campers and between the campers and the staff during FD programs are long-lasting, offering ongoing community support far beyond the program: “Those relation­ships keep me coming back. It’s hard to put into words the power of these experiences and the bonds they create.”

FD On Tap

First Descents’ current program offerings pro­vide a range of opportunities for cancer fight­ers, survivors, and caregivers nationwide.

FD1: Multiday rock-climbing, kayaking, or surf­ing adventures, offered to fighters and survivors ages 18 to 39.

FDX: FD1 alums collectively plan an adventure and then embark on personal fundraising cam­paigns to contribute to the cost of the trip, and, ideally, raise additional funds to contribute back to FD to help fund other programming.

FDi: Weekend outdoor adventures for young adult cancer fighters, created through partner­ships with cancer centers around the country.

FDtribs: Quarterly meet-ups and multiday trips planned through “tributaries” (organization hubs) across the country, open to alums and first-time FD participants.

FDrock: FD alums nominate their caregiver to participate in an FD program, which is free to those who attend (participants cover travel costs).

FD40+: Weeklong adventures for fighters and survivors ages 40 to 49 (diagnosed between 18 and 39).