By Mellissa Recchai, “Eno”
When you are seemingly healthy teenager and had been for as long as you could remember having a health crisis really knocks you back. At sixteen years old on September 3rd, 2009 I was diagnosed for the first time with a rare soft-tissue sarcoma tumor in my left thigh. I was diagnosed at a Children’s Hospital and for the next two years I underwent treatment. I was always the oldest child at my clinic so I never really met anyone my age who had cancer. I was 20 years old when I relapsed for the first time on December 17, 2012. That same summer I heard about this program called First Descents. All I was told is that it was an outdoor adventure camp for young adults with cancer. To be honest I put it out of my mind because I didn’t think I was in anyway physically capable to do anything to that kind of degree.
It wasn’t until I attended CancerCon 2015 that I really understood what First Descents was all about. They had a booth at this conference and I stopped by to talk to some of the lead staff members. For the life of me I cannot remember what their names were, and I wish I did so that I could thank them. Thank them for pushing me to sign up, for pushing me to go outside of my comfort zone, and thank them for just being amazing welcoming people. I signed up right then and there for the mailing list. They did have a few open spots but unfortunately they didn’t work with the schedule I had for that current summer. So I resolved to put my name on the waiting list and wait until the next year of camps. Later that same year on August 15th after being on my treatment for two years, I relapsed again at the age of 22. First Descents completely went out of my mind. To me there was no way that I was going to be able to do this outdoor camp while being on a brand new chemotherapy so when I got the call in January about a kayaking camp in Bryson, NC I was hesitant to go.
This was also something that was way outside of my comfort zone, although I had been in the cancer community for years the idea of traveling to spend a week with people I knew nothing about doing a sport I had never even attempted scared the living shit out of me. Although after talking with some of my close friends who had gone through First Descents before, and my family members I decided to ignore my monkey mind telling me I couldn’t do it and I signed up for the camp.
So on May 29th I left my home in Seymour, TN and drove the two and a half hours to Bryson, NC with my parents. There were several times on the way there that I honestly wanted to turn around and go home. I’m an introvert so willingly putting myself in these types of situations is hard for me to do. Thank goodness my parents ignored my pleas to turn around because that week spent with my FD family turned into one of the best weeks of my life.
The first night was spent getting to know my fellow campers, getting our nicknames, and our staff laying out what our week would most likely look like and entail. I ended up with the name ENO. Anyone who knows me, knows that I love to hike. In the south, “ENO’S” are hammocks that you can attach to trees and pretty much anything that will hold your weight and are very popular especially around colleges. I talked nonstop about hiking and using my ENO so that was the nickname that was given to me.
The next morning started bright and early. We had breakfast and loaded up into vans. I have to say that I couldn’t have picked a better van to spend my week going back and forth between the river and the cabins. The joy I had just in a minivan is just infinite, the laughs, and the songs that were sung will always hold a special place in my heart. The first full day we spent the morning getting outfitted for the week, and picking out our boats (all of which was given to us free of cost from the NOC). Then it was off to the lake to spend the day getting comfortable with our boats, and learning some basic skills we would need to conquer the river the next day.
To say that I was scared beyond belief is an understatement. I was not ready to be in a boat that I had no idea how to control, and I was not ready in any way to do a wet water exit. Our staff members and the two staff members sent by the NOC to help us for the week were very patient with all of us. They gave constructive criticism but praised us when we did even the easiest things correct. Right before we broke for lunch they brought us in closer to shore and had us all line up for wet water exits. This was something we had to complete in order to be in our boats on the river the next day. I was terrified, and I refused to go first. One of the ladies in my little group,”Thrill”, offered to go first. We watched her as she went through the different exercises that “Big Papa” had us complete in order to feel comfortable doing the wet water exit on our own. Watching Thrill volunteer to go first and watching her completely nail it gave me confidence to go next. I can’t say that I wasn’t still terrified but I knew that I was safe. So I did it, and I have to say it was the most thrilling and liberating thing. When I came up to the surface after pulling my release I had the biggest smile plastered on my face and everyone was clapping for me. It was then that I realized that I had just met some of the most amazing people that I would always count as family.
