When I first found out about being accepted as crew on the eXXpedition Atlantic 2014 I was so excited, I could barely contain myself. There was something about this voyage that got under my skin and ignited there. The prospect was thrilling, to cross an ocean with only women. The purpose of such an expedition was also remarkable, examining plastic pollution, environmental toxics and personal health, and women’s empowerment. Truly a “once in a lifetime” experience.
I approached this adventure with a sense of purpose too. I would take advantage of everything it had to offer me. I would also find a way to contribute something of value to this expedition, be it my skills in the galley, at the helm, hauling lines, or reassuring those who were feeling overwhelmed and anxious. These things I could do, and I would find my place among the crew, to justify their faith in choosing me.
What I took away from this journey was more than I ever expected. On a personal level, I was once again reassured about my own capacity to cope when challenged, emotionally and physically. I was rejuvenated, in living with and being inspired by the bright, imaginative, incredibly capable women around me. Everyone’s accomplishments and passions were accepted and valued, as diverse as these were. I came away a more confident sailor, who was offered many opportunities to contribute my own knowledge and skills wherever needed on board. Most importantly, I came away with a new, close group of friends, who will forever be strongly linked by this experience and what we learned about each other on the long, dark night watches onboard, or while sitting together sharing stories of our lives. This journey was such a gift.
What I did not know at that time was that cancer had been on board that vessel with me. For some of the crew, they joined this expedition because of cancer, as they hoped to contribute in some way to increasing our understanding of those toxics and environmental issues that so profoundly affect our health. Many shared stories of how cancer had affected their lives and the lives of their loved ones. I shared my own story of losing my parents to cancer when in my 20s. I did not know in the telling of this tale that another personal chapter about cancer was being written. This is the chapter of the life that I am living now. I am battling with cancer again, and this time it’s personal.
I have been struck by the incredible irony of all of this. I have likened this year as going from the sublime to the ridiculous. Cancer really does have a wicked sense of humour. In talking with friends and family, they too are struck by the juxtaposition of these two significant events in this incredible year. They also state quite emphatically, ”If you can cross an ocean in a sailboat, you can beat this thing”. I feel there is truth to this statement. It is that same determination to cross an ocean that I will bring to bear in this new journey. I also feel that the expedition has prepared me in some important ways to take on this challenge in life. That feeling of being more empowered and more capable than I ever knew remains with me from my ocean journey, and I tap into it each and every day.
Emily Penn, captain and co-founder of eXXpedition, remarked that my current battle with cancer is like being at sea in a wicked storm. It is scary and uncomfortable for days on end, but you know that the storm cannot last, and that the sun will come out and you will see blue skies again. Her analogy is quite fitting, as this cancer journey is quite uncomfortable and at times has been very scary, but I do know there will be an end to the storm. I will beat this and then I will once again put my feet on swaying decks for further adventures to come.
We are all tempered like steel with events both good and bad in our lives. I have been made stronger by crossing an ocean in the company of my friends, and I will be made stronger again when my battle is won.
By Dr. Elaine McKinnon