Sunday, July 31, 2011

FD 70: Day 3 (Part II), Alternative Craft (?) Day

After a rough morning on the the water- Our little family decided to take a trip into Glacier National Park. I initially didn't understand why we had to be in the car. I wanted to climb the mountain! But after over an hour of driving on windy roads at a shockingly steep grade, I realized why we were in the car. And it became even more clear when our Suburban pulled into the parking lot at Logan Pass and we hopped out of the car. It was freezing up there! The winds gusted loudly, moving the clouds above us faster than I've ever seen clouds move.

Normally mid-week is when FD campers get to experience a more challenging stretch of water on an alternative craft- AKA not a kayak- Examples include the safety raft, inflatable duckies, a sort of cross between an inflatable raft and a kayak, or a topo duo, which is a two-man kayak. However, in light of our awesome skills, we ran that treacherous stretch in our kayaks.

So alternative craft day happened on a glacier at Logan Pass. Pictured is my alternative craft: the snow wing (affectionately nicknamed by its owner Raz as 'Raz's A%! Rocket') We climbed up the glacier behind the visitor's center and Linktook turns sledding down the glacier. It was a long, steep hill, so it made for some exciting sledding. There were some wipe-outs, but everyone had a great time. One of our campers, who grew up in Alabama, even had her first sledding experience on the glacier that day. I initially declined to sled, stating that, "My track record for staying in crafts isn't good today, so I think I'll pass."

But after watching the others, and considering the rare opportunity that sledding in July presented, I decided I couldn't miss out on the chance to participate in glacial sledding, so I did it. There's even video to prove it! You can catch it in this overview of our week: FD 70 Video (My sledding occurs at 0:55)

Overall, Day 3 ended much better than it started. I felt ready for whatever might come on Day 4, and I was excited about the possibilities the rest of the week held.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

FD 70: Day 3, Swimming is My Middle Name

Wednesday brought a morning of running and ab work before another yummy breakfast. Afterwards, we all gathered in the living room where a real grizzly bear rug watched us from the wall, as we were schooled on hydrology, the science of water. There was a lot of knowledge thrown at us, and I caught a decent amount of it, but I was feeling tired and I'm not going to lie- curled up in an arm chair beneath my hooded sweatshirt I might have fallen asleep.

Somehow I don't think staying awake for the last few minutes of water school would have prepared me for what was about to happen. When we got to the river, the group gathered to scout a rapid by our put-in. I wasn't too freaked out at that point. I read the water using the terms and information I got in our lesson that morning, and I felt pretty confident when I got into my little lime green kayak.

I made it through that first rapid without anything eventful happening, but as we continued, the group I was boating with got choked up and we all went into the next rapid in a cluster. I found myself swirling and having difficulty keeping control and paddling as my boat bounced off the others around me.

Then I was upside-down. For the first time. In a rapid. It was dark, cold, and eerily silent. But a painfully long second later, my helmeted head burst through the surface and my numb hands were grabbing the metal loop on the back of a white kayak. I was okay.

It was a short trip to an eddy and as my boat was emptied of water, adrenaline pulsed through me, and all I felt was cold. I wasn't scared. It wasn't that bad. I got the swim out of the way, and now I could fearlessly paddle the rest of the river.

As I paddled on, more conscious of spacing now, I enjoyed the tall rock walls and mountainous scenery. What I didn't enjoy was the fact that it was not easy to see what was coming. The river carved a snake-like route, winding sharply to the left, then the right. A few minutes later, as I came into another rapid, I found myself adequately spaced, but I didn't really know where I was going. The water sucked me to the left, and I found myself in a wave train, flying over the top of large white caps, then dipping low, before I was tossed up again.

I'm not sure how it happened, but one moment I was up, and the next the water was on top of me and I was in that dark, frigid, silent place again. When I surfaced, I was disoriented, and faced upstream for a moment before realizing my back was to the current. I turned to face downstream like I was supposed to, and was again towed to shore by a guide. River:2, Marathon Girl: 0.

I was a bit more shaken now, and when the safety raft chauffeured me to where my boat was again being emptied, I wasn't sure I wanted to get out of the raft. Did I really want to get back in the kayak? Not really. At this rate, I'd spend equal parts of the day split between the boat and the forty-degree water.

But when it was truth time, I got back in the boat. I couldn't go in the raft. I wasn't in Montana to sit in a raft. Also, there was a phrase echoing in my head, as I've mentioned happens to me. That day it was Do the thing that scares you. So I did.

