What does the title Above and Beyond Cancer mean to you?
RD: The name of the organization, I think, is really appropriate. Above and Beyond Cancer describes a philosophy of living one’s life regardless of what difficulties one may have faced in life. And obviously we’re looking at it through the cancer lens, as a cancer doctor, caring for cancer survivors, Above and Beyond cancer is referring to any individual whose life has been touched by cancer but how we can inspire individuals to live lives really that in a way that transcends the cancer experience. It’s motivated by the cancer experience, it’s informed by the cancer experience, but it’s really living one’s life above and beyond the cancer experience. That the cancer experience is part of who an individual is, and it informs them of kind of the reality of the human condition, but it also inspires them to lead a life that is fully committed, fully realized, lived with intention, purpose, authenticity, compassion, above and beyond cancer, and really, above and beyond whatever difficulties one may face in life. And it’s that living above and beyond, pursuing life to its fullest that really tells individuals what above and beyond cancer is all about. Unless one lives their life reaching above and beyond what they know they can obtain, unless an individual lives their life reaching for something beyond the ordinary or mundane, one will never know what they’re truly capable of. And that’s what Above + Beyond Cancer is all about. Obviously through the cancer lens, but really it’s about living one’s life to the full potential. And I would say even more, it’s understanding over time how the difficult things in life, and cancer being one of those, that really help us realize what we’re capable of and in the end, those difficulties in life, those bumps in the road of life, become not so much obstacles but opportunities and springboards for allowing us to reach higher, farther and beyond just the difficulty itself.
Is there a particular awareness you’re trying to bring to focus when you founded Above + Beyond Cancer? Is there something that was important to you in terms of letting the public be aware of some sort of issue or need?
RD: Over the course of my 30 years of being a cancer doctor, I have seen time and again individuals who have gone through the cancer journey that have come through that cancer journey with a better understanding of themselves, a better understanding of what it means to live life fully engaged, with a reordering of priorities that allows them to be more present in the world and to pay attention to the really important things in life. And I’ve realized that cancer has the power to change lives. The reason it has the power to change lives is because ultimately it reminds people of their own mortality and it’s realizing that we have a finite period of time here on earth that can motivate someone to make use of each and every moment to the fullest. That is something I’ve seen time and time again, and as I’ve had the privilege of working with cancer survivors and their families, I have been able to see how understanding one’s cancer condition and the possibilities that it can afford them, I’ve seen how that can play out, and I wanted to provide every individual the opportunity to see that as well, and to experience not only the hardship that goes with the cancer journey, but to also be able to take advantage of the blessings that can really come from facing a difficult condition, especially one that can potentially take one’s life and can always remind one of the limited time we have here on earth, and hopefully allow every individual, whether it’s the cancer patient, the cancer survivor or the family members, to see how blessed we truly are and to allow the cancer journey to then inform them of how they will live their lives. Now as a cancer doctor, I also want to make sure that I’m using my profession to provide them the care they need, to treat, to take care of, to heal any condition that’s related to the cancer, to also make sure that as a physician, I’m providing all of the care and resources that they may need to deal with the aftermath of their cancer treatment, but also helping them understand how their cancer journey or their loved one’s cancer journey may be a huge incentive, a huge motivation, a huge catalyst to changing their lives in a way that their life will be more fully realized and better for having gone through that experience. That it will be lived more fully engaged, more engaged with not only a higher purpose but also with the community and that they can actually have a life that is lived more optimally as a direct result of what they’ve gone through with their cancer journey.
Was there a certain point in your career that you recognized survivorship, that phase of the journey, was not perhaps given enough attention or perhaps it was not understood as part of the journey of the cancer story in one’s life, and is that what caused you to found Above + Beyond because you recognized a gap of sorts that needed to be filled in terms of having an outlet for survivors to utilize?
