At True North Treks, we help teens & young adults with cancer find direction through connection after the very dis-connecting experience cancer can bring. We fulfill our mission through implementing unique and supportive healthcare programs and services that are not available anywhere else. With a little help and guidance from the STARS, we do this through Skills Training, Advocacy, Research and Support.
Week-Long Canoeing and Backpacking “Treks” in Nature. One of our signature programs is providing free, week-long backpacking & canoeing treks in remote and beautiful backcountry wilderness destinations across the United States, including Montana, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Wyoming, Minnesota, and Michigan. During our treks, participants are able to fully connect with the quiet and restorative balance of nature (after going through something as unnatural as cancer treatment), experience the powerful sense of finding and connecting with others their age who have also faced something similar, and they can encounter a more profound understanding of themselves through learning valuable meditative practices based in mindfulness and yoga. We try to make everything we do and teach on these wilderness treks directly applicable to the wilderness of cancer survivorship back home especially as it relates to positive health behaviors, prevention, and coping.
Week-long treks are led by Wilderness Outdoor First Responder (WOFR)-credentialed guides, as well as a meditation/yoga instructor guides. Because we operate in the backcountry for 5-6 day experiences, we are only permitted to bring between 10-14 individuals (including guides), therefore our experiences are extremely intimate, and the impact is deep and long-lasting. Please see "Treks" up in the menu for more specific information about upcoming treks and frequently asked questions.
Mini-Treks and Micro-Treks. Since our founding we knew that to reach and support as many teens and young adults with cancer as possible, we would need to continue to grow and expand beyond these week-long treks, but still in a mission-congruent manner. Due to feedback and suggestions from our constituents that not all eligible participants are able to take off a week to travel to the remote wilderness, we have launched two shorter duration treks: Mini-Treks, and Micro-Treks.
Mini-Treks are regionally based and take place over a long-weekend (e.g., Thursday night to Sunday morning). Unlike our week-long treks, Mini-Treks are held in beautiful wilderness cabins, lodges and retreat facilities where participants can sleep indoors in a bed or cot and have access to indoor plumbing. Mini-Treks still allow for daytime excursions such as hiking, canoeing, cross country skiing, snow shoeing, etc., and still provide a place for the mindfulness meditation and yoga curriculum to occur. In 2016 we will offer two Mini-Treks (one for young adult cancer survivors, and another for oncology care providers), which will take place in a lakeside retreat lodge in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan just 5 hours from Chicago. Overtime, we plan to expand these mini-treks throughout the country, which we feel will help us to significantly expand our programming and direct impact, as it will allow greater numbers of eligible survivors to take part.
Micro-Treks. To meet our goal of bringing the essential elements of our unique programming wherever a person is, we have also created the “Micro-Treks” program, which we have begun piloting here in the Greater Chicago land area. While many people may think of a large metropolis like Chicago as an urban jungle full of skyscrapers, noise pollution and traffic jams, through its vast system of Forest Preserves, Chicago actually boasts over 300 miles of paved and unpaved trails through beautiful, natural forestland. It can take just minutes to escape the daily grid of city living to find oneself surrounded by the peace and tranquility of a forest, river, or inland lake, and trail system that is used for hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing and more. Using the riches of our local Forest Preserves, we have previously led 1-2 hour afternoon trail hikes with groups of cancer survivors, as well as group-based kayak excursions with oncology care providers along the Chicago River with our partner Kayak Chicago. A consistent part of all of our micro-treks is to not only engage in the outdoor activity with others, but to also integrate the practice of mindfulness meditation and gentle yoga. Sometimes this even happens by just sitting in our kayaks and noticing every aspect of the Chicago River cityscape at dusk. As we are able to, we plan to launch more and more Micro-Treks across the country within similar forest preserves.
Long-term Survivorship Support. Over the years we have really seen the need to provide the type of wellness and health promotion support that we offer on our treks to teens and young adults who have returned home. That is why we offer free support, education, and resources to our alumni for the rest of their lives. This includes 1-1 health coaching and referral information for psychosocial support, available young adult cancer programs, financial counseling, fertility preservation, and available clinical trials for teens and young adults.
At True North Treks we normally talk about bringing teens and young adults with cancer from their hospital bed to the trailside or river bend when treatment finishes. We’ve come to realize however, that the healing powers of nature don’t have to sit around idly for treatment to finish and that we might be missing an incredible opportunity to actually bring the healing benefits of nature into the hospital environment itself. There’s a growing field of research that shows that not only is direct exposure to nature good for our health and well-being, but that simply seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching things found in nature can have profound positive health benefits. This includes things like decreased stress and anxiety, less use of pain medications, lower blood pressure, and decreases in health complaints (e.g., tiredness, fatigue, and coughing). For this reason, we have started a program called Trailside to Bedside, which brings the healing powers of nature directly into the hospital setting itself so that teens and young adults with cancer may connect with nature amidst so many other un-natural things, like cancer treatment. Given the safety and sanitary precautions that a medical treatment center must uphold, we have identified some hospital-friendly ways in which to accomplish this. This includes making and delivering “survivorship stones”, “cancer cairns”, “treatment terrariums”, and nature photography.
