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Omazing Stories: When Kayaks and Cancer Collide

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Hello there, lovely person reading this. My name is Sarah, I work on the marketing team at Omaze, and as a cancer survivor, I’d like to wish you a happy National Cancer Survivors Day®!

The purpose of National Cancer Survivors Day is to: celebrate those who’ve survived cancer, inspire anyone who’s been recently diagnosed, and support families and communities that are affected. To commemorate the day, I’d like to tell you a little bit about my cancer journey—and how one of Omaze’s charity partners, First Descents, pretty much changed my life.

I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2015, when I was 28 years old. I was shocked, considering I’d always been pretty healthy: no cavities, no allergies, no broken bones (except for one unfortunate and embarrassing rollerblading experience… in college). ANYWAY.

Long story (very) short, I had surgery to remove my thyroid and the malignant tumor that decided to live on it. And I’m happy—and lucky and grateful and humbled—to say that I didn’t even have to undergo chemotherapy or radiation treatment. That was it! My healing process was over… physically. But then there was the mental, emotional and psychological trauma to work through (fun!). And that’s where First Descents was truly transformative for me.

First Descents is a nonprofit organization that provides life-changing adventure trips for young adults impacted by cancer. They believe that the physical challenge of adventure (programs include whitewater kayaking, surfing, rock climbing and ice climbing) is crucial to the healing process. And they focus on the young adult cancer demographic because it’s one of the fastest growing and most underserved populations, with more than 70,000 adults between the ages of 15 and 39 diagnosed with cancer in the United States each year.

So you basically fly out to some tranquil, pristine part of the country (I went to Tarkio, Montana) and challenge yourself to one of these physical activities—all while being trained, supervised and supported by expert guides. Also, I feel like I should mention: You do not have to be in optimal physical health to participate. Even if you’re actively in treatment or recovery, the staff meets you where you’re at and makes sure you feel safe and have fun. Plus, all the gear, incredible food and accommodations are completed covered. It’s awesome.

Even more awesome? The fact that you’re surrounded by a group of compassionate, brave and inspiring individuals who’ve all shared a common experience. While everyone’s journey is different, we’d all been faced with our own mortality and that’s a pretty unique feeling. To sit in a circle with people who just “get it,” to hear someone else articulate the same thing you’re thinking/feeling/dreading, to realize you’re not the only one who silently celebrates your diagnosis date… it’s invaluable.

I went on my whitewater kayaking trip exactly 2 years after my surgery. I didn’t know how much healing I had to do until I was there, going through it. But I do know that I got what I needed, through vulnerable conversations, aggressive whitewater rapids and meaningful connections that will last a lifetime.

I told my Omaze coworker Elizabeth, another young adult cancer survivor, about my experience with First Descents, and she had her own incredible adventure with them in Jackson Hole, Wyoming! After that, we knew we had to connect Omaze with this awesome charity. We’ve now partnered with First Descents on multiple campaigns, raising enough money to fund a weeklong trip for a group of 20 participants! And we’re still going. Thanks to everyone who’s helped support this nonprofit, their amazing mission, and the individuals who really need to heal, like I did.

Do you have a story you’d like to share for National Cancer Survivors Day? We’d love to hear it—comment below! #omazingstories

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