RD: You know we all have lives that have many dimensions to them. I have for many, many years realized the importance in my own life in terms of meaning and purpose, of being involved in several things. One is things that intellectually inspire me or challenge me. And second would be physical activity. The importance of engaging in physical activity as something that provides meaning and purpose and quality to my life. Third, nature, the importance of being outside, engaged in nature, being immersed in nature, how that provides meaning and purpose and value and quality to my life. So over the course of the last five decades I have realized that my life is better when I make sure that I am engaged in intellectually stimulating activity, when I’m engaged in vigorous physical activity, and when I’m engaged in activities outdoors that allow me to be immersed in nature and feel more a part of the natural world. Another thing that I’ve realized over time as a cancer doctor is the value, the therapeutic value, to patients and their families of me providing an authentic relationship with them. I know that the actual therapeutic value of the work I do in terms of prescribing treatment and administering treatment, that that treatment is more effective because of the personal relationship, the authentic relationship that happens between a patient, their family and their caregiver. As I developed my style of practicing medicine, I naturally wanted to provide not just the cancer treatment but to also help cancer survivors and their families understand some of life’s lessons that I’ve learned over time in terms of providing healing and comfort to family, and that can be much greater than just the anti-cancer treatment. That can involve encouraging them to see the value of vigorous physical activity, of intellectual stimulation, of being involved in nature. So as I expanded my ministry of healing in the world of cancer beyond just prescribing anti-cancer treatment, to taking care of cancer patients and their families, including in the survivorship period, beyond the active anti-cancer treatment, it was natural for me to want to bring into the picture of cancer survivorship services of intellectual stimulation, physical activity, and being involved in nature. In 2011, everything kind of came together with the first journey that became the beginning of Above + Beyond Cancer. And that was the opportunity to take a group of cancer survivors on a trek to Everest Base Camp. I had been to Nepal on a mountain climbing trip on my own ten years prior to that. I knew not only the value of vigorous physical activity and being immersed in nature, all of the amazing things that can happen when you get together a team and you’re in another culture in an incredible landscape, and you have removed yourself from the normal, mundane activities of life and put yourself in a situation that is special, that has physical difficulty associated with it, incredible nature, bonding as a team, the opportunity that that situation can provide to transforming one’s life, I realized how special that sort of situation can be. And to be able to then take a group of cancer survivors and see it come to fruition was the realization that this combination really had the potential to change lives and to transform lives. As we completed that journey, it was obvious to me that this was a formula that really was powerful. And we sat down to think, “How could we provide this sort of experience to more individuals? How can we not only provide this experience in a foreign setting on a mountain, but how could we take the elements of that experience, again, those elements include engaging in physical activity, a challenge, being together with a higher purpose, looking beyond one’s self, and that’s what being in another culture can do, how can we provide the elements of that in various experiences to cancer survivors and their families, through anyone touched by cancer, to help create a transformational experience?” So that was how Above + Beyond Cancer got started. And we realized that some of things that provide these transformational journeys don’t have to be halfway around the world to a mountaintop in Nepal, but can happen within the community as we inspire individuals to be challenged intellectually, to be challenge physically and to come together with an understanding of a higher purpose and how special each day is because the number of days we have on earth are limited, whether we have cancer or not.
You’re coming up on your sixth transformational journey in September, going to Machu Picchu in Peru. Can you think back to when you did your first Above + Beyond expedition and was this something that you could envision – that there would be this growing family with multiple trips and that the influence would be as big as it is right now?
RD: When we did the first journey – the trek to Everest Base Camp – I knew the potential. I have to tell you though, even knowing the potential that the trip had for transforming lives, having personally having my own life transformed by a journey I made ten years ago, even knowing the potential, I was blown away by how powerful the transformational experience was. And perhaps I wasn’t as surprised by how transformational it was for those of us on the journey, but what really blew me away was how this journey had the power to transform lives of the individuals who were just following us through Facebook, blogs, emails, who then learned of the journey after we returned as we had the opportunity for cancer survivors to tell their story. And that this journey had the power to transform lives by ripple effect, and that individuals who weren’t actually physically present on the journey could have their lives transformed just by knowing about the journey. That is what really set the stage then for creating an enduring, sustainable organization called Above + Beyond Cancer. When we left Des Moines to fly to Nepal, no I had no vision that this was gonna be followed by a summit of Kilimanjaro, a spiritual journey to the summit of Imja Tse, a bicycle race across the country, a 40-day, 4,000-mile run and subsequently a journey the Andes mountains to Machu Picchu, I don’t think I even dared to dream anything that big. But it was the power of that first journey and especially the ability to see that that journey that we did had ripple effects, that made me realize that this was a worthy endeavor and organization. And I think that the ripple effect is important because although each journey is incredibly powerful, I realized that the number of people who can actually go on some of these trips is somewhat limited, but that because of the power of the ripple effect, the power to transform lives by just telling the story and then by creating smaller events within communities, I realized that there was enough opportunity to effect enough people that made this organization worth of the time, talent and treasure it takes to create an organization like this, and sustain an organization like Above + Beyond Cancer.
