Whitewater kayaking: not your average cancer therapy

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Pengi, Downtown, Doomsday, Kleppy and their guide Spanky taking a break from kayaking for some fun in a raft. | Photo supplied by First Descents & Dave Costello/Canoe & Kayak Magazine

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After stepping off the plane and making my way through Portland's small airport towards the baggage claim, I had a feeling of nervousness. I had been looking forward to this trip for months, although I had no idea what or who was waiting for me once I reached my destination. Shortly after arriving at the quiet baggage claim area, I found myself face-to-face with two friendly program directors and a girl from Kansas who I learned went by the name Doomsday.

These were just a few of the many people I was to spend a week of whitewater kayaking with, thanks to First Descents, an organization that offers free week-long adventure therapy trips to young adults with cancer. Participation in their programs also means the adoption of a nickname - or a superhero alter ego. It's for privacy and helps show personality; but mostly, it's for fun. I introduced myself as Pengi, a nickname chosen for of my deep love for penguins and their ability to sustain life under such harsh conditions.

It had been three-and-a-half years since I underwent brain surgery to remove most of a grade II oligodendroglioma, a brain tumor that interrupted my young adulthood at the age of 25. Since then, I've been able to camouflage my brain cancer and live a normal life with occasional doctor visits and tests.

When First Descents informed me of my acceptance to one of their camps, I felt like a kid who just found out she won a prize on a game show. I had never been whitewater kayaking, so I jumped at the chance to experience it in such a beautiful environment.

Doomsday and I were the first to arrive at our lodge in Hood River, Ore., where our volunteers - our chef, Mia Rut; our camp moms, Gare-Bear and Ultima; and our photographer, Elvis - eagerly awaited our arrival. Excitement built as the other participants arrived. After meeting our kayaking instructors that night, I started to wonder who was more excited: the participants or those hosting.

My first time down the Klickitat River in a kayak - or my first descent, as kayakers call it - was terrifying. I initially thought to myself, "What did I just get myself into? There's no way I can survive a week of this!" Faced with the challenge of class II rapids, I struggled against my own frustration from being flipped multiple times. Constant encouragement from the instructors and stories of their first rides gave me hope.

The river was unforgiving; it did not care that we had cancer nor about our age and skill level. It came at us with the same force as any other, which seemed to parallel real life. Eventually I started to embrace my surroundings, took in the beautiful scenery, listened to the river and more importantly, felt the current. When a wave came at me, I could feel when the water wanted to pull me under and I used my weight, balance and paddle to correct my kayak. "Wow, Pengi! You're doing great," said one of the program directors, Spoonberg, on our last day of kayaking.

I wasn't surprised that I missed my newly formed family the moment I returned home. However, after the first terrifying moment on the river, I never suspected that I would crave those intense rapids again. That week awakened a new strength in me, and I hope that other young adults get to gain that experience. We live in an era where a cancer diagnosis doesn't mean the end; it's just a new look on life and one giant rapid to paddle through.