Feinberg professor creates backpacking trips for cancer survivors

Chelsea Peng

When cancer comes knocking on the door, it can really push you off your path.

That’s the idea behind True North Treks, a nonprofit founded in 2008 by Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine Prof. David Victorson.

Victorson takes cancer survivors backpacking, helping them bond with others who have been through similar experiences, teaching them to use meditation and mindfulness techniques and helping them get back on track after experiencing a life-changing illness. The participants are between the ages of 18 and 39.

“Young adult survivors get derailed from having cancer at that age,” Victorson said. “It’s a time when most are either in school or leaving school, starting relationships, getting married, starting to have kids. There are all these huge developments happening in that young adult period.”

Victorson said his interests in meditation and nature and his experiences providing clinical services to young adult cancer patients led him to start the organization.

“I didn’t see the light, and it wasn’t an epiphany,” Victorson said. “I think it just gradually evolved knowing those areas were naturally coming together as things I was feeling called to pursue.”

After TNT was incorporated with help from the Law School’s Bluhm Legal Clinic, Victorson said it took about a year and a half to raise enough awareness and funding for the first trip in Montana and Idaho.

Liz Campanella, who participated in the inaugural 2010 trip, said talking to other survivors allowed her to address both her mother’s death from cancer and her uncertainty about the future.

“Cancer is never easy,” Campanella said. “Even after you’ve survived it, it still comes up in challenging pieces in your life. The trip is so supportive of anything you’re going through.”

Participants also gain a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to connect with other survivors, said TNT volunteer Kristin Smith.

“For a lot of these survivors, these people they’ve gone on treks with end up being lifelong friends, people they can reach out to when they’re worried about their CT scans coming up,” said Smith, a patient navigator for fertility preservation at NU’s Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center. “They’re reaching out to people who’ve sort of been there, done that and understand those types of fears.”

Volunteer Hannah Pancoe’s own experience with young adult cancer drew her to TNT.

“My sister had leukemia when she was 20,” said Pancoe, a Weinberg junior who’s helping organize an upcoming fundraiser. “(TNT is) an organization that really hit home for me. Being able to help other people who were in my sister’s situation makes me happy. I’m glad to give back.”

Victorson said TNT is planning three trips this year and hopes to offer up to 10 treks annually using its sustainability model, in which patients pledge to pay forward a minimum of $1,500 to a future participant. TNT will also host a stand-up paddleboard race in July to pay for upcoming trips.

As TNT continues to expand – Victorson said the organization is looking to hire a full-time staff – the nonprofit is still dedicated to guiding patients on their post-cancer journeys. “What we have tried to do at True North Treks is help provide an experience that can help (patients),” Victorson said. “Maybe not get on the same path they were on, but help them find new paths and a new direction and begin to chart a new course as they continue on.”

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