James Pann, Ph.D., interviews David Victorson, Ph.D., of True North Treks, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to empower young adults and caregivers affected by cancer to “find direction through connection” and mindfulness.
As a child, David grew up surrounded by nature and its many restorative benefits. Therefore, when he went on to complete his postdoctoral fellowship in psychosocial oncology as a psychologist, he saw an opportunity to bring nature’s gifts to the young adult cancer patients he was seeing.
In 2008, he co-founded True North Treks to fill some of the unmet needs of these cancer survivors and their caretakers and help them get their lives back on track. The reconnecting power of nature, coupled with mindfulness and meditation laid the basis for these restorative journeys.
David goes on to discuss one of the most reported unmet needs: isolation. Many of the young cancer patients/survivors feel like they don’t know anybody like them. These treks allow the opportunity for deep social connection with others going through the same or similar experiences. These needs and solutions developed into three key points.
True North Treks 3 Crucial Connections
1) Connection with nature (after going through something as unnatural as cancer treatment);
2) Connection with peers who get it and have walked a similar path;
3) Connection with oneself through mindful awareness practices, such as meditation and yoga.
While it may sound like a therapy session at first, David emphasizes the lack of an explicit group therapy aspect. The guides are trained never to question the participants about their cancer and instead simply sit back and allow them to speak their minds. Often, the participants will immediately start talking about their cancer experience on their own.
The guides, primarily mental health professionals, are taught to be themselves and simply bring mindfulness coaching. The participants benefit from the mindfulness and yoga experience and being with each other in the outdoors. That said, a “therapeutic” aspect tends to emerge on its own when the participants find themselves with several others just like themselves.
Being one of the 3 Crucial Connections, David defines what mindfulness means on the treks. He states that it is simply the act of tuning into our present moment experience with qualities of openness, curiosity, and self-kindness.
Beyond the definition, David and the coaches try to get participants to practice mindfulness regularly throughout the treks. This could start simply by observing/noticing things, talking about experiences in a group setting, and sitting with uncomfortable emotions.
David indicated that there are different outcomes among participants after trying mindfulness practices. Some may be completely open-minded, while others may be very skeptical. Some may bring mindfulness to the little things in life, like a cup of coffee, while others carry the new awareness to a more significant aspect of their life, like their cancer journey.
Analysis and Outcomes of the Treks
When he’s not on a trek, David is at Northwestern University, where he does outcomes research and other academic activities. This has helped him develop a more focused and practical study and outcome analysis of the treks.
In a recently published study of True North Treks, they used a version of the Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System (PROMIS), which he helped to develop at Northwestern University. They were even able to utilize some of the participants’ blood samples to analyze the different levels of circulating inflammatory cytokines or other proxies for bodily stress, before and after the trek. They found that many who showed high levels of depression, anxiety and sleep issues at the beginning dropped to low or normal levels by the end of the treks.
David finishes by describing that they have not done a longitudinal impact study to see how many participants continue the mindfulness/yoga practices but, with these treks, they have an introduction to the practices and tools to continuing on their own. It’s no longer a foreign concept or practice and with the developed connections with other participants, many appear to continue to benefit from the trek experience.
If you or someone you know could benefit from one of these treks, you can enroll here. In addition, you can donate or fill out a volunteer interest form here. To reach David directly, email him at email@example.com.
00:00 – Introduction / How True North Treks came about
04:02 – The 3 Crucial Connections
05:14 – What happens on the trips
09:40 – Mindfulness and how it’s taught on the treks
13:06 – The activities that might take place during the retreat / Where mindfulness moments might be found
13:47 – The benefits and effects of mindfulness for young cancer survivors
15:57 – The effect mindfulness plays in all unpleasant areas of life, cancer and non-cancer related
18:02 – What does “sitting with something” mean / ‘The uninvited guest’
20:26 – The outcomes that True North Treks have been able to improve
22:51 – The extent to which the benefits of mindfulness and yoga taught on the trips last
23:52 – The ways that True North Trek facilitates the continued support group after the treks
25:03 – The extent to which participants carry out the practices on their own after the retreat
26:10 – COVID’s long-term effects on the organization
28:55 – True North Trek’s approach at funding and fundraising
33:20 – David shares a lesson he learned working with a non-profit organization
35:34 – A book he likes to give as a gift to friends and colleagues
38:10 – Favorite Rumi quotes shared
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