As we headed toward the next rapid, I freaked out, though. This wasn't a little freak out. It was a lot. I wanted out, but there aren't a whole lot of options as you go into a rapid, so I screamed "I DON'T WANT TO DO THIS!" I imagined how the next few moments would go, and it involved being cold and wet and possibly stuck in a hole under water. Perhaps drowning.

And then there was the sound of plastic on plastic. Red collided with green and then there were hands. They held onto my boat. Finally, there were words, muffled by rushing water, "Hold on. We'll do it together."

I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding, and we drifted through the rapid together. Pleaza, the kayak guide who grabbed my boat, navigated both of us through the rapid into another eddy. Then I cried. Kayaking scares me. I know I am completely safe. I also am aware that I'm pretty capable when it comes to keeping a boat in a straight line and riding out a rapid. But something happened that day, and I lost it. I got tense, and being loose is a necessity in kayaking. But the worst part was that I lost my confidence. I spent the rest of the day on the water being mad at myself for being afraid, and trying not to cry or look as frustrated as I felt.

When we finally reached the take-out, I was relieved, but also hungry for more. I wanted to prove myself. I was angry and felt unsuccessful, and was equally disappointed in myself for even considering getting in the raft. Looking back, it doesn't seem so bad, but at the time, I was not a happy camper. Luckily, there were still two more days of camp for me to accomplish what I wanted to, and there was a fun on-land afternoon planned so I could take my mind off things.

To be continued...

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

FD 70: Day 2, Open Water!

After building confidence on day 1, Tuesday brought some new challenges. The day began with yoga at 7:00 AM, and after breakfast, we headed to the river. With us, were two new group members, Grizzly and Boy Toy, a reporter and photographer from a local newspaper: The Flathead Beacon.

There was some confusion about where exactly we were putting our boats in on the river, and after waiting at one put-in for the rest of our group- and unloading the safety raft, it was realized that in fact we were at the take-out. Oops.

Once we arrived at the real put-in, things got off to a good start. After some lunch and an energetic dance warm up on the beach, we hit the water. It was a seven mile trip, and there were few swimmers that day, either a testament to our skill or perhaps that the water wasn't too challenging for our experienced group.

I don't remember a whole lot else about Tuesday, just that it was a good day on the water.

Sidenote: Since returning home, I've resumed triathlon training...I biked 25 miles today- across five townships, hills included. I've also selected the tri I'll be participating in: The Skylands Triathlon, which takes place on September 11th in Hunterdon County New Jersey. This is a plus because I don't actually have to travel to get to the event, it's practically in my backyard :)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

FD 70: Day 1, The Lake

After arriving the day before, Monday was the first full day of camp, and our first time on the water in Montana. That morning began just like every other. I awoke to laughter from the kitchen, where the three camp 'moms' were preparing breakfast and packing coolers of lunch and snack supplies for our group of about twenty kayakers and and campers.

After a run and some food, it was time to hit the road. We packed into three vehicles and traveled to Lake Macdonald in Glacier National Park, where the other campers and I needed to demonstrate our ability to 'wet exit'. This means getting out of the boat if it capsizes.

My nerves kicked in as we were given a safety talk and asked to set goals for the week. Suggestions included performing a T-rescue, rolling, or perhaps just getting reacquainted with the water and for today, getting that wet exit out of the way. I made a mental decision that I was in the third group. In the two years since I had been in a kayak, I forgot one critical aspect of my feelings about it: Kayaking terrifies me. Specifically, being upside-down under water and trapped in a boat, or doing anything that could potentially lead to that situation, makes my heart race and my eyes cry. How I forgot this is beyond me. At previous camps, I had not attempted a T-rescue or a roll, and wet exits were specifically reserved for an accidental swim on the river, which I had not encountered during those camps.

As we pushed off the shore, I found myself unable to speak, and apparently my emotions were written all over my face, because Konvict, one of the experienced kayakers, came over and asked me how I was, adding with a smile, "I haven't seen that expression on your face before."
You haven't seen me in a kayak before,
I thought.

But in no time, I was sitting in my boat, upside-down, underwater. I tapped on the sides when I wanted to come upright, and Konvict flipped me back over. Once I flipped myself over and did a wet exit, Konvict asked if I wanted to work on rolling. No, I thought. But I nodded yes, and proceeded to spend some quality time underwater. It wasn't that bad...actually, it was fun.

