Kayaking 50,000 vertical feet over six months. That’s what Ross and Brianne are doing this Summer. Kinda puts your plans to shame already, huh? And you still don’t know why they’re doing it! Let’s backtrack a little.
First Descents (“FD”) is a non-profit organization located in Colorado, with the simple, yet powerful, mission to empower young adults with cancer. Yep, the C word. In their own words:
“First Descents is committed to curing young adults of the emotional effects of cancer and empowering them to regain control of their lives by experiencing outdoor adventure therapy through kayaking, rock climbing and other outdoor adventure sports.”
FD accomplishes this by providing summer camp for young adults at no cost. It works entirely off of volunteers and donations. This is where Ross and Brianne come back in. I first met Brianne outside the airport in Port au Prince last year as we waited for our shuttle to drive us to the Hands On Disaster Response base in Leogane. This Spring she will continue to dedicate her time and energy to another great cause by raising money to help cover costs for 50 young adults with cancer. Brianne got involved with FD when her grandmother had just ended radiation and chemotherapy for breast cancer, and when her mother had just been diagnosed. She knows what it’s like to fight cancer. When I asked her why she was doing this for FD, she replied: “FD is an amazing organization that we are proud to help and excited to be a part of. There are not many programs out there that focus on young adults with cancer. A lot of the focus is on children and older adults.” So, six months, 50,000 vertical feet. Why? To spread the word across the US about the work FD is doing, and to help put 50 young adults through Summer camp.
I planned to write more about Brianne, Ross and FD myself, but then Brianne emailed me a speech that her friend Beth gave at a recent FD fundraising ball, and I know more justice is done by letting you read her words rather than mine. It’s lengthy, but I hope you take the time. And I hope you take a look at Ross and Brianne’s fundraising pages which are linked above–100% of the proceeds go to fund people like Beth.
Beth’s Speech

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“Good Evening. My name is Beth Silverman, although these days I go by

Stiletto. When I was asked to speak here this evening, I knew that it

would be a challenge. I knew that I would have to dig deep into my

soul to find the words that could somehow do justice to the elite

group of people gathered here tonight.

And although I am here to tell my story, my story is just one of many.

We all have a story. We all have a diagnosis. We all have the battle

scars that show the war we’ve waged against cancer. A war that some

have won, and some have lost, and others are left hanging in the

balance. Hanging by threads, by cords, by the skin of our teeth,

hanging by our boot straps we hold on and wait for the moment when we

can start living again; When we can peacefully inhabit a world full of

Hope, full of Courage, full of …A CURE. We travel on this path full

of hardships, obstacles, and unsteady terrain, ever swiftly moving,

placing one foot in front of the other– sometimes carefully executed,

other times with reckless abandon. We move through the motions, all

the while waiting for the answers, searching for the lesson.

If you told me the lesson was that fighting cancer would be a metaphor

for paddling a kayak I’d have swiftly kicked your ass with my

stiletto. But, you would have been right. Cancer tried to steal so

many things, and with a paddle and a kayak I stole them back. Cancer

tried to take my life, and First Descents showed me how to reclaim it,

and then live it to the fullest.

Before cancer living life to the fullest came easily for me. I was 26

years old and I ran a $25 million dollar business, while dating one of

Manhattan’s most eligible bachelors. I never got sick. Sick, was for

the vulnerable and the weak, of which I was neither. You can imagine

my shock when a marble sized lump introduced itself to me while I was

taking a shower. Ten days later I had an aggressive form of breast

cancer, and I sat in front of a surgeon who said I’m free on Tuesday,

how bout we take your breasts off then, as she penciled it into her

calendar like it was a lunch date at Nordstrom’s. I met my oncologist

on my 27th birthday. She told me I had a 52% chance of surviving 5

years disease free if I did nothing. Do nothing? Do you know who I


I walked into my first day of chemo in four inch stilettos wearing a

shirt that said “My oncologist is better than yours”. For six months I

graced the oncology floor with my over the top shoe collection,

boisterous laughter, and a slew of funny shirts that summed up how I

was feeling so eloquently. FUCK CANCER, was my favorite.

The guise of humor is what kept me afloat. In between those moments of

laughter and comical cancer shirts I was forced to face the fact that

because of cancer I was now jobless, almost bankrupt, and fighting the

FDA for a lifesaving drug that they didn’t want to give me b/c my

cancer was not yet stage four. Oh, and the eligible bachelor…he

dumped me after my bilateral mastectomies.

Cancer wasn’t playing fair, but I only played to win, so I turned all

of my energy and passion into waging an all out war on the disease. It

was a worthy opponent.

By my 29th birthday I had buried 29 friends to cancer. 29 funerals.

Each one harder than the last. Hearing little children being told

their mommy is an angel now, and the smell of the flowers and the

words of condolence played in my mind like a continuous loop over and

over again. And I became angry and scared. So I ate. And I ate and I

ate, until one day I woke up weighing 60 pounds more than I did at

diagnosis. And I needed help, only I didn’t know how to ask.

When I heard about First Descents, I didn’t give it much thought. I

mean, my version of physical activity is running to catch a subway in

high heels. Still, I thought the only way to stop letting cancer

define every part of my life would be to step as far out of my comfort

zone as possible. So I traded in my stilettos and skyscrapers, for

booties, a PFD, and the mountains.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that first day of camp was the

beginning of the rest of my life. It was there that I learned that

Cancer WOULD NOT, be the hardest thing I would ever have to overcome

and this excited me. I pushed myself physically and emotionally in

ways I never imagined possible. With this new family by my side, I

felt safe.

As we lined up for the graduation rapid my heart was pumping through

my PFD as I shouted out, I’LL GO FIRST!!! This was my moment to prove

to myself that I could do this. That I owned this. With my eyes ahead,

my breathing focused, one wave at a time I paddled. and I paddled and

I paddled. I left so much of myself on that river. So much anger, so

much fear.

When I stopped I felt myself starting to tear up. It was the first

time in five years that I felt like I could breathe. And in that

moment, on that river, looking at those mountains, I took my life


And that was only the beginning. In the first ten weeks home from camp

I embraced a strong, healthy lifestyle and lost 30 pounds. In the

months that followed I spent a great deal of time reflecting on the

lessons I had learned. I began to understand that the way I live my

life every day directly affects each person I encounter. And when I

feel myself begin to falter, it is Brad Ludden who is always there to

remind me to give myself permission to live. To embrace adventure with

a heart wide open. And as I climbed to the highest point I could reach

atop the Canadian Rockies a few weeks ago, I wrote a note of

thanks….and left it on the mountain.

Because of First Descents I am certain there is always a way to do the

impossible– to survive the unsurvivable, for as long as our forevers

may be. The common bond that ties us together is not cancer nor

kayaking. It is the fact that when faced with the impossible, WE


So as you leave here tonight, and return to your homes…should you

find yourself taking a first descent into what seems like the

impossible, remember how you felt on the river, on the mountains.

Remember how you feel in this very moment. Determined, ready to meet

the challenges of tomorrow, and always surrounded by family.

If that’s not enough to encourage you to support the cause, check out some of the Survivor Feedback.