There are strong elements of fellowship and celebration and kind of an ideology of moving forward with one’s life in this phase of survivorship and on these journeys, however proving that cancer is still a very serious issue in our society, there have been at least two participants on Above + Beyond Cancer journeys who have ended up losing their lives to their cancer. Can you speak to how you approach that and how the growing family handles those situations?
RD: Above + Beyond Cancer is an important organization, not in small part because cancer takes lives. It is the fact that cancer can cause death that makes this organization profound. We know, even as we talk about how the cancer journey can inspire one and transform one’s life and be a blessing, even as we say those words, we know that cancer can and will result in the death of patients, family members and friends. We know that part of the power comes from that potential shortening of one’s life, and that’s what makes the power of the cancer journey, that’s what gives it the power to change one’s life. But we also know that it’s not all about celebrating transformation. Sometimes it’s about mourning and grieving over the loss a family member, a team member that’s lost their life to cancer. As we come together with Above + Beyond Cancer, we do create a family. The relationships that develop are very intense and close and that brings tremendous joy, but the deepness of the relationships also means that the impact of a loss can be felt quite profoundly as well. Everyone is affected by the loss of loved ones and friends. We’ve all been touched by cancer. Before Above + Beyond Cancer existed, we were all touched by it. All of us know of individuals who have died of cancer. My mom died of cancer when I was in medical school. Obviously as a cancer doctor I’ve known many, many patients that have been near and dear to me that have lost their lives. As we journey with Above + Beyond Cancer, we often know that individuals who may have thought they were cured of cancer, who thought that their cancer was in remission, may end up having recurrences, and we’ve had two individuals that have been on our journeys that have had their cancer recur and have died as a result of their cancer. It has had a huge impact on us. We know that is something that can happen and will happen. Every participant of Above + Beyond Cancer feels the loss even more personally because of the closeness that we have developed because of our shared mission. We also know that every loss that we experience will inspire us to work even harder to honor the spirit of those that have died by doing all we can to help reduce the burden of cancer and to help provide comfort and support to all of those that we have the opportunity to serve. Above + Beyond Cancer has become a community and it’s become a community with individuals who care deeply about others in this community, and as individuals are faced with difficulties, whether it’s a recurrence of cancer or whether it is other difficulties, we have really responded with compassion and generosity to the needs of others. When it comes to those who are facing a recurrence of cancer that is life threatening, the outpouring of love and support and compassion is unparalleled. And going through difficult times with individuals strengthens the bond and those strengthened relationships serve as a tremendous incentive to come forward in times of need to help others as they are facing difficulties. And I have seen the power of the community that Above + Beyond Cancer has created to use that power, to use those relationships to reach out to their family and friends, reach out to the individuals in their families to provide comfort and support in times of need. We’ve talked about the transformation of individuals’ lives and those following along and the support group aspect, but you also speak of work that needs to be done in terms of accomplishing the mission of not only elevating lives but reducing the burden of cancer.
Can you speak to what types of things Above + Beyond Cancer stand for or strives to do to reduce the burden of cancer?
RD: In addition to taking the individuals on transformational journeys, Above + Beyond Cancer is doing work in the field of education and advocacy. One third of all cancers in the United States are still caused by tobacco, but one third of all cancers in the United States is caused by inactivity, poor nutrition and obesity. We are at the forefront of an advocacy effort to inform individuals of the power of physical activity, not only to improve the quality of life, but help reduce the incidents of cancer. That’s one of the focuses of our education and advocacy campaign. We also work with the American Cancer Society and other cancer advocacy organizations to provide information on preventing cancers that are preventable, on screening and early detection for cancers for which there are tests available, to advocate for health care policy that provides resources for every individual to have access to health care, and to make sure that our health care system is providing all of the ongoing physical, psychosocial and practical support that cancer survivors need, even after they’ve completed their cancer treatment portion of their journey. These are important components of the overall mission of Above + Beyond Cancer.
You mentioned that one third of all cancers in the United States are causedby inactivity, poor nutrition, obesity. That’s a pretty alarming statistic. Do you feel as though that is a fact that many Americans are unaware of? It doesn’t seem to have quite the messaging that tobacco does in terms of the relationship to cancer.
RD: The relationship between the triad of obesity, inactivity and poor nutrition to cancer has not been well understood and not been prominently promulgated over the past decade. We are now coming to understand the very complicated relationship between cancer and activity and obesity and nutrition. I think that not only does the public not know about this relationship, but I think that most physicians do not know about this relationship. For the past five decades there’s been research on the relationship of obesity and inactivity to heart disease and cardiovascular disease in general, but the relationship with cancer has been relatively new. What we’re learning is not only does good nutrition and physical activity make a huge difference on almost every chronic disease, and not only does it have a huge impact on quality of life, but it actually reduces the instances of cancer. Also engaging in vigorous physical activity and eating healthy can improve the outcome of individuals who are going through the cancer journey, and can have a large impact on the overall health and quality of life of individuals after cancer treatment has been completed. I feel so strongly about the value of physical activity and good nutrition in an overall lifestyle that it’s such a core component of everything we do with Above + Beyond Cancer. Whether it is engaging people in healthy habits while they’re going through their treatment, educating the community about healthy habits to help prevent cancer, encouraging healthy habits, vigorous physical activity and nutrition in children and adults, helping to promote healthy activities like running, biking, swimming, walking, yoga, tai chi, being in the community and advocating for those activities, not only to improve one’s health and quality of life, but actually to prevent cancer.
