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Risking Joy
By Pat Hughes '85

Cancer has ravaged her thin, 20-year-old body, but "Jenny" insists on being hoisted 40 feet into the air, amidst the tree tops. She swings from a harness, whooping for joy, cheered on by a small crowd on the ground below.

Jenny is just one of many cancer patients who have been touched by an unusual healing program at UNH's Browne Center for Innovative Learning. Nestled on the edge of New Hampshire's Great Bay, the center typically hosts team-building retreats. But twice a year, men and women in various stages of cancer—some recovering, some terminal—fill the wooded grounds with shouts, tears and laughter. They arrive in wheelchairs, weakened from chemotherapy, carrying IV poles and drip bags, some accompanied by family members, and others on their own.

In the day-long program, participants test themselves on the high ropes course. They cross a suspended log known as the Catwalk, help each other over teetering platforms and dangle high above the ground in Danny's Sedan, a hammock chair named for a quadriplegic man who once rode to the top of the tree canopy. But the most exciting part of the program, according to center director Pam McPhee '83, is the healing that occurs.

McPhee is herself a survivor of thyroid cancer. With a master's degree in social work and training in Outward Bound, she started the Adventure Day program in partnership with the Cancer Wellness Center at Exeter (N.H.) Hospital.

"This program makes a difference at a critical moment in their lives," she said. "When the cancer diagnosis comes, it's easy to see yourself as your disease. But an adventure is so absorbing. You're climbing a tree and you're terrified, but it has nothing to do with cancer. It's about enjoying your body, the very thing that has betrayed you."

Outdoor adventure programs for people with cancer are highly beneficial, according to Deborah Sugarman, director of a resiliency study funded by the Lance Armstrong Foundation and conducted through the Browne Center. "Cancer alone provides more physical and emotional risk taking than most people would choose," she says, but initial results of the study show that by focusing on positive relationships and the health of the cancer patient, adventure programming increases the physical, mental and emotional well-being needed for healing. Participants experience a renewed sense of self, greater feelings of support and an increased sense of control—all of which are often lost while fighting cancer.

"It's hard to come from a place of power when you're sitting in your underwear on a gurney," McPhee says. At the center, participants "go beyond their preconceived limitations, and it's tremendously reaffirming," she says. For Jenny and dozens of others who have participated in Adventure Day, the experience is powerful and unforgettable. "It is a recharge of that feeling that you can overcome things, have fun, joy and connection—all the things that make life worth living," one participant says later. "I think I'll be able to meet and face challenges with a deeper sense of inner strength."

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