As a group, we practiced strokes and played a game of sharks and minnows before paddling out of the lake to take on some moving water. The water was calm, and that allowed for some quality discussion. I got to know another camper named Johnny that afternoon, and later in the evening, one of the expert kayakers commented at our campfire sharing of highlights of the day that he felt lucky to witness what he saw on the river; how easily we had poured our hearts out to each other after only meeting the day before.

But that openness is part of the magic of First Descents, and something that is not at all unusual at camp.

FD 70

Just over 24 hours ago I returned from Montana. I spent a week there, and it was awesome. I met ten other young adult cancer survivors who had all participated in a previous First Descents experience. Our camp was considered an 'FD 2' because we were all returning participants, although my last time in a kayak was two summers ago. As I mentioned before I left, there is a magic that occurs at First Descents, and at previous camps, this took some time to develop, but knowing that the week would fly, we made quick work of getting acquainted. In no time, nicknames were exchanged and fun commenced.

Side note: Nicknames are an FD tradition, and are the only names used at can go a whole week without hearing your real name, and it's strange to find out at the end of the week that someone you've been calling Symbol, Marvel, or Half-Baked actually goes by a 'normal' name.

I can't describe in detail what happened at camp, because although the days flew, it also seemed that a week's worth of living happened within each day. So I think that I'll post select pictures and tell a story about each to try to explain what exactly happens at FD, but I'm not sure there are words to accurately describe the experience.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Montana Bound!

I've admittedly slacked off in posting as often as I should, and I do apologize for that. However, my excuse is that it's summer and I've been enjoying every second of it, which includes doing things like riding my bike, running, going to the beach, and competing a few home improvement projects. The past week's agenda included a day at the beach, completing my first true 'brick' workout, painting both my kitchen and a beastly-large hallway that winds up a staircase, riding my bike to the gym (and working out before riding home), running a 5K, and mentally preparing to pack a suitcase for my upcoming trip to Montana. Oh, and I tutored students for about five hours, too.

Writing this makes me feel a lot less lazy. I felt like I didn't do a whole lot this week, but looking back, I guess I did accomplish a decent amount :), and now I can add writing a blog post to the list, too.

I have a lot to do before I go to Montana tomorrow morning, so I'm going to keep this (sort-of) short. Bright and early tomorrow, I'll be going to Glacier National Park to do some whitewater kayaking with First Descents. They're the awesome charity for which I ran my most recent half marathon.

I'm super excited for the whole experience. I've been on two other FD trips, one to Colorado, the other to Washington state. I love the energy of these trips; everyone is so positive, and I can't get enough of the laid back, outdoorsy west-coast attitude of the kayak guides. I also get to meet some new YA cancer survivors, which is equally exciting. There's an unspoken bond that exists between YA survivors. We have common experiences that link us in a way that can't be explained. It's an instant connection that makes it possible to become friends in a day and family within a week. This is one of the things I love about trips like this.
Despite the excitement, I can't help but also reflect on my first trip to Montana. It was a godsend and a nightmare, all rolled into one. It was the dead of winter in 2007, and the first time I met anyone who had cancer and wasn't at least two decades older than me. I've shared selected parts of my memoir on here before, about my hair and also the last piece I wrote. I've written a bit more this summer, trying to actually finish the whole story. Here's the one about my first trip to Montana:

I learned about the existence of a place called Camp Mak-A-Dream from a woman who began attending the cancer support group I'd started to frequent. Her daughter, Jill, was diagnosed at twenty-three, and while her daughter had beaten stage III colon cancer and moved on, she was still dealing with it herself two years later. As a mother to a child about my age, she took comfort in talking to me and seemed to be able to get some perspective on her daughter’s point of view through talking to me, and it was she who told me about the camp in Montana that her daughter had attended.

While Jill wouldn’t talk about the cancer, her mother said she raved about the time she had out in Montana. I waited for months to go to Camp Mak-A-Dream. I knew it would change everything because I would get to meet other young adults who understood what I was going through; I would not be alone anymore. Through all the headaches, my eyes were on the prize of getting on a plane and flying across the country to Montana, to a camp set at the foot of a mountain, where other people far too young to have cancer would come together for a week of fun; skiing, hiking, crafts, and workshops. In all my dreams of how that week might be, I never imagined I would have the experience that I did in Montana.

When I arrived at camp after two long flights and an hour drive from Missoula to Gold Creek, I met my cabin mates, and I felt a sense of panic walking into a central room where there were couches and comfortable chairs, a large mantle and fireplace. It was rustic and inviting, but I wanted to turn around and go back to New Jersey the second I walked in. Other young women sat on the floor, a couch, and in chairs. A few of them wore winter hats, and it was clear that there was no hair beneath them. Why did I want to meet sick people? This was a terrible idea. I want to go back home where everyone around me is healthy and normal. They look like cancer patients.

