Boarding Pass: Surf School for Cancer Patients & Survivors

Written by Alison Johnson

At first, Robert “Farmdog” Farmer simply wanted to share the sport that has given him the life of his dreams with people who have faced a disease that has tried to steal away their lives.

But as soon as Farmer began teaching surfing to young adult cancer survivors, he realized they had far more to share with him.

“They are such battlers–people with gnarly scars, people who were out surfing about a minute after finishing chemo,” says Farmer, a nationally certified instructor and founder of Farmdog Surf School in Nags Head, North Carolina. “The last thing they want is sympathy or to be treated differently. They just want to charge in. It’s pretty humbling. I think to myself, ‘Would I be as amazing as these people?’ I don’t know. You can’t ever know until you are faced with something so completely out of your control.”

Farmer, 46, partners with First Descents, a Colorado-based nonprofit that organizes free outdoor adventures for cancer patients and survivors, most ages 18 to 39. Through surfing, kayaking and rock climbing camps, the organization helps young adults rebuild self-esteem, strength and a sense of hope as they connect with other survivors in their age group.

Farmer, a Lynchburg, Virginia, native and one-time student at the College of William and Mary, hosts First Descents participants for weeklong summer camps. Last fall, he also took 14 survivors to Bali for 10 days and then he ran the New York City Marathon as a fundraiser for First Descents. He plans to lead another international trip in November, this
time to Mexico.

Young adult cancer patients tend to face different physical and emotional challenges than children and older adults. As they go through treatments, they might be trying to date, get married, start a family, tackle a new job, raise small kids or generally become more independent. They also can feel isolated from healthy friends. 

“I hadn’t known other people my age with cancer,” says Britte Roossien, a 37-year-old Massachusetts woman who had Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system, and went to a Farmdog camp in June 2013. “To be able to be so open with it, and even joke about it, was very comforting. Back home cancer had been the elephant in the room. People didn’t know how to talk about it.”

Filling a gap

Brad Ludden, founder of First Descents and a Montana native, has never had cancer. As a teenager, though, he watched an Aunt battle breast cancer in her 30s. “She would call my dad, a doctor, because she really didn’t have anyone else to turn to,” Ludden says.
“So we went through it all with her.”

A former professional extreme whitewater kayaker, Ludden initially focused his volunteer work on pediatric cancer patients, teaching his sport at a summer camp where his mother also volunteered. Then he did some research into available support groups for all age groups. “I found over 250 pediatric programs around the U.S., but none
for young adults,” he recalls. “There
was a very complex population that
was getting no attention.”

In 2001, Ludden, then just 20, ran his first weeklong kayaking program in Colorado after two years of planning. He never expected First Descents—the name refers to a kayaker’s attempt to navigate a new section of a river—to grow into a full-time career.

The nonprofit now plans nearly 40 weeklong adventures a year, mostly for first-time participants, along with a growing number of day and weekend programs, a few camps for survivors in their 40s and caregivers, and some special trips abroad. First Descents has partner sites in 16 states and is working to expand its geographic reach (it offers some scholarships to cover travel expenses for now).

The core sports offerings—kayaking, surfing and rock climbing—all require participants to succeed on their own strength and skill, although each person has expert support and an individually tailored plan for safety. “If you stand up on a surfboard, make it down a river or scale a rock, you know for sure that you did that,” Ludden says. “Nature doesn’t care what you’ve gone through, so you’re not going to get any breaks. That’s very powerful.”

It was for Britte Roossien. When she was diagnosed with cancer in 2010 after months of mysterious fatigue and body aches, Roossien’s children were just 2 and 4 and she was busy running a full-time day care, which she had to close immediately to protect her fragile immune system. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation to treat multiple tumors in her chest and neck sapped her strength.

“My life went from 100 miles per hour to zero,” Roossien says. “Radiation especially just absolutely wore me out. I had no energy at all. I lost my voice. Even after it was over, it took me about two years to have days where I wasn’t in need of a nap. It was a really, really long road.”

A longtime tennis and soccer player, Roossien hated feeling so weak. A doctor who knew of her athletic past told her about First Descents, and when a spot opened up at a camp at Farmdog Surf School, Roossien signed up despite never having surfed
before. She was terrified to go.

The first couple of days, Roossien fell constantly. But with help from Farmer and other instructors, the newly dubbed “Big Red”—everyone at the camp got a nickname, hers for her red hair—gradually got the hang of standing on her board. She also got to share her story and struggles with other cancer survivors as they bobbed on the waves. “Surfing changed everything,” Roossien says. “It gave me back the confidence I had lost. To know my body was strong enough for me to do this was so empowering. It became a new starting point for me.”