So these journeys, you’re coming up on your sixth one to Machu Picchu. It seems like these events and these challenges and destinations, they’re not simply about team bonding. It’s not a camping trip in the woods. It involves some sort of physical challenge. Would you say that is a component of Above + Beyond Cancer because it promotes the physical fitness aspect and allows people to train and prepare and get to know what their bodies are capable of? And you’ve also spoken to the fact that there’s a spiritual component. Can you tell me why these events and destinations have been selected in the past and why Machu Picchu?
Every activity that Above + Beyond Cancer’s involved in is really a combination of mind, body, spirit. As I mentioned, part of it comes from my personal understanding of what improved my own quality of life, being intellectually stimulated, the mind and body being engaged in vigorous physical activity, and it’s also tending to the important purpose in life, and that brings into play the spiritual dynamics. So every one of our journeys takes into account mind, body and spirit. Having a challenge that includes some physical challenge is an important part of the transformational journey. If something is too easy, intellectually, physically, spiritually, you’re probably not going to transform yourself or even change yourself. You’ve got to have some component of difficulty, and I say difficulty because there’s got to be some work that needs to get done for an activity to be transformational. So when we choose these journeys, I know that having some physical challenge is an important component of the transformation. I also know that making sure that we tend to the spiritual nature of what we’re doing, that we spend time contemplating the existential issues that we all face, and that comes down to facing mortality, facing our finite existence on earth, pondering the questions and the mysteries of what happens afterwards, contemplating the challenge of being independent versus interdependent, and that interdependence really plays out when you’re a small team together on a mountain, where you’re working together. The concept of impermanence and interdependence becomes the essence of our daily existence in this group as we are facing physical adversity and taking time to ponder the spiritual nature of our existence. And being in another culture, especially when we are learning about the other culture, and that includes learning about the spiritual dimension of the philosophies, that is an activity that helps our own spiritual development. Obviously a physical challenge is relative to the capabilities of an individual. I want to tell you about one of the most profound experiences that I’ve had, and that was a patient in her mid-70s with incurable lung cancer, on oxygen, who had spent time in the hospice facility, who after getting a little bit better, came out of hospice and came to my spin class and spend 20 minutes on a bicycle with oxygen, having been in hospice. The physical challenge that one experiences is relative to one’s condition. Walking around the block can be more physically challenging to one individual than climbing to the summit of Mt. Everest. So all of us have the capability to present some physical challenges to ourselves. And when I think of that patient who came willingly. I couldn’t have kept her out of spin class. She wanted to be there so bad, and the time she spent on that bike was such an inspiration to herself and to all of us that it really demonstrates how even at that point in one’s life, providing some bumps in the road, some obstacles, some mountains to climb can be incredibly transformative and provide one with a sense of joy, fulfillment and purpose. And we all have the opportunity to do that for ourselves each and every day, regardless of where we are on the baseline of our physical strength.
On top of being the founder of Above + Beyond Cancer, you also use your vacation time away from your practice and treating cancer to go on each and every one of these journeys. What is your role on these trips? Do you let the mountain do the work? Do you have any role that you give yourself? Anything that you try to make sure is accomplished when the team ends up in the foreign land?
I think my main function on the journeys is to provide some stimulus to the group, to continue to ponder the relationship between the blessings we have in life and the challenges that we have in life. And to help individuals see that they are capable of more than they might think is possible, and to help connect the difficulties and the joys and the relationship between the two. I also can provide a good listening ear. I have over the years of interacting with patients and families found that the ability to be a good listening can provide an opportunity for healing. So part of the time I’m a cheerleader. Part of the time I’m a listening. And part of the time I’m just comic relief. And part doctor.
Do you feel like Above + Beyond is accomplishing its mission, and where do you want to see the foundation go from here?
Above + Beyond began as a journey to Everest Base Camp and is most known because of the large transformational journeys. I want to make sure Above + Beyond Cancer is also relevant in the communities that it serves, in the community cancer center that it serves, and to the general public. The opportunity to challenge oneself and to be rewarded by the challenges is not limited to those can go halfway around the world and climb a mountain. There are opportunities for everyone to benefit from a mind, body, spirit approach to living one’s life. I would like to see Above + Beyond Cancer continue to strengthen the transformational power of the mind, body, spirit concept of living to all individuals. So we’ll continue to do some big events that really transform lives and provide a ripple effect so that others can see what can happen in a setting that is tremendously powerful, but not for the purpose of just showcasing those individuals, but to provide a vision, even on the local level, challenging one’s self can provide in terms of a transformational experience.