While I had these thoughts I came in and introduced myself to Courtney, Valerie, Jen, Jackie, Sandra, Jessica, Jane, Bridge, Holly, Sara, Natasha, Becca, and Deanna. I sat down and as I listened to them talk, I realized that even though I was put off by their sickness, I was just as sick as they were. During the next few hours we became friends; it was a sisterhood of cancer. We shared stories, talked about school, boyfriends, health insurance. Within twenty-four hours we were like old friends.

On the third day of camp, I awoke and put on my glasses as I’d done for the majority of my life. But today I couldn’t see clearly. I checked my eyes to see if I had slept in my contacts, and that was causing the problem, but I found my contacts in their case in the cabin bathroom.

At breakfast I told the camp doctor about my vision. He was a Saint Jude pediatric oncologist who had a quirky personality and an overweight beagle by his side constantly. He promised to call Quinny(my doctor) about my sight, and told me to take it easy. As the day went on, my vision deteriorated further; by lunch I was wearing both my contacts and glasses, and still wasn’t able to see clearly.

The doctor checked in, coming and sitting next to me at lunch.

“How are your eyes?”

“I think it’s getting worse. Did you call Doctor Quinn?”

He nodded, “Yes. He thinks, and I agree, that you are having an aura without the migraine.”

I voiced my doubts then, the vision impairment I experienced prior to a migraine were never like this; they were usually similar to what is seen after a camera flash goes off, then the dark spot would grow until I couldn’t see much of anything. But the doctor assured me I would be fine. He suggested I rest after lunch, and I decided I would do this, hoping I would wake up able to see again.

I woke before dinner, the sun had already begun to set and the other girls were in the cabin changing for dinner. Before I opened my eyes, I said a quick prayer that I would be able to see, but when I tried to open them, it seemed my lids were stuck together. I brought my hands to my eyes, planning to rub away the crustiness that was holding them shut. But what my hands found was frightening, I no longer had eyes that rested in sockets; my eyes or lids, or both, were so swollen I had no indentation below my brows; my eyes simply protruded from there. I gasped and began to cry, although no tears came from my monstrous eyes. I was able to open them, but I could see even less than before. I saw blobs of color, and that was all.

“Juli, are you awake?”

The voice came from across the room. It seemed most of the girls had already left for dinner.

I nodded, not sure who was talking to me.

A red and white blob moved toward me and sat down on my bunk.

“Are you going to come to dinner?”

I shrugged, and then started shaking my head, “I can’t see anything!”

“Nothing?” came a surprised response.

I still didn’t know who I was talking to; I couldn’t see her face. Crying without tears I explained, “All I can see are colors. I don’t even know who you are!”

The blob gave me a hug and said, “It’s Jessica, your bunk mate.”

Jessica was a pediatric cancer survivor and was also from New Jersey. She had claimed the bunk above mine.

“Lets go to dinner, I’ll walk you there.”

Jess helped my find my coat and hat, and she guided me to the main lodge, then up the stairs to just outside the dining area.

“Wait here, Jules,” Jessica instructed, then left me in the shadows of the hallway.

She was gone for what seemed like too long, so I came in and found an empty chair at one of the round tables. I took off my coat and feeling the girls looking at me said, “I can’t see anything.”

Val came up behind me, and I only knew it was her because of the southern lilt of her voice, “Juli, do you want me to get you some dinner?”

“Sure. I’m not really hungry though. What is it tonight?”

Val explained the menu and brought me my requests on a small plate.

As we finished dinner, the doctor came over and asked how I was feeling. The decision was made that I would go to Missoula to the nearest emergency room. Apparently having hugely swollen eyes and suddenly going blind was grounds for making the long drive to Missoula late at night.

I spent the next few days traveling back and forth to Missoula, where I saw an ER doctor, then an ophthalmologist, who couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. Convinced this was somehow related to the preventative migraine medication I was taking, I stopped taking the drug on the second day I was blind. I continued to tell the doctor I thought that the blindness was related to the migraine medication, but he never commented on that. I also called my mother on that second day, deciding I was calm enough now that I could tell her that her daughter who was on the other side of the country was blind. I also asked her to Google ‘blindness and Topamax’, which she did. Glaucoma came up as a rare but listed side effect of the drug.

