Recapping Retreat Yourself Adventure 2014

October 8, 2014

By Teva Harrison

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When I first found out that I had cancer, the last thing I wanted to do was talk to other people. I felt so isolated and I felt broken in social situations. I didn’t have the language for what was happening to me, and it was super scary.

Fortunately, my hospital does this super-clever thing. In order to gain access to the online portal where we can look up our own test results, you have to have a meeting with a psychologist on the survivorship team. I am so lucky they made me talk because she listened to me — to my fears and hopes, my love of nature, and my need to take charge of my body. I felt that my body was betraying me and needed to prove to myself that I am still capable and strong, even though I am living with cancer. I have a desire to fit as much living as possible into however much time I have — whether it’s a little or a lot. First, I needed to figure out a way forward, and I felt really lost.

She told me about a really cool organization called YACC that holds an adventure retreat where I could do things like climb actual mountains and conquer surmountable challenges that might put me in the right mindset to face the internal challenges of living with cancer.

I listened. When I got home, I looked up YACC online. I read about Retreat Yourself Adventure, and it looked amazing. In the fine print, it said that I needed to be post-treatment. Since my disease is metastatic, I will always be in treatment, but I was feeling well, so I took a flyer and emailed to see if an exception could be made for me.

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When I was diagnosed last year, I had so much back pain that I could barely carry my purse, much less carry my own backpack up a mountain. But, thanks to the magic of palliative radiation, my back felt better than it had in years. I bought an awesome day pack at MEC that put the weight on my hips, but I was still pretty nervous about carrying my things up a mountain, so I asked my dear friend, Cameo, if she would apply to come with me. It made me feel safe that I had an option to bring a supporter, because leaving my comfort zone (that is, my home and husband) had become kind of scary since my diagnosis.

The team at YACC sent us a training schedule that included gradual hills and lots and lots of stairs. I think the schedule could get almost anybody in shape to climb a mountain. It made the activities not seem so scary by themselves. And I have always wanted to visit Newfoundland to experience all that natural beauty. What a gift!

It was sunny and gorgeous when I landed in St. John’s. I was really early, so I went downtown to explore the city until it was time to check in. When I got back to the hotel, I could feel the energy building. Every person was warm and kind. Maybe that’s part of how you self-select for a group like this. We shared our stories at the opening circle, talked about our hopes for the retreat, and it was a safe enough place that some people shared their doubts about the process. It can be hard to believe that a long weekend of hiking can make a big difference in your outlook or trajectory until you experience it for yourself.

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That first night, we received a pile of rocks and a small bag full of paper cards. Each night we were asked to think about a challenge or an obstacle that impedes our ability to live fully which we wrote on a rock, and also to think of something that helps us to navigate that obstacle which we wrote on a small card. We were to carry the rocks and bag with us, and when we were ready, we would leave behind the rock symbolizing the challenge. I can’t articulate how powerful this was each day. It felt like an act of practical magic, setting the intention for positive change in my life.

St John’s was our base for an easy hike down Signal Hill (after basking in some history and thinking about Marconi), a bonding scavenger hunt at Cape Spear (the easternmost point in North America!), and a really lovely dinner with some of YACC’s fabulous donors. It was special to have the chance to say thank you in person.

Then we headed to the airport to fly over to Deer Lake. I’d like to interject a few comments about how fantastic Provincial Airlines was! It felt like old-school, dignified flying. In the era where some airlines charge for carry-ons, the little things, like a warm cloth to clean our hands and snacks, really make a difference. I guess that’s just the Newfoundland hospitality!

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From Deer Lake, we piled into vans to drive out to Rocky Harbour, which was our base for two days of hiking in Gros Morne. The first day, we hiked the deceptively difficult Lookout Trail, where we wandered through diverse plant communities and were rewarded by a glorious view — and a fierce wind. I think it gave us all an idea of how much of a challenge Gros Morne mountain was going to be.

The next day, we filled our day packs with lunches, layers, and litres of water for a full day of hiking up the mountain. The hike to the base of the mountain is a full hour, and not an easy hike on its own. A few people made the difficult choice to stop there. I am sure it was a hard decision, but I really respected the self-awareness. The climb up Gros Morne is no joke, sometimes with no path, scrambling over rocks on a steep incline, with the wind howling. There were times that I felt like it was trying to lift me by the backpack to fly away!

When I reached the top — having carried my own backpack with all of my things — I felt a kind of joy that has no words. I am stronger than my cancer, and more able. And the view! Spectacular. It’s very cold up there though — a tough place to linger.

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Another big challenge came for me the next day. I am afraid of heights and we were going zip-lining on the longest and tallest zip lines in Canada! I had been trying to convince myself that now that I have cancer, there’s no point being afraid of little things like heights, and I hoped that would play out in a lack of histrionics when it came to stepping off the edges. I will admit that I kind of had to lower myself onto my bum and scootch off the edge, rather than step like other people, but I did it!

Retreat Yourself Adventure was amazing. I faced fears, I challenged myself, I stepped outside of my comfort zone, and through it all, I felt tremendous love and support from the YACC staff and the other retreaters. I am so grateful for the experience.

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