Every day we would be off the river by 5 o’clock and back to our cabins a short time later in order to be able to relax and shower before dinner. After dinner we would have a bonfire and just talk as a group about different topics. Some were light hearted some were deep, but it all made me love everyone more. Every day we built on the skills we had learned the previous day, each new day was harder than the last, each day was better than the last, and each day was filled with more love than the last. When I flipped for the first time on the river I was more scared then I had ever been in my life, but within moments of me going over Big Papa was there to roll me back up and push me to keep going. Whenever some rolled over and fell behind the group there would be cheers and praise when they met back up with the group because they had scared themselves but they had still been willing to keep going. I have never had more faith in people then I had in the staff at First Descents. Every day on the river was another day that I never wanted to end, I was building on not just skills but on my personal confidence as well.
Before coming to First Descents I had no confidence in who I was as a person, who I was without cancer, or confidence in what I was able to physically do. On the second to last day we had pulled over on the river to have lunch when “Quickie” called us all over to our support boat. She told us to grab two rocks and a sharpie. We were told that on one rock to write what we liked least about ourselves and on the other to write what we liked most about ourselves. When I was done I realized that everything that I had put on the rock that I didn’t like about myself were things about my appearance, they didn’t actually tell who I was as a person. We were told to take the rock with all the things we disliked about ourselves, take a breath and then throw it in the river. When I threw that rock I threw away all of the negative things I thought about myself, all the things I thought made up who I was is now at the bottom of a river and it was such a liberating feeling to watch it sink.
On the last day we had graduation rapids, this was a time where we took all that we had learned and kayaked down class two rapids alone. Quickie gave us a speech that had us all in tears, and then one by one we went down and completed the rapids. At the bottom was all the staff cheering for us as they watched us conquer the rapids. We had a choice to do a class three rapids with a “little” water fall at the end. I was completely against doing it. I had just made it through the “worst” rapids we had experienced all week and doing the class three scared me. Quickie came up to me and said just pitbull it and you will be fine. I went down with Quickie and although I had to bail and pull my release I am so proud of myself for doing it in the first place. When I popped back up after pulling my release “Mojo” and Quickie were right there to get me. Apparently I scared Quickie but I told her that I am going to come back and get down those falls without bailing, she looked at me and said that a girl I will be there to help you.
Going over those falls I rid myself of a lot of things. I rid myself of what I thought about myself: that I wasn’t good enough, that my cancer defined who I was, I lost my fear of the water, and I gained so much more.
The last night as we were saying goodbye was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Saying goodbye to the people that you had conquered your fears with is hard. At our last camp fire we paired up to tie a bracelet around our partner’s wrist. I paired up with “Peachy” and we were a blubbering mess. I still wear my bracelet and every time I see it I think of the words of encouragement and love that Peachy bestowed upon me and she tied it around my wrist.
First Descents and kayaking taught me so much. It taught me that I am stronger then what I think, that I am capable of so much, that I am loved by so many people, and that I have support from them to last me a life time. The river taught me that there are going to be rocks in our way in our life, and we can either choose to focus on them which will cause us to run into them, or we can see the rock, acknowledge it, then hug it and kiss it goodbye. There is so much I will always be thankful to First Descents for, more than I could ever put into words. The thing that I am most thankful for is the second family that I now have, without them I wouldn’t have been able to get through that week of kayaking, and I don’t think I could get through life without them now. While I came home with some bruises, I came home with so much more. I came home with more confidence in myself then I had ever had, I came home with a new family, and most importantly I came home a better person then when I left. I highly encourage every single young adult cancer survivor to go on a First Descents trip, I promise you will love it.
Quickie, CPTO, (Aunt) Flow, Bazil, Moose, Big Toe, Lamb Chop, Compton, Big Papa, Downtime, Mojo, Peachy, Sweat Pea, HooHa, Redrum, Boohoo, Mako, Rainbow Brite, Thrill, and WIP for giving me the best week of my life. I love you all very much.