Heather McLeod was in her prime at 35 years-old. She was fit, active, and ate well. She got after it in the mountains of Colorado Springs, CO climbing, skiing, and hiking as often as she could. She had two young children, a wonderful husband, and thriving community. During a July 4th vacation in Durango, she felt a lump. It might only be a cyst, her friends told her. But by July 14 she received the diagnosis that would forever change her life: stage 2A breast cancer. Suddenly, her life re-focused on beating the disease– one month later she had a bilateral mastectomy and one month after that she began five months of chemotherapy. It was crushing physically and emotionally.
Heather heard about the Send it Foundation from another breast cancer survivor. Send It creates outdoor adventures for young adult (ages 21-40) cancer fighters and survivors, removing them from their cancer experience and creating the space to play, connect, and have fun outdoors. They create a unique and intimate experience, weaving together adrenaline-filled adventure, family-style meals, yoga, fireside storytelling, belly laughs, and meaningful connection.
‘Sending it’ for one woman was being able to ride a two-wheeler around the parking lot for the first time. Sending it for another woman was hucking down the steepest trails on her mountain bike, smiling from ear to ear.
She joined nine other survivors in Squaw Valley to ski for three days as it dumped snow. The founders– the Schou sisters– skied with Heather and showed her why they loved it there. They all shared a cozy home and family meals. Heather loved the time at home to hear and share stories about battling cancer.: “Everyone has a different story and no one travels the same path,” she says. “However, as we got to know one another, we saw how similar we were. If we let fear rule our lives, then the cancer has won.”
Send It makes those discussions happen, bringing young survivors together, and letting them try something new or experience something they love with people who have gone through the same battle. They offer healing by helping folks be adventurous, conquer a fear, or tell their story. Heather left that trip reminded of her strength—she could still ski her face off, she had the power to restore hope in someone else battling cancer and she made new friends.
The foundation was started and is run by sisters who lost their brother to cancer. I had the chance to sit down with one of the founders, Caroline Schou, to learn more.
AJ: Let’s start with your brother, Jamie Schou, who inspired Send It — what was Jamie like?
CS: In so many ways, Jamie was larger than life– he was 6’8” and the unofficial mayor of Truckee. We were four siblings total– Jamie was the oldest then three sisters Katie, Margot and me. When you spent time with Jamie, you immediately felt like you were part of his family. He had the ability to make room for anyone and bring people together. He was charismatic and personable. He wasn’t a loud character but spending time with him felt like you were connecting.
When he was 33, he went to the chiropractor to get some routine work done. When he laid face down on the table, the chiropractor found a lump on his back. His local doctors didn’t know what is was, so he went down to Stanford to get a second opinion. The doctors told him it would be two weeks before they knew what was going on, which felt like an eternity when waiting for such serious news. Jamie had been planning his lifelong dream trip to ski in Chamonix with his buddies. He decided to go despite the looming possible diagnosis and skied his face off for ten days.
When he returned to California, he was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma– sarcomas are tumors that grows in your bones or soft tissue. They’re really rare, and synovial sarcoma is even rarer. It was terrifying– not only was he diagnosed with cancer, but it’s so uncommon that there’s not a lot known about it. I remember that night feeling utter shock. How could this happen and to someone who was so healthy and YOUNG? It was devastating. I couldn’t believe this was happening.
Holy smokes. That must have been so intense for Jamie and for you and his community. What was his treatment like?
Going through cancer treatment is hard in so many ways. The physical experience of chemo and radiation is obviously incredibly tough– Jamie lost his hair and was constantly exhausted. In March 2012, he started chemotherapy at Stanford Medical Center. He spent the first few months in and out of the hospital for treatment– seven days in the hospital hooked up to an IV and then two weeks off with radiation treatments in between. He always refused to wear the hospital gowns, instead would wear his own clothes in an attempt to not feel like the sick person. Even during treatments in the hospital, he would do pushups in his room and going on walks around the hospital. He wanted so badly to feel like his normal, healthy self.
I think cancer is even harder mentally and emotionally. Jamie was 33 when he was diagnosed. He was a strong, healthy and active young man. He had his whole life in front of him. As his sister, I was obviously terrified too. But honestly, I didn’t know what to do or what to say. We were all scared and doing our best to put our strongest face on so that he could kick cancer’s ass.
This went on for four or five months. In the fall of 2012, Jamie underwent a massive surgery to remove the football-sized tumor in his back. After two weeks in the ICU post surgery, his doctors had declared him No Evidence of Disease. But six months later, the cancer had metastasized in his lungs.
Essentially, he wanted to take the support group out of the hospital and have those meaningful conversations outside, on the chairlift, on the trail or in the ocean.
What was his time like between treatments?
He just wanted to feel like himself again. He would give himself a couple of days to recover after each treatment but after the recovery he was determined to truly live. He made it a point to ski bell to bell any day that he could, go mountain biking with his friends and spend time doing the things that had always brought him joy. He set goals for himself. He started skydiving. He summited Half Dome. His doctors didn’t like the fact that he would walk into treatment sunburned and scraped up, but Jamie knew that spending time outside was just as important to his health as chemotherapy. “Sending It’ became the fuel for his fight– it gave him a light at the end of the tunnel while in treatment and the strength to go into another round of chemo and radiation.
