CWC Wilderness Program

Written By: Evan Byer

One of the most challenging aspects of being diagnosed with cancer as a young adult is figuring out a new path in life.  At a time when friends are finishing college, dating, getting married, starting a family, or establishing careers, young adults diagnosed with cancer often feel lost and left behind.

There are about 60,000 young adults diagnosed with cancer per year and yet survival rates have not changed in over 30 years. Across the nation, young adults are offered the fewest resources when compared with children and older adults. Many young adults diagnosed with cancer feel loved and cared for at the beginning of their diagnosis, only to find significant adjustment issues after treatment is finished; this often includes depression, anxiety, and trauma. But the number one psychosocial issue for young adults is isolation. When one feels isolated, there is often a greater sense of loss and uncertainty.

The Wilderness Program at Cancer Wellness Center provides a respite from that isolation. The program is designed to enhance the emotional growth of individuals and foster interpersonal connections by engaging in natural settings over a prolonged period of time.  We offer backpacking trips to young adults in some of the most scenic spots in the Midwest. So far, we have held trips in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Our trips involve true backpacking, where we pack our stoves, tents, and other essential supplies into large backpacks.

The Wilderness Program is more than a simple exposure to a natural setting; it aims to enhance the impact that the environment has on one’s senses. One of the ways that the program aids in recovery, is by immersing a group in a therapeutic landscape. Therapeutic landscapes are environments that have a lasting reputation for physical, mental, and spiritual healing. Additionally, our trips often result in restorative experiences. This is due to many factors but, primarily, because of the components of being away and compatibility.

Nowadays, there are many platforms from which people shout opinions. Undoubtedly, this serves an important and cathartic function in our lives. But when everyone wants to shout, we lose focus on the importance of listening. Being out in the wilderness demands listening to nature, ourselves, and others. Through listening more intently, a backpacking experience in the wilderness can also help individuals distill what is truly important in life. Without cell phone reception and access to our normal resources, there is a tendency to tap into survival mode. This often includes a greater appreciation for safe drinking water, edible food, and shelter.  When your mind is in this survival mindset, it is ripe for reflecting on the things that truly matter in life. It is not unusual for participants to come back from a trip feeling rejuvenated, more self-reliant, and with a firmer clarification of their individual needs and values.  Our hope is that The Wilderness Program helps young adult cancer survivors gain a fresh outlook on what they have and where they want to go.

Lastly, I want to share a quote that I read to the group before we get ready to stargaze. It speaks to the inclusivity of nature, which also helps young adult cancer survivors find their new path:


“For some to gaze at the ocean is the way to peace of heart and mind.

Not all of us have that opportunity.

But all of us have the sky! And its moods are infinitely more varied, more intriguing to the imagination, more filled with wonders than even the broadest sweep of sea.”

  • Martha Hickman



  1. American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures 2014. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society; 2014
  2. Gesler, WM (1993). Therapeutic Landscapes: Theory and a Case Study of Epidauros, Greece. Volume: 11 issue 2, page(s) 171-189.
  3. Hartig, T., Mang, M. and Evans, G.W (1991) Restorative effects of natural environment experiences. Environment and Behavior, 23, 3-26.
  4. Hickman, M (1994). Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations For Working Through Grief. Avon Books, Inc. New York, NY.