Young Adult Cancer Survivors Increase Mindfulness and Connection During Nature Treks with David Victorson

David Victorson How Nature and Mindfulness Help Cancer Survivors podcast cover

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


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

Episode Links

True North Treks 

Donate to True North Treks

Trek Participant Application

Become a Volunteer at TNT

David’s Linkedin

David’s Twitter

Connect with James

Subscribe to YouTube channel



Please reach out with comments and questions.



James Pann smiling at the camera, sitting in front of green trees

James Pann, Ph.D. is a Professor at Nova Southeast University and a highly experienced psychologist and evaluator with nearly 25 years of experience. He conducts research and evaluation projects with non-profit organizations in the fields of health, human services, and education, and has received funding from multiple government agencies.

James holds multiple degrees including a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology, an M.S. Ed. from the University of Miami, and a BBA in Accounting from the University of Texas at Austin. He is also the host of the EvalNetwork podcast, a frequent conference presenter, and has published several peer-reviewed research articles and co-authored a book. James currently resides in Miami, Florida with his family and enjoys backpacking trips. Find out more about his work here.


Empowerment Evaluation

Empowering Change: David Fetterman on Using Evaluation to Build a Better World

David Fetterman is a leading expert in empowerment evaluation, an approach that emphasizes collaboration, participation, and capacity building. He has written extensively on the topic, and his work has been used in a wide range of settings, including government agencies, non-profit organizations, and businesses. David’s work focuses on helping people evaluate their programs and initiatives

Read More »
Mindfulness Meets Evaluation: Insights from Jim McDavid

Mindfulness Meets Evaluation: Insights from Jim McDavid

In this episode, I talk with Jim McDavid, Ph.D., about his experience with mindfulness and meditation practice, how it has influenced him, and how it affects how he views and practices evaluation. Our conversation also covers practical wisdom, Jim’s interest in the environment, and challenges associated with determining cause and effect in evaluation. Jim is

Read More »