Program offers outdoor adventures to cancer survivors, UNC faculty volunteer services

Kayaking and rock climbing aren’t usual clinical activities for UNC Lineberger medical oncologist Dr. Juneko Grilley-Olson and nurse practitioner Elizabeth Sherwood, but they were during the time that each volunteered for a First Descents camp week for young adult cancer survivors.

First Descents - Dr. Grilley-Olson
Back Row, Far Left - Dr. Grilley-Olson with a First Descents group.

Begun in 2000, First Descents offers young adult cancer fighters and survivors a free outdoor adventure experience designed to empower them to climb, paddle and surf beyond their diagnosis, defy their cancer, reclaim their lives and connect with others doing the same.

Dr. Grilley-Olson became involved after hearing about the program from fellow UNC medical oncologist, Dr. Hy Muss. “With my personal interests in climbing and having seen it help so many people grow in confidence, it 'just made sense,' particularly after having worked with so many young adult sarcoma patients in the past couple years who could grow from it. I have referred two of my patients to the program, and they both loved it.”

Elizabeth Sherwood decided to volunteer after hearing about the program. “I was interested in learning more about it since we are developing our young adult services at UNC. By volunteering, I could help the First Descents program and learn from these patients more about the issues they face.”

Liz Sherwood
On right: Liz Sherwood during a First Descents outing.

Both UNC practitioners volunteered their medical expertise at the Bryson City, NC, location. Ms. Sherwood also served as a camp mom. “I helped with meal preparation, and was available to talk with the campers to provide support and help them process their experience.

“First Descent stands for the first descent down a river. Every day with cancer or life after cancer treatment is like a first descent,“ Ms. Sherwood explains.

Dr. Grilley-Olson adds, “First Descents helps participants by providing them a safely structured environment to build an exciting new skill and to rebuild and regain confidence in themselves.”

Both use the word ‘transformation’ to describe what happens at the camp. Ms. Sherwood says, “I saw these young people transform from a group of individuals, who probably felt quite isolated in their everyday lives because of their cancer experience, pulling together in a way that was like a sports team. They also benefited individually from challenging themselves in a new kind of way.”

Dr. Grilley-Olson explains, “Seeing the transformation that occurs in a week’s time is inspiring. The experience helps participants learn to regain trust in their body, which has let them down with cancer, and helps them move past the sense of vulnerability. They can then carry this forward in the rest of their lives.”

Ms. Sherwood says, “One supportive aspect of the program for the participants is that many young people may have rare types of cancer or types of cancer that most people are not familiar with. The camp gives them a place to talk about their experiences with people who are not going to grow tired of their conversation or tell them that since they’ve finished their treatment, they need to move on.”

Dr. Grilley-Olson states, “Participants move past an identity of someone with cancer back to being someone who is remarkable for any number of reasons, but who are not defined by their cancer.”

Ms. Sherwood concludes, “I am so very impressed by the dedication of the First Descents staff and their organization. We hope to work more closely with them in the future.“ Dr. Grilley-Olson concurs, “The First Descent staff and volunteers are wonderful. It’s inspiring to see others so selflessly dedicate themselves to helping others.”

Dr. Grilley-Olson says what she takes away from her experience is “seeing the resilience/reemergence of a person, not a patient. I think it helps me be a better doctor, by filling in the deep dimensions of lives that exist beyond my clinic space.”

Read cancer survivor Katy Sims’ account of her First Descent experience and watch her interview on WRAL.