The draw of the ocean

Farmer isn’t surprised that surfing has such power. He first fell in love with the sport more than 20 years ago on a trip to the Outer Banks. He liked that even though he was athletic—he had been a talented basketball player and was on the track team in high school—surfing was a challenge.

“It takes a long time to get good,” he says. “Every day is different, every wave is different; the ocean is always throwing something new at you.” The wipeouts didn’t bother him, though: “Even when you’re learning, it’s just so healthy to be outside, to feel the sun and the salt water on your skin. It’s so immersive—a full-body experience.”

Farmer has based his life at the ocean since 1992. He had spent two years at William and Mary, where he considered an anthropology major but could never settle into the academic lifestyle. “I was the worst student imaginable: a merit scholar who couldn’t stand being inside on a sunny day,” he says. He laughs that he’s “like a semester away from a degree in about four different subjects” from his time at William and Mary and as a part-time student at Christopher Newport University.

As he tried to plot his future in Williamsburg, Virginia, Farmer worked at a natural food grocery store and deli and later launched a delivery service for organic produce and milk. He drove a rented truck to a warehouse in Washington, D.C., filled it with supplies and provided them to co-ops and stores from Richmond to Virginia Beach, Virginia, as well as to people’s homes in the Williamsburg area.

After just a few months, the business had grown so fast that the produce distributor cut Farmer off and started its own route. They offered to hire him as a truck driver. “It just wasn’t me,” he explains. “I was young, naïve and pretty self-absorbed. I wanted to surf, so I said, ‘Screw it,’ and I moved to the beach.”

Down in the Outer Banks, Farmer worked in surf shops, opened a shop with several business partners in
2002 and started his surf school there in 2007. Farmdog since has moved
to a freestanding location, where Farmer partners with two longtime surfers from Australia and one of
his college roommates.

With certification from the National Surf Schools & Instructors Association, Farmdog offers lessons in surfing and stand-up paddle boarding in private, group or adventure camp settings. The company also rents surfboards, wetsuits, bikes, kayaks and beach gear and runs three beverage bars—coffee, fresh-pressed organic juices and fruit smoothies—and a natural foods store.

Farmer and his wife, fellow surfer Rachel, are now happily settled in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, with their infant daughter, Mae Love. “This sport has literally given me everything: my health, my career, my wife,” Farmer says. “I would rather teach people how to surf than anything else in the world.”

An ideal partnership

When First Descents initially contacted Farmer in late 2011, he was suspicious that the email was spam. After he checked out the group’s website, however, he was sold on the idea. “I was immediately certain I wanted to work with them,” he remembers.

Farmdog hosted its first camp in 2012. Cancer survivors come at various stages of recovery: some back in good shape and looking perfectly healthy, others still extremely weak. One 30-something woman who stands out in Farmer’s mind had fought various forms of cancer since age 9 and had lost part of her scapula, a major bone that forms the back of the shoulder. With limited use of that arm, she could only master riding waves lying down on her board during her first summer at Farmdog.

Determined to stand up on a return trip, the woman spent a year swimming and lifting weights to build strength. “When she got up and rode waves, it was one of the most moving things I’ve ever been a part of,” Farmer says. “Surfing 
can make people push themselves.”

While First Descents does pay Farmdog instructors for their time, they clearly aren’t in it for the money, Ludden notes. “They work so hard to make sure the participants have a good experience,” he says. “They put so much into it every time they go out into the ocean. Of all the programs we run, we get some of the best feedback from that one.”

The surfing camp has created a lasting support network for Roossien, now working in sales and marketing and cherishing time with her son Jace, now 8, and daughter Wylie, 5. She keeps in touch with fellow surfers online and by phone and, along with her husband, Tony, ran the New York City marathon with some of them in November. In February, she went ice climbing on another First Descents adventure in Colorado. “I’m always looking for more and more challenges,” she says. “I’m not afraid anymore.”

Farmer is ready to help as long as there are young cancer survivors who want to ride some waves. However, he’s quick to deflect any personal attention or praise. “The participants in First Descents,” he says, “are way more inspiring than some ridiculous old surf instructor.”

About the author

Alison Johnson

Alison Johnson is a freelance writer who specializes in feature stories on health, nutrition and fitness, as well as biographical profiles. A former full-time newspaper reporter, she has worked for two Virginia dailies and the Associated Press in Richmond. She lives in Yorktown, Va., with her husband and two sons.