Once I stopped taking the migraine medication, my vision gradually returned and my eyes deflated over the next few days. By the time I went home, I could see again. When I had regained my sight, the girls told me they didn’t want to scare me, but I had looked awful. They described my eyes as golf ball-like and looking too dry, while my irises were watery and slimy. We joked about it, and they nicknamed me Glaucoma Girl. I thank God that I didn’t go blind while I was at home; I would have been terrified. It was different in Montana, we had all been through difficult times, and we laughed as we went through them, so it was only natural that we laughed at my blindness, and never let on that it was frightening until it was over.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Show Time!

Happy Fourth of July! In addition to being the day commemorating America's independence, tonight is also my radio debut! I'll be in the Survivor Spotlight on The Stupid Cancer Show. Haven't heard of it before? The SCS is an Internet based radio show presented weekly by I'm Too Young for This! Foundation creator Matthew Zachary.

I was lucky enough to meet Matt a few years back at the LIVESTRONG Summit in Columbus, Ohio. I can't fail to mention Jack Bouffard (Matt's right hand man) who I also met the same weekend. In thinking back, it was quite the weekend. Jack drove me a significant distance so I could get home from the summit via Cincinnati Airport after Delta canceled all the flights out of Columbus. It was my first experience with I2Y, and the the overall feeling I walked away with was that survivors stick together!

Not surprisingly I've continued to cross paths with both Matt and Jack, as well as other I2Yers in the years since we've met. The YA (young adult) cancer population is a close knit bunch, and many of us have participated in the same camps, retreats, and of course the I2Y OMG summit, a huge annual event for YA survivors. In a sense, we all know each other.

I'm looking forward to the opportunity to be on the show tonight and hanging out with these two awesome guys ( sadly I'll be hanging out via phone, since I couldn't get back to the tri-state area tonight. Also, If you read this after the fact, no worries. The show is available after the live broadcast via podcast!

I hope you'll tune in by visiting here.

Hope, Love, Run,
Marathon Girl

Friday, July 1, 2011

Am I- gasp- TAN?

As I write this, I am admiring the sun kissed glow of all of my bare skin that I can see right now. I just checked myself out in a mirror, and the whites of my eyes look particularly white against my darker skin.

What have I done? No, I have not gone to the dark side and been spending time outside unprotected-I biked almost 2o miles yesterday, and I was sure to slather on a good amount of sun screen first. And I certainly haven't been laying in a tanning bed, which might as well be a coffin for someone like me.

I'm going to Florida tomorrow, so I went and got a spray tan. I don't get these things on a regular basis, but I do feel inclined to get sprayed a darker shade once, maybe twice a year, usually when I head south. When I know I'm going to be spending time in a bathing suit, surrounded by people who take tan to a completely different level- Floridians- I like to bring myself at least a few shades closer to them. Otherwise I am so pale that complete strangers comment about how white my body is. Not even kidding.

Sadly, in order to get sprayed, I have to visit a tanning salon. I feel a sense of disgust walking in to one of those places, because I know I'm in a place where people are actually choosing to engage in a practice that increases their chance of getting melanoma by 74%. These people make me very angry because I didn't get to make the choice they're being given. I got melanoma, even though I have never been in a tanning bed. It's a slap in the face that they're making such a dangerous choice and being ungrateful for their present health.

I'll say this once: If you use tanning beds, stop.

Here are my responses to your excuses:

1. You don't want to switch to spray because orange isn't your color? I can assure you that even on the palest of skins, the color of spray isn't orange like it was years ago. I'm looking at myself now, and to be honest, I look awesome.

2. You want to look healthy? That's nice. Does your vision of health include leathery, wrinkled skin? Excision scars? Because you're going to age more quickly and you'll need to have surgery when you get cancer. It won't be pretty.

3. It costs less to use the beds? Yes, it does. But treatment for melanoma costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Spend your money on a spray tan and you'll actually save money, and a lot of emotional and physical pain.

4. You need to get your vitamin D? True, Americans are overall deficient, but it takes just 10 minutes per day of sunlight to do the trick. Also, there are these great things called supplements. You can take a pill to get vitamin D, or you can eat your fruits and veggies.

I hope if you are the tanning type, whether it's at the beach or in a bed, you'll think about my words, and read my story. Ask yourself if these are possibilities you want to expose yourself to.

My parting plea is this: There is no occasion, event, season, or reason to get in a tanning bed. Ever. Just say no.

Hope. Love. Run,
Marathon Girl