First Descents camp instills hope, vigor into young adults with cancer

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Jemma Cabral, 33, Chicago, jumps off of a boulder on graduation day in July 2011 at FD2 camp in Kalispell, Montana. Cabral said she is afraid of heights.

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Finding a niche in life can be tough for many young adults. Add in a bout with cancer, and it can get more complicated.

Jillian Jablonski, 28, was diagnosed with breast cancer on Christmas Day in 2009. As part of her healing process, she attended a breast cancer survivors group in her hometown of Lisle, Ill., but she felt a little out of place.

"It's women in their 70s who have already to be able to live a full life," she said. "They've had families and careers. It's really hard for me to think that I might not have that, that it might not be a reality for me. I think they see it and feel sorry for me because of that, which makes it even worse."

Luckily for Jablonski, she found First Descents, a Denver-based non-profit for young adults dealing with cancer, and connected with other young people fighting her same fight.

Since 2001, First Descents has hosted free, weeklong adventure camps nationwide for cancer fighters and survivors. Its program comprises three levels of adventure, starting with FD1 for beginners, FD2 for those on their second time out and FDX for the experienced camper looking for a big personal and physical challenge. Activities range from kayaking and rafting to mountain climbing, hiking and even surfing. The program has arranged close to 50 trips this year.

Rebekah Koenigbauer, First Descents director of marketing, said that when the public hears about young cancer survivors, they tend to think of children.

"There are 10,000 kids are diagnosed each year [in the United States], compared to 70,000 young adults," she said. "It's not only a large population, but an underserved population."

Brad Ludden, First Descents founder, watched his aunt fight breast cancer when she was 38 years old when he was 12, according to his bio on the organization's website. A professional kayaker even at that young age, he started volunteering at local pediatric cancer center by teaching the kids how to kayak. At 18, he created First Descents and targeted it to young adults, ages 18 to 39.

A "first descent" is code for a kayaker's first time out on the rapids, and the term carries meaning both in the extreme sports and also in the cancer-fighting aspect. For many who attend "camp" — as First Descents attendees refer to it — it's not only their first time trying an extreme sport but also their debut into a new level of self-discovery.

Jablonski's first FD trip was mountain climbing in Moab, Utah, in April 2011. She was just weeks out of chemo at the time and said she loved the group dynamic of everyone cheering her on as she ascended. She attended her second climbing trip in May 2012 in California's Joshua Tree National Park and that time aimed for something tougher.

"I sought out the climbs that I knew would scare me and take me out of my comfort zone," she said. "I would look up and see the top, and remind myself to look back down and take it one step at a time. It has allowed me to do it in regular life as well."

For more information, visit www.firstdescents.org.