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Helping Cancer Fighters Climb, Paddle and Surf Past Their Diagnosis


Professional kayaker Brad Ludden knew the power of a great active adventure from a young age. "I was raised in the outdoors growing up in northwest Montana. Each season was a new family adventure, from skiing to camping, fly fishing, kayaking and hiking," Ludden says. "My favorite memories were formed outside and my passion stayed there." So when, at age 13, Ludden had to watch his aunt battle breast cancer, it was only natural for him to turn to the river when he was seeking a way to help those fighting the all-too-common disease.

He started teaching teens at a pediatric oncology organization how to kayak and asked, "Why isn't there anything like this for people like my aunt?" So in 2001, when he was just 18, Ludden created something. That something is now First Descents, designed to help those who have or currently are battling cancer "experience the healing properties of the outdoors." We spoke to Ludden to learn more about his unique way to empower young adult survivors and fighters who are among the most underserved demographic of the cancer world.

What is your top memory from your time with First Descents? Through 11 years of amazing friendships, experiences, adventures, conversations and challenges, I've gained priceless perspective on life. I live every day differently because of the time I've spent with First Descents. Keep reading for more about Ludden's aspirations for First Descents and for details about how you can make a difference.

What are the most popular sports among participants? We just had our first-ever surf program and that seemed to be in high demand so I might have to get back to you on this after we've run more surfing camps. However, the interest still seems to be pretty evenly divided between rivers, rocks and waves. A lot of people don't like water, so rock climbing is their sport. Others aren't interested in surfing but love the rush of whitewater kayaking, and many just want to hang on the beach as the sunsets after a day of surfing. I would like to think that all of our programs are ridiculously rad and that it's nearly impossible to choose just one, but of course, I'm probably a bit biased.

What are your goals for the future of the program? We are constantly striving to make our programs more impacting, fun, accessible and epic. We want to continue to grow to meet the demand, expand the locations where we host them, reach more people in need and, above all else, we want to constantly focus on the experience we deliver and do everything we can to make First Descents as powerful as possible.

How can we help? There are many ways that folks can get involved with First Descents.

  1. Donate to First Descents at It costs $1,000 to fund one young adult's week-long experience.
  2. Volunteer at a program near you.
  3. Join Team FD, First Descents’ fundraising force. Team FD is made up of athletes and cancer survivors at all levels of competition, each sharing the goal of supporting First Descents and the young adult cancer population. Team FD is all about challenge. It’s about each individual picking an activity which represents a challenge to him or her, training for it, setting a fundraising goal and completing that challenge. It can be something solo in nature, or it could be part of an event like the Kona Ironman or a local 5K race.

Ludden will be in New York City to complete the ING New York City Marathon with Team FD in less than three weeks! To learn more about First Descents and Team FD, click here.