I was never one to voluntarily pursue extreme heights. I was never a winter sports athlete, nor would I have thought to have enough strength to climb an ice mountain. If you told me two years ago when I was diagnosed with breast cancer that I would go ice climbing in Colorado, I would not have believed you.
It is a challenge that my pre-cancer self would never have faced.
On February 16th, I left my house at 3:30am to fly to Ouray, Colorado to ice climb with a group of eleven young-adult cancer survivors. The non-profit organization, First Descents, provides life-changing outdoor adventures for young adults impacted by cancer. First Descents (FD) is an organization with a simple, light-hearted yet profound and deeply meaningful vision, to as they say in their tagline “outlive it” with beautiful people in a beautiful place.
A typical day in Ouray started with yoga and breakfast, then a long ice climbing stretch, hot springs (ahhhhhh), a communal dinner with new friends, and real, organic conversations about life with and after cancer. The trip was also entirely funded by FD supporters (except for that sweet REI jacket I scored the night before I left Boston).
Upon arrival, FD asked us to think of a camp name for the week. At first I was skeptical because I wanted people to get to know me, the real Adina, as I shared some of the most personal stories of my life. But once I found a name that felt fitting, JoJo, as in Angelina Jolie who also has the BRCA1 gene, I got into it. It felt refreshing to be a new person for the week, to get out of my skin a little, and see how JoJo might be different from Adina.
Ironically, however, by letting go of Adina a little bit— her fears, her burdens, her day-to day stresses— I got to feel more like her than I have in a long time. I felt her come back alive when I slammed my pic into the ice and shouted: “The last time I was this loud was when I was in labor!” “College Adina” came back one epic evening when somehow I ended up donning a faux-fur tube top and dancing with nipple tassels, complete with little plastic ducks banded to my breasts. Don’t worry Mom and Dad – I had clothes on!
Billy Goat (another favorite camp name) poignantly spoke about her identity shifts. She said that cancer took part of her identity away because she could not hike, climb, and experience the outdoors the way she had before. It was this trip that made her feel like herself again too. Hoops (a talented hula hooper from LA) nailed it when she said that on this trip we all “reclaimed our identity” by having the type of experience that many of us lost as young adults with cancer. The fresh air, the physical strength, the insatiable appetite, the laughter in the air at all times—it all made us feel young and invincible again.
As far away as cancer felt in the Colorado Mountains, it also felt up close as I pulled through some pretty intense fear on the ice. There were two times during each climb when I was afraid. The first was right at the start. There was something about leaving the group and going off by myself up the mountain that was reminiscent of the beginning of the cancer journey. After diagnosis, I felt a flood of love and support from my community, but the night before my port surgery and first chemo infusion I remember feeling completely alone. I was the one who had to mentally prepare and endure the treatment. I was the one who had to figure out exactly how I would find the courage to face and then persevere through a marathon much longer than the seemingly endless thirty minutes it took me to get to the top of a climb.
The second moment of fear was about three quarters of the way up. I would panic. The higher I climbed, the quieter it got, and the more dangerous it felt. Despite fatigue and self-doubt, I had to summon something inside to keep going. I told myself it was okay to stop, that with some patience, creative thinking, with another look around, I would find that next step. It might not take me far, but it would take me one step closer.
Often, the way forward was a leap of faith. I wasn’t sure my footing was sturdy. I wasn’t sure the pics were completely secure, but at some point I had to trust the mountain and myself. It felt so good to be totally immersed in a fear other than the fear of cancer. It was a primal fear, an immediate fight to overcome an extreme mental and physical challenge, and it kicked that cancer fear’s ass to the ground. We joked about how much cooler it would sound if we died from ice climbing instead of cancer (I know, dark cancer-survivor humor).
Cancer makes one vulnerable, which leads to a world of deep personal connections, even within a five-day time frame. One night my friend Zeus, who had brain cancer, told me that he could not go back to his previous job because he no longer had the same cognitive capacity. I told him that if he couldn’t lead with the brain, to lead with the heart. Zeus, along with all my other FD friends on the trip, opened up their hearts and let the people and the mountains in to heal parts of us still in pain. Our group grew closer every day, not just because we knew what it was like to lose our hair and endlessly wait for scan results, but because we all knew one very important thing: that although each of us would find a different path up the ice, the only way up is to lead with the heart.
There were times when each of us had to stop mid-climb, not getting to the top. The one exception was Muffs, ice climber extraordinaire, also apparently a good baker (Muffs is short for Muffins). Coming down mid-climb was hard for some, like me, who want to be perfect at everything. In these moments, I was reminded of a story about my grandfather when he had cancer. At one point he said to his doctor “I’m too tired, too sick to keep fighting.” The doctor responded, “Then let me do the fighting for you.”
“I’m ready to come down,” I said at one point. Feeling defeated, my belayer slowly lowered me to the ground. I was almost to the point of tears.
But then I remembered something that might be more important than any other lesson the FD trip has given me—to know when it’s time to stop fighting, to fall back on my support network, and let others hold my burden alongside me.
So to all my new FD sisters and brother: Fuzz, Snowball, Hoops, Zeus, Upbeat, Muffs, Spokes, Eris, Icey, Lucy, Billy Goat:
Climb on, lead with the heart, and when you need to stop, know that we will all be here to catch you.