A Physical Challenge Can Boost Your Confidence As a Breast Cancer Survivor

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • I spent last weekend enjoying an incredible gift given to breast cancer survivors through the generosity of the American Cancer Society. The ACS’ Adventure Weekend is just what it sounds like: the chance for breast cancer survivors to get together and participate in a number of challenging activities they might never have considered doing before–let alone had the chance. For instance, when was the last time you found yourself on a bright blue, cold October day, a good three stories high in the trees, looking down off a platform with your toes over the edge, ready to step off? Or in a plastic kayak, fighting the wind-roughened water of a northern lake, convinced each little ripple (let alone the bigger waves) was going to spill you into the icy water? And then there was the Native American drumming and dancing…
    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:

    Eight of us arrived at Boston University’s Sargent Center camp in Hancock, N.H. in a downpour Friday evening. Hurricane-force winds and driving rain ripped many of the remaining leaves off the trees as the temperature plummeted. The instructors told us what we’d be doing the next day, stressing the necessity for multiple layers, dry shoes, hats, and gloves. We looked at one another apprehensively. Whoops. How about sneakers and jeans and a sweatshirt? We retired to our bunk beds, feeling like kids at summer camp, ready for the next day–maybe.

    Saturday dawned thankfully sunny, although the wind continued to howl. Weekend leaders Chris and Mary led us in some bonding games, some soul-searching exercises, and then we headed out to the lake for kayaking. I was game, but doubtful–would the wind push me backwards faster than I could paddle forwards? And just how tippy are those little plastic boats? After a short but thorough lesson from our Eastern Mountain Sports instructors, Ellen and Rebecca, we shoved off. Literally, each of us shoving the next into the water. And glory be–the wind died down as we began to paddle. Even the most timid of us was able to master the few simple strokes Ellen had showed us, and as we laughed and poked our way down to the end of the lake and back, my confidence grew with each sweeping stroke.

    After dinner, we hiked to a lodge at the end of the property, and there met Julie, who took us on a guided mental journey to discover our animal totems, and encouraged us to take turns beating the Mother Drum. Julie played her flute, and I wrapped myself in an iridescent scarf and danced… for hours. Huh? Would I ever have suspected, 24 hours earlier, that I’d put aside my shy, collected, everyday self and become completely absorbed in this Native American ritual? Another part of the adventure.

    Sunday marked the culmination of the weekend; a high ropes course. Hilary showed us how to don harness and deal with carabiners, ropes, spotters, the arcane gear of climbing. And then we were at the course in the woods, staring up to the treetops where we were now, supposedly, going to climb. The final adventure.

    Chris and Mary, ACS volunteers (and fellow survivors) Cynthia, Rose, and Clara, outdoor educator Sue, Hilary, all encouraged us to look at the course as a metaphor for our cancer journey. First I had to choose which course to take; then I faced the difficult, hand-over-hand climb up the wobbly, unfamiliar cargo net, to a temporary resting spot at a platform in the trees. There was a shaky bridge to cross, and single strands of wire to inch along, all while battling fear, not quite knowing what would come next. And finally, there I stood, on that treetop platform, ready to hook myself onto a line that would plummet me 300 feet to the end of the course, a wild, swooping roller coaster ride… and I’ve never liked roller coasters. But after coming all that way–up nets, over bridges, up ladders–I grinned at my climbing partner, Linda, and we stepped off into space.

  • There were tears in the treetops that day, as we all found something to remind us of cancer. Some of us have scars that tug, inner wounds that haven’t yet healed; I have a shoulder I’ve been afraid to test, lymphedema I’m scared of aggravating. All of us were brought back to the miserable days of treatment, when the challenge was as much emotional as physical. But the inner strength we’d developed during treatment brought us through that ropes course. We challenged ourselves again, and again we won.
    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:

    My shoulder ached painfully all that night, and through the next day. But you know what? On the ropes course I finally screwed up the courage to really use that shoulder, to stop treating myself like a fragile egg. And I discovered, in the process, that it sometimes takes a physical challenge to heal your spiritual wounds, to give you the confidence to say yes, I AM healed. Thanks to this adventure, this gift from the American Cancer Society, I know now that I’m back. REALLY back.
Published On: October 27, 2006