The meaning of a broken bracelet

I’m in Ecuador. It’s hard to believe, but I’m here among the mountains and valleys, the jungles and beaches. It’s been wonderful so far – I’m already afraid that a month won’t be enough time to see and do everything that I want to see and do.

Today, the baci bracelet that I got during my First Descents trip back in September snapped off as I was scrambling to find my hostel keys. I cannot think of a more exquisite symbolic moment for my first day in South America!

First Descents was my first step toward breaking my routine and making life changes. It was a small step, but one that got me to believe that there was more to life than cancer and playing it safe. I learned that fears could be overcome and that I can take back control. The baci bracelet embodied that spirit of adventure and vibrancy.

Ever since First Descents I’ve ached for more adventure and chances to challenge myself and feel empowered. Whenever I looked at my wrist, I was reminded that I could do more.

And now, I am doing more. This trip is my next step, a much bigger one. If that bracelet could speak, it would have told me that I was on my way and that I no longer needed it as a reminder to take life by the horns. Also, it probably would have called me grasshopper. Thanks, baci bracelet.

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First Descents Trip

There’s so much I can say about my trip – I don’t even know where to start. It was amazing, inspiring, invigorating, life-affirming, and a ton of other really overused adjectives that don’t mean much if you weren’t there. Sorry for this terrible start to my post, but I honestly just can’t write anything to adequately describe my week in Colorado.

I’ll begin by introducing First Descents. It’s a nonprofit that takes young adult cancer patients and survivors on outdoor adventure trips all over the US. I heard about them when a support group I am part of posted a link to Facebook. At the time, I was just beginning my “there’s got to be more to life after cancer” existential crisis (it’s full-blown now, by the way, but that’s a later post), and I thought this was a great way to do something outside my comfort zone. So I signed up for rock climbing – it seemed the biggest stretch (read: most dangerous) out of the activities they offered, which include kayaking and surfing. I chose to go to Estes Park, Colorado, because I had never been to that region of the country before.

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Me, Roadrash, and Brad Ludden, founder of FD.

Before I knew it, September rolled around and I was getting on a plane to Denver armed with a ton of synthetic clothing, excitement, and nerves.

When I got to the house, just past the foothills of the majestic Rockies, I felt like I had stepped into MTV’s Real World. All twelve of us chose bedrooms to sleep in, introduced ourselves, discovered a sweet hot tub on the porch, and commented how amazing our accommodations were. Then we delved into a healthy, delicious meal of burritos cooked by our very own house chefs, Chamomile and Antelope Jamboree.

Okay, at this point I should probably mention that we all went by nicknames for the week. I became “Beaner” (because my name is Cara, and a carabiner is a tool used in climbing… get it?). Apparently it’s also a racist slur for Latinos.

The next day we got up bright and early to go climbing. Everyone really just jumped in. We had guides from the Colorado Mountain School helping us out – they showed us what to do, set up ropes, and for several hours we just climbed. Some of us belayed (acted as the on-the-ground anchor for the climbers) while others climbed, and vice versa. They also taught us to rappel.

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Here I am, on belay.

This was the bulk of the trip – climbing with each other. We had one day “off” to explore the Rockies, but the highlight of the trip, at least for me, was really the climbing. I just can’t describe how exhilarating it is to make it to the top of a route, knowing that you used your body to conquer a rock that wasn’t designed for you to climb it, and looking out over the gorgeous scenery in the fresh mountain air, marveling at what you just accomplished. It was really magnificent.

I’ll admit for a while on the trip I was a negative Nancy, and the fact that I was PMSing may have contributed. For a day or so I felt a bit isolated. I was only one of two people who had had breast cancer, and other people’s treatments didn’t compare. Plus, we were all at different points in our experience so I felt a little beyond or behind some of the people there.

