Over the past few years I have met some amazing survivors on this journey. Through cancer trips and social media connecting with survivor athletes inspires me to keep on with my daily miles. Yiling is a 10 year survivor who is not only an adventure seeker but artist. I asked her if she would write up how fitness and the outdoors have been healing, pushing herself out of her comfort zone. I am excited to share with you this powerful original piece of poetry.
On the water
It’s a bit like drowning yourself. First: I’m floating on the water like a centaur. Half human above, half kayak below. Mer-boat. The water supports me. I am impossibly buoyant. I lean left, as though to stretch my arms far into the water. The whole world tilts, but not quite enough. The sky still sways above, the water still shimmers around my hips. I rock left. Right. Left. Right, left-right.
Success — I’m under! The air around me is thick.. It’s water, all muffled sound and water, water, with my arms waving everywhere.
An ounce of panic. My lungs are desperate for air.
These seconds last an eternity, like they could be my last. Before the cells in my head can debate, the cells in my legs kick. I am mer-boat no more, my legs kick out and they are free, reaching up past the surface to the sky — wait no! Not. this. time. No, I’m still upside down. My boat half knows: I can do better. Breath out a moment. Tuck down, embrace the water, the disorientation, the quiet darkness. Hug the boat, reach my arms left, my hands reach more, my knuckles feel air between my fingers, which guide the paddle in an arc around.
Then, a triumphant burst to brilliant light, a splash, the sky, the world has turned again, and I. am. Breathing! The lake has released me and sits below, a friendly blanket cradling me again.
Let’s go, again.
This. This is the feeling: just after the dark, when the world floods back in. The sky so vast, the sun so bright, the water so fresh and cold, and full of deep color. My limbs are free again, my breath — all mine. The air–SO delicious!
I was 27, planning a wedding. At a routine doctor’s visit, my gyno sent me to my first mammogram. They took a core sample of my flesh, then later someone with shit bedside manner called me at work and told me I had cancer –just a touch.
Then, months and months and months of treatments, rounds and rounds of chemo, a surgery, and days and days and days of radiation, hormone therapy. Months with hours stacked upon hours of waiting in doctors’ offices, waiting for medical scans, wading through healthcare bills and on hold forever for insurance calls. With all those hours in waiting rooms, all those hours in the chemo ward watching medicine drip into me making me ill but better. All those hours thinking about the what-ifs, railing silently against the unfairness of the universe. I’m in shock, in denial, in to-do list mode, in well-let’s-do-this mode, spending my savings –not on a house or a trip or friends’ weddings– but on medical bills for my life, my future.
It’s a lot of time to think about what you’d rather be doing instead of all that waiting. Me? I’d rather drink deep, full, and thirstily from the world.
Maybe if I hadn’t had all those boring-ass moments in waiting rooms contemplating my mortality I’d still have ventured out a little, but somehow that time with the possibility of death feeling much more real and close makes me tilt. It tilts me when life asks me, again and again: would you rather sit, or go see some of this mad, fantastic world, and see how far this body can take you? It tilts me toward yes many more times than no.
Yes to learning the grace of rolling a kayak so I can go farther, see more, breath deep, meet more seal friends and paddle that next wave train.
Yes to stand up paddleboarding on the frigid glacial waters from the Cascades.
Yes to a little claustrophobic night snorkeling in the Salish Sea to glimpse some bioluminescent waters.
Yes to learning the clink-thuck of a good axe placement climbing ice.
Yes to snowshoeing in crisp fresh powder to see a 360 view of mountains all around.
Yes to sliding down a mountainside on a flimsy little board, catching an edge and flopping face-down in a snowbank like a happy fool.
Yes to being in the presence of something great and feeling so small, knowing much of it was there millenia before, and will be there long after, that this is the way it was meant to be, and that’s okay.
Roll, paddle, keep going. Meet Mother Nature, greet her well, and move on together in peace for a while.
Yiling is a 10-year cancer survivor and fellow First Descents alumn. A child of Chinese immigrants and a Minnesotan upbringing, she lives in Seattle and can often be found eating and adventuring on all forms of water. She’s found some of her best inspiration, healing, and connection while immersed in water. Follow her shenanigans on Instagram at @ywong10 for more adventures and a new blog coming soon.