Outdoor adventure empowers young cancer patients

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Tarkio, Montana (CNN)In kayaking, a "first descent" is when someone successfully paddles a section of river that no one has ever paddled before.

By the time Brad Ludden was 18 years old, he had attained close to 100 of them.
    "Every time you come around a corner, you're the first person to see it from that perspective," said Ludden, now 35. "You feel a lot of personal transformation and growth through that process."
    CNN Hero Brad Ludden
    Today, Ludden is giving that life-changing experience to young adults with cancer—helping them face down their fears and realize they're not alone.
    "When you're a young person with cancer, it's so isolating," said Ludden, who watched his own aunt battle cancer when she was 38. "All your friends are getting married, having children, starting jobs and living life. Here you are fighting for yours."
    Every year, more than 70,000 young adults in the U.S. are diagnosed with the disease.
    Ludden's nonprofit—First Descents—offers free outdoor adventures based around kayaking, surfing and rock climbing.
    The weeklong camps are held at picturesque locations, where 15 young adult cancer fighters and survivors from across the country come together to challenge themselves physically and bond with others who've gone through the same battle.
    "While thousands of people have kayaked these sections of river before them, it's their first time down," Ludden said. "You see it at the bottom of the rapids in the look of accomplishment and pride on their faces."
    Since 2001, Ludden and his group have brought these transformative experiences to more than 3,000 people.
    "I have learned more from First Descents' participants than anything else in my entire life," Ludden said. "I've learned how to be much more vulnerable, the importance of laughter and to not just accept each day as it comes but to go out and define it."
    He thinks kayaks can help fight cancer
    He thinks kayaks can help fight cancer

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    He thinks kayaks can help fight cancer 01:06
    CNN's Meghan Dunn spoke with Ludden about his work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
    CNN: During the week, you see a transformation in the participants. What's that like?
    Ludden: Day one, they get all their gear and they learn the very basics of whatever it is they're there to do. And then each day, we ratchet that up a little bit and build on the previous day so that by the end of the week, they're applying everything they've learned to one final challenging day. And that could be a multi-pitch ascent, or a bigger break, or harder whitewater.
    It's fascinating to watch not only the physical transformation, but also the social and emotional transformation. The way they bond together and the confidence that they're building—it's a really beautiful transformation to witness in a relatively short amount of time.
    CNN: Each participant gets a nickname. Why?
    Ludden: (It) is a huge part of our culture. This experience can be a real stake in the sand in their recovery or their life post-diagnosis. It can be one of their greatest victories and a really defining experience. This name becomes associated with that experience.
    It's the name of them as a kayaker, or a climber, or a surfer. It's not the name of them as someone with cancer. And so it's an opportunity for a fresh start. We've found a lot of people take a lot of pride in their name.
    CNN Hero Brad Ludden: First Descents
    CNN Hero Brad Ludden: First Descents

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    CNN Hero Brad Ludden: First Descents 02:41
    CNN: First Descents goes beyond a weeklong program. How do participants continue their journey?
    Ludden: The weeklong trip hopefully is the beginning of their First Descents experience. When they go home from that, we've created local adventure communities around the country that they can engage in, go on more localized adventures.
    We host (additional) one- to two-weeklong programs. Those are much more adventure-oriented and are all over the world—everywhere from Africa to Indonesia and Alaska to Patagonia.
    We believe that this shouldn't be a one-and-done experience. As part of that, we truly see healing in the act of helping someone else. And we believe that we all as a community who are experiencing these programs have the same obligation to help other people have the same experience. So we try to create this pay-it-forward aspect. We create fundraising challenges around the country that everyone's invited to be a part of, all with the goal of providing that first-time experience to someone who hasn't had it, but wants it.
    CNN: What do you hope participants gain from each week?
    Ludden: I hope that they come here seeking some answers, perhaps seeking some personal growth and maybe some victory over their cancer. We infuse a lot of challenge and adventure, beautiful settings, laughter, great people and good food. But I think at the end, all that bundled together just represents a very large transformation in everyone's life.
    It's that important reminder that this life, it's really fleeting. The end is going to come sooner than we want. With that knowledge, we have this obligation to go out and live as fully as possible.
    Want to get involved? Check out the First Descents website and see how to help.
    You can make a donation right now to First Descents. Just click the CrowdRise widget below!