by Paula J. McGarvey
Editor’s note: Paula J. McGarvey of Butte, MT is a freelance writer, adjunct college writing instructor, River Discovery retreat alumnus, and a 14-year breast cancer survivor.  

As a breast cancer survivor and two time River Discovery ( Salmon River trip alumnus, I cannot say enough about how amazing the experiences this fantastic organization provides for cancer patients, survivors and their families are. My first RD trip was in 2015 after my second bout of breast cancer. Little did I know at the time, but the support I received on the river and afterwards from fellow survivors would help me navigate through a stage IV metastatic breast cancer diagnosis the following summer. I’m currently in a drug induced and sustained remission on a new class of cancer drugs and was able to attend the three day educator/cancer survivor trip in July 2021 on the Lower Salmon. The educator adventure provided powerful healing of body, mind and spirit for me and my fellow travelers. Here’s what some of the trip participants and staff had to share about their journey: 

Helen Bell came to the river from the Seattle area, where she works as an occupational therapist in the Highline Public Schools. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in August of 2020, and heard about the RD trip from family friends. Navigating a cancer diagnosis during the COVID-19 pandemic was isolating and Bell said the RD trip served as a “soft re-entry” into society. With its trained river guides, Bell said that she had the confidence to try out paddling an inflatable kayak and even ride in the front of the raft through churning rapids (aka “riding the bull”). “I got to live in the moment with the excitement of the rafting…it really made me feel alive,” she said.     

Scott Warnock, 51, is a school counselor at Timberline High School in Boise. Diagnosed with colon cancer in 2020, Warnock had completed six months of chemotherapy when he heard about the RD educator adventure. Though Warnock’s pragmatic attitude and sense of humor had helped him navigate cancer his time on the river brought a new perspective about living life as a survivor. “The trip helped me tremendously with my mental capacity to understand how to slow down and experience what is around you, such as nature, and to enjoy the people you are with,” he said. 

Calley Sunderman, 47, is a kindergarten teacher and program manager at the EverWild Forest School in Boise. She attended her first RD river trip after a second cancer diagnosis last year. Sunderman had already survived a rare form of cancer at the age of 21 and found herself battling a cancerous tumor in her sinuses 2020. Sunderman found the trip to be life-affirming: “This is such a beautiful way to be with other people who have been through similar experiences,” she said. The freedom to talk honestly and openly about cancer was much appreciated. “It has definitely put a more positive spin on the whole thing,” she said.   

Chris “Topher” Thompson, a guide with H2O Idaho, has been leading river trips for nearly three decades. Thompson, 49, is an educator and works as a history teacher at Camas High School in Fairfield, ID—guiding float trips during the summer months. With hundreds of trips under his belt, Thompson found traveling with these RD participants to be a different type of journey. Thompson commented that the cancer survivors on the educator adventure appeared to have a heightened level of gratitude—something he shared after serving as a combat lifesaver during Desert Storm in the early 90s. “I think survivors appreciate things more,” he said. Thompson was happy to guide this group of survivors on this portion of their journey. “It was a privilege,” he said.      

River Discovery routinely sends a registered nurse along on their multi-day river trips, and the educator/survivor trip also included a social worker. Jennie Newman said that she was inspired to pursue a master’s degree in social work after interacting with a social worker during her mother’s cancer treatment and untimely death from the disease. “I wanted to give back to some kind of cancer organization,” she said. That desire led to her serving on the RD board of directors and as a staff member on the recent river trip. “What’s sort of magical about the river, or any other outdoor context, is it allows the ability for people to be more open and vulnerable,” she said. Newman believes the out-of-doors retreat helps survivors eliminate distractions and just be present in the moment. “It’s why I really believe in the mission of this organization, because it provides an open forum for healing, connection and support,” she said.