How Outdoor Adventures Treat Cancer at First Descents

Something many of us have come to know is that getting outdoors works wonders for our mental well being, not to mention our health. But what if you have cancer?

Outdoor adventure can be healing activity for cancer patients, and a non-profit called First Descents has provided just such an opportunity for 15 years.

Participants are cancer patients between 18 and 39 who sign up for weeklong camps, where they kayak, surf, of learn rock climbing. Founder Brad Ludden told CNN recently that he conceived of the program after watching his aunt battle cancer at 38. 

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The name, First Descents, is a reference to the kayaking community’s jargon for a trip that took a person down a stretch of river nobody else had seen before. Ludden chose the name because the cancer patients are widely first-time adventurers.

He says participants will gain a sense of accomplishment from their adventure that goes a long way to help them deal with and fight their disease. Since opening their doors, the staff has helped more than 3,000 people find a new way to cope with their challenges, and also to find an inner strength.

But how well does it really work? Recent participant study results were published in the 2014 Journal of Psychosocial Oncology, where two clinical psychologists found the program really does have an impact on cancer patients, and that somehow doing something in the outdoors that challenges our mortality has positive effects on our sense of purpose and capability.

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First Descents has programs in 13 states and four countries outside the U.S. Teams operate in France, Iceland, Mexico and Dominican Republic.

Such growth for an outdoor adventure-based group that exists to help cancer patients may be indicative of the new attitude toward the disease. No longer considered an automatic death sentence, cancer is now considered a chronic illness. 

That sounds encouraging, but the stakes are still high. Having a large arsenal against it is a big help. Applying the outdoors is something we applaud.