That’s unbelievable. I bet it was incredible to see what a badass your brother was. What was it like to be Jamie?
YES! It was amazing to see him so determined that he would beat this, and my family and I followed his lead. We took on the same outlook as him: FUCK CANCER. Cancer is not going to bring us down.
While in the hospital, he rarely met anyone his age– his doctors didn’t really know who he was at his core and his friends and family didn’t really understand what he was going through– no one could really relate. He saw a void, and that is where Send It was born. To create a space where young adults could get outside, try something new, push their bodies again while at the same time meeting other people who have a similar experience. Essentially, he wanted to take the support group out of the hospital and have those meaningful conversations outside, on the chairlift, on the trail or in the ocean.
“Send it” like “go for it” “Or does it mean something else?
Yeah, well sort of. Sending it to him used to mean hucking a cliff on his skis or having the huge day on his bike. It was fun and light. But sending it changed to him with cancer. It still had the core meaning– go for it, give it your all– but now it was more focused on what is “sending it” today? One day it could be try something new that scares you. On another day it could be getting out of bed for ten minutes, no matter how badly you feel. Sending it became spending time with your family and doing what’s meaningful to you. His blog gives a lot of insight into his world and what he was thinking about.
He started to dream of bringing individuals with cancer together in the same place to send it together. To build community, share their stories, and have an adventure. To have deep conversations with people who get it on the chair lift or on the lake. It’s incredibly empowering to climb a mountain and know that chemo’s nothing. His adventure between treatments were his fuel. Just a few more days and I can be skiing again, he’d think to himself.
How did his health progress?
Not well. He got out of the hospital in June 2014. He wasn’t well enough to be on the trial anymore. We’d set up chairs all around the house and he’d work up the energy to move between them with his oxygen tank. That became sending it for him. He tried to wean himself off of the oxygen, but he couldn’t. He passed away in July.
I’m so sorry. Did you all put the Send It vision on hold for a while?
Not at all. My sister Katie quit her job and became Send It’s executive director. I moved back to California. We got all of our ducks in a row– we set up a board, built a medical form, created an application, and found a medical director (I met this man who was finishing up his leukemia treatment and was an ER doctor and mountain bike coach). We raised enough money to get rolling. And of course, we made t-shirts.
We ran our first trip in September 2015. We had eight or ten participants all staying in a house our friends donated to us for the weekend in Tahoe. I remember watching the participants start to share their cancer journeys with one another– learning how similar and how different each of their paths were. I squealed to my sisters– it’s working! We learned about the range of what “send it” can mean for people. Sending it for one woman was being able to ride a two-wheeler around the parking lot for the first time. Sending it for another woman was hucking down the steepest trails on her mountain bike, smiling from ear to ear. Those individuals formed real connections so quickly with one another and with us. The people made the trip, and the activities and shared meals provided a platform for connection.
What are trips like now?
We keep groups pretty small– between 6 and 10 participants, all stay in one cabin, and cook family meals together. We don’t really have designated roles– we’re all there to have a good time. Most of our medical volunteers have had cancer themselves.
We run 8 or 9 trips a year in Northern California. We ski in Squaw, surf in Stinson Beach, run a couple of backpacking trips, and have a Tahoe trip in September. We also do alumni groups and try to have on alum on each trip for continuity. We also always have 1-2 medical staff and a Send It staff member as well. As of now we’ve served 122 people and over 200 people on our waitlist. We’re really proud and really psyched.
Can you accommodate everyone?
Yes. If their doctor says it’s ok and they pass our medical screening, we make it happen. We really strive to be able to meet everyone’s needs. The point of the trips is connecting, so none of the activities are mandatory. If you want to sit in the hot tub, that’s fine. We had a woman who is an amputee with a prosthetic leg and she crushed our climbing trip. There was a young man with brain cancer who just wanted to lay on the beach while we surfed. That was what he needed and that was his sending it.
What’s been surprising about your job?
I think every time we run these trips, I’m always confused at how we got here. None of us should really be here right now. I never thought I’d be working in a nonprofit as a tripleader for cancer patients. I also cannot imagine doing anything else. It’s hard to navigate everything. The first couple of trips that we ran were super emotional. I didn’t get to have the conversations people were having with my brother. But listening to trip participants, I get more insight into what he must have been feeling and what was going on in his head. I get to watch these people feel less alone, stick their middle fingers up to cancer, and SEND IT!
I think nothing better sums up what we’re about than this quote from Jamie:
“My fear is with me daily, but not too often in a teary way, more as a reminder to live the life I’ve always wanted RIGHT NOW. I want to live a life of significance, of exploration, of experience, of love. I have refocused the value of my days. I want all the experiences that life has to offer! If I am outside, enjoying family and friends, creating something, doing something new, exploring a new place, climbing what I want to climb, smiling at strangers like I never have, striking up random conversation, doing my best to make the world a better place, eating well, exercising, waking up earlier, getting stronger, hugging more, saying I LOVE YOU – then I am unafraid. I am alive! I am living the way that I should be.”
To learn more about Send It or make a donation, visit them here. Kathryn Montana Perkinson is a writer living in Lander, Wyoming. Find more @kathrynmontana and kathrynmontana.com.