Young adults scale great heights to fight cancer

Group shows how overcoming cancer is like climbing one mountain at a time.

You could say that dangling off the side of a cliff would is a life-changing experience. The fear or panic might make you rethink your life.  For cancer survivor Ginny Sullivan, it was life-changing — in a very good way.

Sullivan, a 30-year-old mother of two, is no stranger to challenges. While pregnant with her second child, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Delaying treatment to protect the life growing within her could have threatened Sullivan’s life, yet she knew it was her only option. Thankfully, after her baby was born, the cancer was found to be early-stage and was successfully removed. Not only had her baby survived, but she was going to be a survivor as well.

As part of her ongoing follow-up care, Sullivan met Gina Morrison, R.N., survivorship nurse navigator for Norton Cancer Institute’s Adolescent and Young Adult Program. During one of their appointments, Morrison told Sullivan about an upcoming rock-climbing trip for young adults who currently have cancer or are survivors.

“I knew what I needed and it piqued my interest,” Sullivan said.

After all, she had already faced one mountain when she heard those three words, “You have cancer.”

Sullivan viewed the weekend trip to Red River Gorge as a way to connect with others who understand some of the challenges of cancer that nobody ever talks about.

“I will never forget the feeling of getting higher, step by step, and hearing everyone at the bottom cheering for me,” she said. “It gave me a sense of power that I felt like I lost when I found out I had cancer.”

The group of five young adult cancer patients met at Norton Healthcare – St. Matthews on June 9.

They were greeted by a personal chef who provided delicious meals and information on their specific nutritional needs to get through the weekend. Saturday and Sunday were filled with challenges that included climbing to dizzying heights and rappelling off a 115-foot cliff.

Through it all, these complete strangers came together as they built trust and helped guide one another through their adventures.

“It was very emotional, but everyone overcame their fears and made it to the top of the climb,” said Morrison, who also went on the trip. “Not only was it life-changing for the group, it was life-changing for me.”

Sullivan echoed the same sentiment. “We all came into this trip as strangers, but left as a family,” she said. “I will never forget the bond we shared.”

The trip was organized by First Descents, a national group that provides outdoor adventures to young adults affected by cancer to empower them and help them make connections with others.

Norton Cancer Institute’s Adolescent and Young Adult Program is the first program of its kind in Louisville and the surrounding region. Beyond physical care, young adult cancer patients have unique follow-up needs that can include psychosocial or emotional support. The AYA transition clinic focuses on meeting those needs.

Read more: New programs for unique needs of teens, young adults

AYA transition clinic patient navigators work one-on-one with patients to schedule appointments, coordinate studies and help address financial concerns. Navigators also tackle the critical task of compiling a summary of each patient’s care history.

The AYA Transition Clinic is open to childhood cancer survivors at least 18 years old who are two or more years beyond treatment.  Any teen or young adult who meets the clinic’s care criteria can be seen there regardless of where they received their cancer treatment.


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