Speaking of sustaining an organization like this, can you tell me a little bit about how these participants are chosen and where the funding comes from?
RD: The selection of the cancer survivors and the caregivers who go on the trip has changed a bit from the very beginning, and as I said, the first journey I didn’t really realize we were beginning a 501c3 non-profit, and it was highly word of mouth in terms of selection, and most of the individuals were actually my patients and the caregivers were individuals who I had already had a relationship with. So the first journey was very personally selected and it was individuals that I knew were likely to be transformed by the experience. After the first journey and the story became more public and many individuals learned of Above + Beyond Cancer, we had many requests for people to participate, and that has become difficult in the sense that I would love to take everyone, but that’s not practical. So we have a selection process that includes interview and some writing on the part of the applicants so that we can learn where an individual might be on their cancer journey, what they hope to obtain. We do like to see a group that comes together that represents both genders, that represents various different types of cancer, that represent various age groups. I think that the more diverse the group is, the better we are as a group as far as learning from each other and also the more transformational the journey can be. While it started off also as a process where we just paid for everyone to go, we’re now selecting individuals and helping them become part of the Above + Beyond team to help with the fundraising for the journeys. We have a broad base of support within the community and the cancer advocacy world. Over the course of the last three years, we have received funding from individuals, from families, from health care systems, from cancer advocacy organizations, and a number of foundations that have found our mission and vision to be something that is in keeping with their philanthropic purpose. And that has been very humbling and gratifying to see the number of individuals and organizations that have aligned with us and supported us financially as we proceed to develop our mission and vision of transforming lives, of inspiring individuals, and to elevate the lives touched by cancer to create a healthier world.
Can you think of any examples of transformation from any of your participants or from those following along in terms of lifestyle changes or perspective?
RD: Yeah, there have been so many. Everyone who has been part of Above + Beyond has been transformed in many different ways. I see individuals who have now embraced daily, vigorous physical activity as part of a component of their life. And I see Kathy Wennihan who ran a marathon for the first time because of Above + Beyond Cancer, who participated in spin class and daily vigorous physical activity in part because of what she has learned through Above + Beyond Cancer. I see individuals who have gone through their cancer journey having gotten out of shape and gained weight, who have become active. Pam Woll-Hunter is an example. She gained significant weight going through her breast cancer journey and became part of a walking group and created the Above + Beyond Cancer walking group as she lost 80 pounds after going through cancer treatment, after having gained weight through the cancer journey and then getting involved with Above + Beyond Cancer and helping then not only benefit from what she learned but illuminate the path of others as she started the Above + Beyond Cancer walking group. I also see the generosity of spirit that has developed as a product of Above + Beyond Cancer. Individuals who probably would have described themselves as being a bit more self-centered before their cancer journey and before their journey with Above + Beyond Cancer and now having come through that journey with the desire to use their wisdom, not just as a lamp to light their own path, but to help illuminate the path of those in need. I think of Trace Kendig, he and his wife Jerilyn have served as foster parents and have each and every year reached out to help young cancer survivors in the community and their families that are going through difficult times. They’ve learned that we’re all in this world together and the blessing that they received when they were going through their cancer journey and the desire to pay it back and pay it forward and teach others around them the value of generosity, the value of giving of yourself and your resources to help others. You know in many ways what we also learn on these journeys is the wisdom of compassion. The Dalai Lama probably said it best. “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” When you are on an Above + Beyond journey, on a shared mission, you spontaneously respond to the needs of those around you. It is so natural. You learn that these are individuals that a few weeks before were strangers, and now they’re more like family. And you learn the value of compassion to those you’re traveling with and ultimately you learn the value to yourself of practicing compassion. And you realize that these individuals we are strangers not too long before, and you realize as you come back to the world as we know it, that any individual who is a stranger has the potential to be someone that you can make a difference in the life of, that they can become someone who is a beneficiary of your compassion. And a stranger is just a friend that you have not yet met.