The most underserved cancer group is those in their 20s and 30s. At First Descents Camp, former pro kayaker Brad Ludden helps these fighters thrive.
By Mark Anders | Photography By Brian Bailey
IT STARTS AS a low hum but grows into a roar as Brad Ludden, 29, and his friend, nicknamed “Tailz,” drift toward the rapids on the Colorado River. Tailz’s mouth is pursed with the determination of an athlete. Muscling his paddle, he works to keep the bow of his blue-and-white kayak pointed downstream in the confused water. With the chiseled jaw of a college quarterback, Ludden, 29, calls out guidance: “A couple strokes on your left! Now paddle on your right! That’s it, Tailz!” His own strokes look effortless, as he steers his own kayak smoothly down the rowdy white water—backwards.
Tailz’s real name is Neil Taylor, a 31-year-old former schoolteacher from Vermont. About two and a half years ago, Taylor was hit with the news that would change his life. The diagnosis: a brain tumor the size of an orange.
Surgery proved successful, but when Taylor woke up in the recovery room, he was blind. “Before I went blind, I was a total athlete, and I loved extreme sports,” he says. “There was such a huge void in my life because I can’t do that stuff anymore…. It’s a huge loss.”
But then a friend told Taylor about Ludden and his First Descents, a camp designed to teach young adults with cancer how to master kayaking. Ludden, from Montana, learned to paddle at age 6. A natural athlete, he later won the Junior National Championships and earned a silver medal at the Junior World Championships in 1999. Ludden also began running international expeditions, logging first descents (first kayak navigation on a white-water river) throughout Africa. He also began appearing on magazine covers and inked a lucrative sponsorship deal with Nike.
About that time, at the height of his career, Ludden’s Aunt Lori, in her mid-30s, was diagnosed with breast cancer, and the news rocked Ludden’s close-knit family. “Our way of coping was to start volunteering at a local pediatric oncology summer camp,” he says. Ludden’s mom helped with cooking, but Ludden didn’t know what to do—until he spotted a nearby lake. “My only way to communicate was kayaking, so I took all my kayaks up there and taught these kids how to paddle,” Ludden recalls. “And I just saw it working. You just saw it in their faces.”
Ludden was so excited by what he witnessed that he sought out volunteer opportunities at an organization that teaches kayaking to cancer patients. “But there wasn’t one,” he says. “I thought, that just doesn’t seem right. This is what I can give to someone. I was like, man, I have to do this.”
So in 1999, at age 18, Ludden founded First Descents. His plan: focus on campers ages 18 to 40 (like his Aunt Lori), because even though more than 70,000 young adults are diagnosed with cancer annually, this age group is the most underserved population of patients. Ludden moved to Vail, Colorado, where he worked feverishly during the kayaking off-season, organizing and raising money. In 2001, Ludden and friends hosted the first camp in Vail, teaching kayaking to 15 young adults with cancer.
The responses from the campers, their parents, and their physicians were astounding. It seemed Ludden, with zero medical experience, had stumbled upon a neglected part of the treatment process for cancer patients.
Though funding was tight, Ludden kept the program free for all participants. It continued growing, and in 2011, First Descents will offer 26 weeks of camps with 375 free spots in Vail, Montana, and Oregon, including a new rock-climbing program. To date, First Descents has served 825 young adults with cancer.
“It really picked up my spirit,” says Tailz. “I love kayaking, but it’s much deeper than that. Out of the 18 people in my camp there were five others with brain tumors. We’d all sit around the fire and laugh about things that you can’t laugh about with people who haven’t had cancer. It was so great to be around those people.”
Last year, Ludden retired from full-time pro kayaking to be Chief Mission Officer for First Descents, helping with fundraising and programming, and collecting his first paycheck after a decade of volunteering.
“They say every athlete dies two deaths: the day they retire and the day they die,” says Ludden. “But for me, retiring was like being born again. I’m more passionate about my career at First Descents than I ever was about being a professional athlete. And that’s saying something, because I really cared about pro kayaking.”
“To me, kayaking rivers is a metaphor for surviving cancer,” says camper Bethany “Marhaba” Winsor, a 30-year-old breast cancer survivor. “You can hear the running water before you can even see it. You don’t know what’s coming, but you know you’re on this path. It’s the same thing as being pulled through your diagnosis. All these people are telling you what to do, and you have no control over any of it. But just like when you come up on a rapid, you’re supposed to lean forward into it, and paddle on through. After First Descents, that became my mantra in life: lean into it, and paddle through.”
Read the full article: http://drivers.lexus.com/lexusdrivers/magazine/articles/Lexus-Lifestyle/First-Descents