When I first read about Terri Wingham, I had this crazy deju vu, like: This woman must be inside my head. She believes, as I do, that travel may be the most powerful way to jump-start your life beyond cancer. And she has created what to my knowledge is the very first organization that offers travel for survivors. Terri's nonprofit, A Fresh Chapter, puts together "meaningful travel" expeditions -- big trips that allow cancer survivors to reconnect with themselves through volunteer work. From now through September 17, Terri's accepting applications for her next India Odyssey, in March 5–19, 2016.
Interested? Here's Terri herself to tell you more.
1. What gave you the vision for A Fresh Chapter?
In 2009, at the age of 30, I was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. Friends and family rallied around me during the early days of treatment, but after 3 surgeries and 4 rounds of chemotherapy, the support had waned and I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to "get back to normal." I had no idea how to return to my life - let alone to the person I'd been before the diagnosis. I found myself grappling with unexpected emotions of sadness, fear of recurrence, survivor guilt, and anger.
I didn't want to stay in that dark place, but didn't feel like a traditional support group was for me. In search of inspiration and something epic enough to overshadow cancer, I had a vision of volunteering in Africa. Although at first it seemed impossible, I couldn't shake this dream. With the support of family and friends, I was able to fundraise enough to spend 6 weeks volunteering in an underfunded daycare outside of Cape Town. This experience changed me forever and set the stage for helping other people impacted by cancer heal the emotional scars of cancer through volunteering and meaningful travel.
2. Why do you think travel is important to survivors? And why pair travel with volunteering?
Cancer can rob us of our confidence and turn the world from a friendly place into a threatening one. Thankfully, travel opens our eyes to the broader world and reminds us of the possibility of new adventures. In a world where more people are surviving and/or living with cancer, it's so important to help build bridges from the isolation of disease back to meaningful experiences. To help people connect back to the world and back to themselves.
Volunteering helps us move beyond feeling victimized by the disease to feeling like we still have so much we can contribute. It also gives us fresh perspective. I believe that when we have the opportunity to form meaningful connections with other people who are dealing with their own challenges of poverty, access to clean water, HIV, etc, we begin to see our own stories of struggle with new eyes. Developing connections with other people who know hardship, but who also demonstrate resilience, can remind us that we can survive and thrive through circumstances beyond what we would have ever thought possible.
3. What have you learned from cancer? About the world and about yourself?
I won't say that cancer is a gift. I wish I hadn't had to experience all of the pain of the disease in order to also experience growth. Unfortunately, like all adversity, it bludgeons us with challenges, but also encourages us to broaden our view of the world and of ourselves. After my diagnosis, I was angry for a long time. Angry that cancer had robbed me of the vision I had for my life. Angry at my friends who were getting married and having children while I was losing my hair and my breasts. But it was only when I was able to give myself permission to grieve the death of some of my dreams that I started to be able to imagine new ones.
I have learned that life is about contradictions and learning to live with both joy and pain, fear and excitement, ease and struggle. There is no perfect or magic life. We can only choose to make meaning out of what is in front of us and welcome opportunities to grow.
4. What one message do you want to give cancer survivors?
I wish I had met someone who could have looked me in the eyes and said, "Terri - this is going to be messy and grueling and awful. You're going to emerge from the trenches of treatment and feel like a shadow of your former self. This disease is going to poke holes in your confidence, challenge you to learn to love a scarred body, and open emotional baggage you thought you had long since packed away. But lean into the discomfort. Lean into the sadness. Cry. Rage. Punch pillows. Because I promise you, on the other side of this marathon, you will find new opportunities that you can't yet imagine. I know this might scare you even more. With new adventures and opportunities come new fears and new uncertainties. But perhaps the words of Rainer Rilke will give you comfort:
You are so young. I want to beg of you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
5. What's your Well Again?
My Well Again is giving myself permission every single day to reinvent, reimagine, redesign my life. To learn from the mistakes I made the day before and continue to challenge myself to find time - even amidst the intense schedule of building the Fresh Chapter Alliance Foundation - to continue to dream. To lean into more of what brings me joy. To surround myself with a tribe of people who share the big dreaming spirit and who are lit up by life.
After all, it is only when we feel lit up that we can ignite something in others.