But in the end I realized we are all doing the same thing: navigating our lives through young adult cancer. And the shared climbing experience helped because it served as a metaphor for the cancer experience. Cancer is something you are forced to conquer, and you lament every step of the way your loss of control and dignity. These rocks were a challenge I chose on my own, and every step of the way, no matter how terrified or ready to give up I was, I had a blast and felt mired in positivity – both from my inner being and from the amazing people on the trip with me who radiated understanding and encouragement.

Coming back to real life and work has been extremely hard. I wish I could still wake up each day and hit the rock with my friends, but life goes on. I definitely feel more motivated, however, to take the reigns of my own life experience. I’ve been in a very strange place, recently, questioning why I’m here on this Earth and wanting to find what truly makes me happy so I don’t waste any more time on things that make me unhappy. This trip definitely jump-started my desire to seek adventure and do things that are outside-the-box and not waste life at a desk, if that’s not what I really want to be doing. There will always be rocks to conquer, after all.

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One rock down, infinitely more to conquer!

Preparing to Rock Climb

Last night I attended a happy hour for First Descents, this awesome non-profit that sends young cancer survivors on adventure trips. I, myself, am heading out a First Descents rock-climbing camp in Estes Park, Colorado, in a couple weeks, and hearing other people’s enthusiasm for the program really pumped me up.

Last weekend, the boyfriend and I headed to an indoor climbing gym so I could familiarize myself with some of the climbing lingo (“Belay on!”). We learned to tie lots of different knots and use a carabiner, which, up until 5 seconds ago, I thought was spelled caribbeaner. I guess now I can stop dreaming of sunny islands with white sand beaches every time I say the word. Or maybe not, because dreaming of beaches is fun.

Also fun? Climbing walls. Fun and terrifying, because I am not Spiderman and losing my grip on the wall and plummeting to my death is a very real fear. Nonetheless, I am hella excited for my trip and not quite sure what to expect. I know there will be about 15 people living together for 5 days in a lodge with a cook, some volunteers, and our “counselors”. I know that we’ll be climbing rocks. Other than that, I don’t know how it’s going to feel or whether I’m going to accomplish the goals they set forth for me, but I know I’m going to try.

The past few weeks have been difficult. Work is extremely stressful and my routine is cumbersome: wake up, walk the same route, stare at the same computer in the same office, and deal with the same frustrations. There’s gotta be more to life (thanks Stacie Orrico), right? I’m hoping that the First Descents trip is a metaphorical catalyst to help me move forward.

Last Year’s Anger

I haven’t posted in a while, which is probably a good sign that I haven’t thought lately about cancer.

To prompt this entry, I decided to look back at what I was writing this time last year. I had my MRI done mid-February and then an ultrasound a couple weeks later, and I wrote this post after the ultrasound but before my biopsies, on March 8, 2011.

“I just feel so angry that I’m 25 and I have to go through this… I’m angry that I got tested so young and I’m angry that I’m not being stronger.”

I’m struck by my expressions of anger, but what strikes me most is this feeling of being disconnected from the person who wrote that entry. It’s only been a year, and yet I keep saying in my head, “I am not that girl anymore.” When everything was happening, I was hyper-present for it all. The feelings felt deeper, the emotions were stronger, my head was right there, and now… it’s all a blurry vision. Sitting in the chemo suite hooked up to the wires. Prepping for surgery. Hanging out by my parents’ pool, bald. All just silent videos in my head.

Is it weird that I’m kind of saddened by this dulling of memory? By no means do I want to return to last year. But I don’t want to lose the memory or the feelings – the energy of fighting for my life and and focusing on me and knowing I had only one job to do – it kind of made things easier. Now, I’ve got my job, maintaining relationships, cooking, cleaning, deciding what to do on the weekend, making plans, paying bills. Cancer is hard work, but I’m starting to think that life is even harder.

As a side note, I want to share that I did sign up for a 5k race at the end of April and I’m proud to be training for it right now. Working out feels good – I pump myself up by saying, “Body, you betrayed me last year, and now I will run you into submission.” I also signed up for the First Descents program and I’ll be traveling to Colorado in September to rock climb with other young cancer survivors.