Survivorship Stones and Cancer Cairns. There’s something calming and soothing about feeling a smoothed, black, oval river stone in one’s hand, and knowing that these geological remnants of compressed earth history have gone through an incredible journey of being broken, carried off on different routes and ultimately shaped by everything they encountered and came up against to become what they are today. This is not unlike the journey and experience of a teen or young adult with cancer. And when these stones are balanced and vertically staked with the help of gravity and friction, they form what is called a “cairn” or a human made rock formation that has been used since ancient times to help weary travelers find their way. Drawing upon this symbolism and metaphor, True North Treks volunteers help decorate smoothed river rocks and stones with inspirational art, designs, poetry, quotations, and messages. They also create miniature “cancer cairn” statues as a trail marker for their own journey.
These unique pieces of nature art are not only beautiful to look at in one’s home or in a hospital room, but they also directly embody the spirit of our mission, to help teens and young adults find a new direction and chart a new course through being connected to nature. To stay consistent with our “Leave No Trace” environmental philosophy, we purchase river stones from ecologically friendly organizations that care about their environmental footprint.
Treatment Terrariums. We also bring the visual aesthetic of the earth directly into a patient’s hospital room through creating miniature treatment terrariums. Because actual potted plants can be potentially dangerous in a cancer treatment setting where immune systems are vulnerable and compromised (due to certain bacteria, molds, fungus), we create true-to-life replicas using inorganic materials and artificial moss and small plants.
Nature Photography. Research has demonstrated that patients who view photographs of nature show greater physiological and self-reported relaxation and lower reports of pain compared to viewing urban scenes. Our volunteers and alumni take amateur photographs of nature scenery (usually just with their smart phones), edit & frame them in creative ways, and give them to teens and young adults at bedside and at home. With our growing social media presence (described later) we’ve also begun engaging our True North Treks alumni to take and post pictures of nature scenes on Facebook, Instagram, etc.
Listening to Sounds of Nature, Mindfully. Numerous studies have shown the health and healing benefits of listening to sounds of nature, as well as guided mindfulness meditation instruction. Everything from emotional well-being, decreased stress, improved pain tolerance, and stronger immune systems have been reported. We provide nature soundscapes and guided mindfulness meditation audio files to cancer treatment centers and patients so they may partake in this during and following their treatment.
In-Hospital Yoga and Mindfulness Meditation. With our partners at the Ann and Robert Lurie Children’s Hospital Chicago and the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center, we offer free mindfulness meditation and yoga to teens and young adults with cancer and their caregivers. Future programs will offer these services and other nature awareness activities at the Crowne Sky Garden, a sensory rich rooftop garden at the Lurie Children’s Hospital.
ad·vo·ca·cy (ˈadvəkəsē/): The act of pleading for, supporting, educating, or recommending solutions to influence decisions within political, economic, and social systems and institutions.
In addition to providing a wide variety of skills training and support to teens and young adults with cancer, we spend a lot of time advocating on their behalf, and on behalf of this movement. From social media campaigns and small living room gatherings, to large public speaking events attended by public officials and policy-makers, we raise awareness and interest for this cause by educating others on the plight of young adult cancer and the tangible, actionable things that we can do to change the narrative.
One in 100 college students is diagnosed with cancer in the United States. As a part of our advocacy efforts, and in partnership with the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center, we are currently developing a college-campus focused cancer prevention initiative called Healthy U, which draws upon social marketing strategies to raise awareness, stimulate conversations and dialogue, change attitudes regarding health behaviors, and increase knowledge around different ways in which cancer can be prevented as a young adult. A primary activity will be spreading informative health promotion and cancer prevention posters and infographics throughout college campuses, such as student unions, dormitories, and fraternity and sorority organizations.
In addition, given TNT’s focus on meditation and yoga as cancer prevention and health promotion tools, another way to creatively “socially market” these things is through actual live demonstration, such as a yoga “flash mob” either on campus or in the local community.
Research = We Search
Many prominent leaders in this movement have said that “research is the key” to making a noticeable change for this population. We know the inconvenient truths that cancer incidence has increased more with this group than any other age group, that survival rates have not improved at the same rate as other age groups, and that cancer has become the number one disease killer in teens and young adults. They are the most underserved patient population by age and their clinical trial participation is significantly lower than any other age group with no "young adult cancer clinical research” program available by grant-giving institutions. Giving money to traditional national cancer support organizations will most likely not help a young adult with cancer.
True North Treks Founder and Director, David Victorson, is a cancer researcher in the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in the Department of Medical Social Sciences. A licensed health psychologist by training, his research focuses on improving the quality of life of people diagnosed with cancer through studying the effects of mindfulness meditation, yoga, and other psychosocial supports during and following treatment. His research lab recently received a multi-million dollar grant from the National Cancer Institute to study the effects of mindfulness training in older men with prostate cancer, and his team is completing one of the first known randomized clinical trials of mindfulness meditation and yoga for young adult cancer survivors. He is very close to this field and can attest that compared to other age groups, it is extremely challenging to receive funding to support research focusing on teens and young adults with cancer, as it simply does not exist in the same way it does for other groups.
For this reason, True North Treks has made it a part of its mission to also provide research support to organizations that serve this demographic wherever possible. Over the past several years True North Treks has assisted the nonprofit organization “Stupid Cancer” in evaluating its program outcomes, which has been presented at national young adult cancer conferences. Given True North Trek’s partnerships with different cancer centers and medical schools at Northwestern University and throughout the country, a longer term goal is to one day support early career cancer researchers who focus on teens and young adults with pilot grant funding to help them kick start their programs and contribute to this desperately needed body of research evidence that can make a true difference.