Brad Ludden

Watching Brad Ludden maneuver his kayak down a set of roaring rapids is like observing a ballet dancer on stage. He spins his boat around in a pirouette-like fashion before plunging down a 30-foot waterfall and disappearing underneath the current—only to reappear a few yards downriver. The former professional kayaker is fearless and completely in control. But he hasn’t always felt that way in the water.

Ludden first picked up kayaking at 9 years old, and even though he quickly showed promise with the sport, he was still nervous every time he went out on the rapids. “If you flip over in a kayak, it ignites a primal fear to survive,” he says. Ludden still remembers the day when those fears finally melted away. He was 12 at the time and training with a group of friends in Chile. “My buddy pulled me aside and told me to follow every stroke he took,” Ludden says. “I finally felt in control, and then my pursuit of kayaking was unstoppable.”

Two decades later, Ludden is now the one showing others the strokes (er, ropes) as the founder of First Descents, a nonprofit that hosts weeklong outdoor adventure programs for young adults with cancer. While there are hundreds of resources for individuals with cancer, few exist that are specifically tailored to the 18-to-39-year-old demographic First Descents reaches. These teens and young adults have been called “cancer’s lost generation” and face a unique set of hurdles. They often get a diagnosis right at the time they’re striking out on their own—going on dates, establishing a career, and achieving financial independence. Cancer can throw a wrench into any of these plans and causes many to feel isolated or alienated from others their age, Ludden says.

Taking the Plunge

Starting First Descents was a no-brainer for Ludden. His aunt was diagnosed with cancer when he was a teen, and Ludden saw firsthand how destructive the disease could be. He wanted to do something to help, so Ludden and his mom volunteered at the local pediatric oncology program. There was a pond on the property, and he had the idea to bring some kayaks and offer the kids a fun outdoor activity. Kayaking was a hit with patients, and the experience made a huge impact on Ludden—so much so that when he turned 18, he opted to forgo college to pursue a career as a professional kayaker and launch the nonprofit.

The organization’s first weeklong program took place in Vail, CO, in 2001. During the planning process, Ludden was focused on helping the 15 participants set goals and achieve them by the end of the week. Did they want to learn to roll their kayak (the act of successfully righting a capsized boat)? Perhaps they wanted to paddle through a class III rapid? Achieving these goals gave participants a much-needed confidence boost, but the friendships they made with the other young adults with cancer was a better pick-me-up than conquering even the most intense stretches of white water. “I had totally overlooked the need for community, even though kayaking had been the place where I felt most at home and where I had made my closest friends,” Ludden says. “The bonds we made over that first week on the river were incredibly powerful and therapeutic.”

Building Lifelong Relationships

This year First Descents will hold 50 weeklong programs around the world. Nearly 1,000 participants will choose between a number of adventure sports, including ice climbing, rock climbing, mountaineering, surfing, and, of course, kayaking. The connections forged on the river or mountainside are kept up in the weeks and months afterward via social media—each program has its own Facebook group. And recently First Descents unveiled Tributaries, quarterly weekend adventures for program alums in 10 cities across the U.S. “The problem is most people go home after their program and they still don’t know anyone from their hometown who has cancer as a young adult,” Ludden says. “The Tributaries makes it easy to meet and stay in contact with people nearby who are going through the same struggles.”

First Descents continues to expand its program offerings, adding more locations and types of outdoor adventures every year. The nonprofit has received more than $3.5 million in donations over the last 15 years from more than 9,000 generous individuals and companies. A just-announced partnership between First Descents and KIND Snacks makes it easier than ever before to help out. Share a story about someone who has motivated you to live your life to the fullest, use the hashtag #OutLivingIt, and KIND will donate $1 to First Descents for every social media post.

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