Paddling for more than glory | VailDaily.com

Paddling for more than glory

Katie Drucker
Eagle Correspondent

Special to the DailyA First Descents participant kayaks through rapids.

EAGLE COUNTY ” Amira Duck was driving her Mini Cooper, with her best friend beside her in the passenger seat, when a drunk driver in a SUV crashed into them.

Her friend was rushed to the emergency room with broken bones up and down one side of her body. They didn’t think that she was going to live. She did.

Duck did not go to the emergency room until almost eight hours after the crash when her adrenaline finally wore off and she realized her foot was the size of a grapefruit.

After completing a full body scan, the doctor asked Duck if she wanted the good news or bad news first.

All Duck wanted were some painkillers.

“The good news is that your foot is not broken,” the doctor told Duck. “The bad news is that we found a tumor.”

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That was four days before Duck’s 21st birthday.

Duck, then a Southern Methodist University student, was diagnosed with papillary carcinoma, a tumor in her thyroid.

Duck, now 24 years old and an Eagle-Vail resident, looks back on the early stages in her struggle against cancer.

“I was in college. That was tough. Being sick and people not understanding because they can’t relate … I lost a lot of friends because nobody really wants to be friends with someone who could die. The new friends I had just met were like, ‘see you later,'” Duck recalls.

Losing her new college friends was not the only challenge Duck faced as a result of having cancer in her early twenties.

“It was definitely mentally straining going to radiology with all the silver-haired people. I am the youngest one in there and everyone else pretty much had lived their lives,” says Duck.

But she found a much-needed circle of support when she attended First Descents ” a nonprofit program to help young adults not feel alone in their fight against cancer.

First Descents serves cancer patients from the ages of 18 to 39. A maximum of 15 participants attend one-week programs to learn how to kayak and mountaineer in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, California or Colorado.

“We use kayaking and mountaineering as a way to bring together a group of young adults who can relate to each other because they don’t get much of that,” says Brad Ludden, a 27-year-old Vail resident, professional kayaker and founder of First Descents.

Ludden explains that the 18- to 39-year-old cancer population is incredibly under-served.

“There is this huge gap in the cancer world. Most of them, when they show up, have met at most, one or two other people their age going through what they are going through. They feel a bit in the dark. So giving them a support network like this is really helpful,” Ludden says.

Duck agrees.

“First Descents helped so much being able to talk to people my age who had been through it. Who knew what it was about ” the mental burden, the financial burden, everything that goes along with it,” Duck says .

Ludden uses the sport he loves as a vehicle to show his participants they can do anything they put their minds to. If anything, their cancer experience has made them stronger, not weaker.

“The river is a metaphor for the cancer. It is ferocious and scary and you overcome your fears and you can conquer anything after going through the huge rapid you didn’t think you could get through,” explains Duck.

The premier First Descents program was in 2001. Since then, there has been 29 programs.

This summer, there were nine First Descents programs, with an operating budget of $650,000. The programs are free and First Descents pays airfare for all participants who cannot afford it, Ludden says.

Ludden hopes to see his nonprofit organization grow in both number of participants and donations.

“I really want to see the foundation grow to its full potential. My personal goal is 1,000 participants in a year,” he says. Ludden hopes this is achieved in the next five years.

t First Descents gets 80 to 90 percent of its money from people who donate about $100, he says.

“It is a lot of work. We spend a lot of time networking, putting on fundraisers, researching opportunities,” Ludden says. “It is hard because our program doesn’t focus on kids, which is really easy to market. People love donating to kids. We also don’t focus on anything that helps the older population ” people with deeper pockets.”

In addition to donations, volunteers also are needed to make First Descents operate.

“I definitely recommend this program and recommend people donating so that people can experience this. It really was therapeutic; better therapy then any psychologist could give,” Duck says.