Oftentimes young adult cancer survivors are referred to as being “lost in transition” when they finish treatment and enter survivorship. Important life events, milestones, and decisions such as fertility that many of us experience are either significantly interrupted or abandoned as a result of their diagnosis and treatment. Dr. David Victorson, Assistant Professor in Medical Social Sciences and Institute for Healthcare Studies here at Northwestern University had been working with young adult cancer patients and was profoundly moved by their experience. It encouraged him to create True North Treks, an organization founded to support young adult cancer survivors during the transition from patient to survivor through experiential treks in nature where mindful awareness practices and outdoor survival skills are taught.
Recently I had an opportunity to talk with Melanie, the program director for True North Treks, about the organization. If anyone can relate to the participants of True North Treks, Melanie is certainly that person. In 2004 at the age of 24, she was diagnosed with papillary thyroid carcinoma and underwent two rounds of radioactive iodine treatment and multiple surgeries for cancerous lymph nodes. She found Dr. Victorson through the web community of young adult cancer survivors and shortly thereafter became the program director as well as an expedition leader for True North Treks. I asked her what she thought cancer survivors could gain from this type of experience and she replied, “Cancer can be so disruptive and rock you to the core of who you think you are so being able to trust your own body again and push yourself physically is really powerful.” Further discussion proved the treks are designed to do exactly this.
A trek is made up of 6 to 8 participants who hike out to picturesque, but relatively isolated areas that are appropriate for the participant’s physical capacity. Many of the survivors struggle with the late effects of cancer including reduced lung capacity so it’s important that the treks are challenging, but accessible. While on the trek, they’re taught outdoor survival skills, mindful awareness, and they get to spend time with other young survivors who can sympathize with their experience. Frequently with a cancer diagnosis comes a fear of the unknown - not knowing what’s going to happen next, but for Melanie, this is exactly why True North Treks is a great fit for a young cancer survivor. She says, “We want them to be confident in their skills and really embrace the experience without the fear of being in an unknown environment. A lot of what we talk about on the trek is managing the unknown and finding different ways to embrace that in positive ways rather than being thrown off by it.”