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Young Adult Cancer Survivors Connect With Nature and Each Other

April 2012

Cancer doesn't care how old you are, David Victorson, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Feinberg School of Medicine's Department of Medical Social Sciences, realized as a psychosocial oncology fellow in 2005.

"I vividly recall meeting one afternoon with a patient who had a very poor prognosis and maybe had a few weeks to live. He was talking about something banal, and then mid-sentence, he stopped himself and said, 'Hey, didn't you say that you have a 1-year old daughter at home?' When I said 'yes,' he reached over and grabbed me by my shirt and said, 'Go home, now.' I did, and I remember actually running home from the train. Those words still help me tune into what's really important."

Victorson, who is also a member of the Lurie Cancer Center, was inspired by his interactions with patients not much older than himself to start True North Treks in 2008. Combining meditation and a week-long backpacking trip through some of America's most pristine landscapes, Victorson's nonprofit aids young adults during their transition from diagnosis and treatment into survivorship. "There is something powerful about connecting with others who have been through something similar, especially when it's something stressful like cancer," Victorson said. "On our treks, we purposefully avoid structured, moderator-facilitated discussion about participants' cancer experiences, and rather take our cues from the surroundings."

Young Adult Cancer
The vision behind the nonprofit is to support a population frequently overlooked by traditional diagnosis, treatment, and recovery protocols. Although cancer is less pronounced in 18-39 year olds, a diagnosis in this age group occurs on average once every eight minutes.

"Through many experiences of my own, I also stand by the good medicine and restorative benefits of spending time in nature, especially given how as a society, we've continued to remove the outdoors from our experiences," Victorson said.

And those diagnosed have the same likelihood of dying from cancer now as they did 40 years ago, a statistic that makes them the only age group in the world not to have seen improved mortality rates, and one of the facts that National Young Adult Cancer Awareness Week (April 2 through April 8) hopes to make more prevalent.

No longer children, but not necessarily entrenched in a career or family of their own, young adults face unique challenges related to disruptions in education, career plans, relationships, fertility issues, social activities, emotional health, financial constraints, and the physical challenges of cancer treatment.

"True North Treks came in at a perfect moment in my life," said Liz Campanella, who took part in the inaugural trek in 2010. "You are with these people for five days and you can talk things through for hours and hours and share intimate stories without judgment."

A Journey of Survival
In 2008, Campanella discovered that even a physically active, 29-year-old vegetarian could get cancer. It was stage 4 Hodgkin's lymphoma. It was the beginning of her journey as a young adult cancer survivor.

"I was not ready to die and wanted my friends to watch me on my journey," Campanella said. "I never lost my hair, though it thinned, and I always had a large group of three to seven people with me at chemo. My journey was beautiful and lacking of some of the hardships, though it was tough at times, and not fun."

As a practitioner and researcher of meditation, Victorson is a stanch advocate of its psychological and physiological benefits.

"Through many experiences of my own, I also stand by the good medicine and restorative benefits of spending time in nature, especially given how as a society, we've continued to remove the outdoors from our experiences," he said.

Although the treks are kept to a fairly basic array of hiking and backpacking activities, there remains one distinctive component to each. "Our sustainability model is such that we pay for every participant's experience and they pledge to pay forward a minimum of $1,500 to a future participant through their own grassroots fundraising efforts," Victorson said.

"And the places that True North Treks chooses are mind-blowingly amazing," Campanella said. This year's trips include Washington's Olympic Peninsula in June, the Three Sisters volcanic peaks in Oregon in July, and Montana's Cabinet Mountains in September.

Living just miles from downtown Chicago, Campanella, who will be celebrating her fifth wedding anniversary this summer, remains grateful for the opportunity True North Treks gave her. "I was missing the ability to speak with young adults who had gone through similar experiences," she said. "Certain questions were at the top of my mind but not something that most of my friends wanted to constantly talk about. The most challenging part of being a cancer survivor is the fear of its return. I've realized I can't really affect if it is going to come back and instead have learned to take life in stride."

(Last updated on June 25, 2013 )