“First Descents” by Brad Ludden

Brad Ludden - 'Friend to Survivors'

This is the first entry into the ‘Articles’ section of “Voices of Survivors”. I have asked Brad, the Founder of “First Descents”, to share his story of developing his organization and what makes it so successful for those ‘Survivors’ who take part in the challenge. So without further ado, I give you Brad Ludden.

Brad Ludden:

I have never had cancer but I always joke that my interaction with those who have has given me all of the good that comes with cancer without having to endure any of the bad. It doesn’t seem fair but then again, life usually isn’t.

My entire life has been fueled by a passion for adventure. It all started when my parents bought me my first kayak at age 9. By the time I was 12, I was traveling internationally and competing. Then life changed when I was 13 and my aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a hard time for all of us that ultimately encouraged my philanthropic mother to help others who were dealing with cancer so she started volunteering at a local pediatric oncology camp near our home in Montana. She asked if I wanted to join her. I took the only thing I thought I could contribute, my kayaks, and spent the day teaching kayaking the kids on a lake. It was a day that forever changed my life.

After traveling the world for the next three years and kayaking rivers in over 40 countries from Uganda to Sumatra, I realized how powerful the sport could be and that I was in a position to share it. So, at the age of 18 I started working on First Descents, a kayak camp free to young adults with cancer and in 2001, when I was 20, we held our first weeklong program in Colorado. This summer we will host 9 weeks of programming in 6 different states all for free.

I am still learning what it is that makes FD’s programs so successful. This is what I have so far: Kayaking is a scary sport. It’s a legitimate challenge. And that challenge is not made easier because someone had cancer. The river doesn’t judge. The rocks aren’t softer and the water isn’t warmer. It’s kayaking and it’s an accomplishment anyone should be proud of. Young adulthood is a challenging and transformative time in anyone’s life. The diagnosis of cancer at that time is particularly destructive and leaves emotional scarring and a sense of aloneness that needs to be addressed. By attending a week at FD participants find a new family. People who understand them, often times, more than most other people in their life. They choose to face the challenge of kayaking and by doing so they realize their strength because of their cancer. They take back control of their life and restore their identity. It is a choice to face a challenge, to heal emotionally.

I am always amazed at the courage of the survivors who attend our programs and honored to spend time on and off the water with them. We have seen hip disarticulations, people actively in treatment, physically weak, people with a loss of balance, sensitivity to cold (and yes, the water is cold), people who don’t know how to swim, people who are medically incurable and participants with a fear to live again after their diagnosis all making the scary choice to strap themselves into a kayak and face the river. By doing so they are shattering any illusion that cancer has weakened them physically or mentally. They are making a choice to take the control back and are proving they are not incurable because they have the power to heal from within. They are choosing to get back to where they were before their diagnosis and go beyond. It’s a display of strength, courage and survivorship that is humbling, inspiring and leaves all who attend with a perspective on life that only survivorship could.

From everything I have seen, survivorship is a choice, a conscious decision. Fighting the physical cancer is only half the battle. It’s up to the survivor to take on the challenge of healing from within and live the life they fought so hard for regardless of how long it is. One of our participants described his experience at FD like this. “The treatment the doctors gave me undoubtedly saved my life. First Descents taught me how to live that life.” His case was particularly poignant because he had lost his left leg below the knee. Before his diagnosis and amputation, he was an avid tennis player, water skier and all around athlete. Many of the sporting triumphs he enjoyed were taken with his leg. Kayaking put him back on an even playing field and his competitive spirit, which had been dormant, returned with a vengeance and a permanent smile was plastered to his face and still reappears anytime he says the words “First Descents”.

The program is unique in that we limit the participant numbers to 15 per week. This is for safety reasons as much as experiential preservation. On the water we have had up to a 2 to 1 staff to student ratio. We do this because we want to see each participant reach their goal for the week regardless of what that might be. For some, just getting into the kayak and doing a wet exit (flipping over and getting out) is their entire week. For others, it might be learning how to surf or roll. It’s up to us to see that they get there. I remember one participant who had incurable brain cancer. His cancer had caused severe loss of motor skills. He just wanted to get in a kayak and get out. He did. He spent the rest of the week smiling in the back of a raft. At the end of the week, we often take out at a 25 foot tall bridge over the river. Many people choose to jump off. It’s a “rights of passage” for some and often a final feather in the cap. That particular week, he climbed from the raft to the top of the bridge. I remember standing there asking, “Are you sure you want to do this?” His only response, “Yes. Very sure.” We all held our breath as he stood there looking down and then without warning stepped off. He surfaced seconds later a man with renewed strength and control. That night around the campfire he told us “In two years of brain cancer support groups I haven’t received the type of support I have in 1 week at First Descents.” He chose to challenge himself to live beyond his cancer and through that challenge he found support.

Each participant comes to FD searching for their own answers and most find them. That said, as someone who hasn’t had cancer, I too find answers to my own life and a perspective that helps me live each day differently. Better. Not a day goes by that I’m not grateful to have had the privilege of interacting with survivors. Their strength gives me strength and through the river we ALL realize that there is nothing we CAN’T do. The end of each week marks the beginning of a new life for all of us. It is one week forever.

“First Descents” Website