After filmmaker Michael Brown watched his older brother and hero, Gordon, fight brain cancer 10 years ago, he never imagined he would eventually make a film about cancer survivors experiencing outdoor adventures in Colorado.
But when First Descents, a Colorado nonprofit group that offers cancer survivors a free outdoor experience through kayaking or rock climbing, approached Brown’s Serac Adventure Films about making a documentary about their survivors, the filmmaker felt compelled to tell their stories.
Those stories can be experienced in the Serac film “Out Living It,” which premiered earlier this spring and will be shown at the ninth annual Adventure Film Festival in Boulder Oct. 4-6.
First Descents gives young adult cancer survivors and “fighters” the chance to spend time with other survivors and remember what it feels like to be alive as they paddle through icy waters or climb to adrenaline-boosting heights. “Out Living It” profiles four survivors on their journey back to living after cancer.
“Young adults are just reaching their stride in life and starting a family or a new career or all those things,” Brown said. “But suddenly they get a cancer diagnosis, and it comes out of the blue. We think of cancer as something that older people go through.”
Often, Brown said, young adults diagnosed with cancer feel alienated. They have a hard time dating because they don’t know how to talk about cancer or the possibility that their life could end sooner than they expect.
“People date for a lot of reasons, but ultimately there’s always spending your life with someone,” Brown said. “But if someone’s life is in jeopardy because of cancer it creates all kinds of issues.”
Young people lose confidence, Brown added, or they become embarrassed or ashamed of their diagnoses. First Descents helps them gain back that confidence and show them they are still very much alive, Brown said.
Because the 15 survivors on the trips are all familiar with terms like “radiation” and “chemotherapy,” there’s less fear to talk openly about cancer, Brown said.
His brother Gordon was 35 when he received his cancer diagnosis. Brown said watching his brother struggle was one of the most difficult things he’s ever done. Making the film was cathartic and inspiring for both Brown and his Serac Adventure Films crew.
“It was a profound experience for us,” he said. “As storytellers, it really affected us.”
Rebekah Koenigbauer, director of marketing for First Descents, said she hoped the film would have a similar impact on audiences around the world.
“The story of what happens goes far beyond just people who are surviving and fighting cancer,” Koenigbauer said. “It really is our hope that it would be a story that would inspire people no matter what.”
–Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta