Port Angeles cancer survivor who knows ‘freedom after fear’ starts program to help others

PORT ANGELES — “On the other side of fear you will find freedom,” Jack Ganster, 47-year-old cancer survivor, said recently, wearing a yellow shirt emblazoned with the Lance Armstrong “Live Strong” message.

The Port Angeles man lives the “freedom after fear” aphorism every day and is establishing a program to help other cancer survivors do the same.

Six years ago, he was running an outdoor gear store and spending every minute of his free time hiking, skiing, kayaking and enjoying life.

Then, while attending a football game at Qwest Field in Seattle, Nov. 2, 2003, he was struck by a seizure and rushed to Harborview Medical Center.

The diagnosis came swiftly: a brain tumor the size of a walnut lodged behind his ear in the left parietal lobe.

Over the next four months, Ganster underwent two surgeries and five weeks of radiation therapy. Regular MRIs show no sign of the cancer returning.

He marked the last day of treatment by doing what he loved — skiing at Klahane Ridge. It was June 3, but there was enough snow to swoosh through.

“I try to do it every year to celebrate,” he said.

Prior to his cancer, “backcountry skiing defined who I am,” he said.

Ganster, originally from Pittsburgh, is the quintessential “outdoorsy guy.”

His parents first took him camping when he was 9 months old. He has hiked the Appalachian Trail and climbed Mount Olympus; and if there’s snow in the mountains, that’s where you’ll find him.

But now his life has a new definition: survivor.

In a recent column he wrote for the Peninsula Daily News, Ganster talked about how he felt upon returning from his annual Nov. 2 outdoor outing.

“I know that I may still face more complications from this potentially deadly disease, but as I returned from my exhilarating outing, I knew that life was not out to get me. I was out to get life!”

Now sporting a close-cropped crewcut over a crescent-shaped scar, Ganster said his brush with death, and his own mortality, caused him to focus his life in a different direction.

Program for survivors

He and business partner, Steve Teufert, closed Olympic Mountaineering of Port Angeles three years ago, and Ganster has been concentrating on establishing a program for cancer survivors called Survivor’s Outdoor Experience.

The program is designed to provide cancer survivors of all types and all ages an opportunity to learn about the benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle, and to experience that lifestyle, he said.

“There are other programs for specific things, like kids or breast cancer, but I wanted to be inclusive rather than exclusive,” he said.

“I wanted to include all people and all kinds of cancer.”

The idea was cemented when he attended the first Lance Armstrong Live Strong summit in Austin, Texas, in 2006 and talked with people, including fellow cancer survivors, about his plan.

“The opportunity to meet with so many people who have experienced this process confirmed the interest and need for a program like SOE,” he said.

Ganster has been working for three years to build the infrastructure: obtaining 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, assembling a board, designing a curriculum and finding a location.

Classes begin in January

In January, the group plans to launch by hosting classes in Port Angeles, starting with yoga.

Also in the works are healthy cooking classes, a travel slide show and a snowshoe demonstration — on dry ground.

The classes would be even more inclusive — open to everyone, not just cancer survivors.

“You shouldn’t have to be dealing with cancer to think of things like healthy living,” he said.

The plan is to combine education in healthy living with healing outdoor experiences such as hiking, skiing and kayaking.

Ganster notes on the group’s Web site: “SOE will provide participants with the tools that enable them to live as a ‘survivor’ and leave the ‘victim’ behind.”

It’s about looking forward, not back.

Other events in early 2010 include a healthy cooking workshop, travel slide show and a fundraising concert.

The group is working with Olympic Park Institute, a nonprofit outdoor education organization based at Lake Crescent, to use the OPI cabins and facilities for a six-day summer retreat program.

No charge to participants

“The goal is to make it cost-free for participants,” Ganster said. He estimated running a one-week program for 10 participants would cost $10,000 total.

This summer, the group plans a “soft opening,” with 10 invited guests and just a three-day retreat.

“Then they will become ambassadors for the program, helping to spread the word,” he said.

Ganster isn’t fishing for major donors for Survivor’s Outdoor Experience. Instead, he is depending on an “Obama-style” grass-roots, broad-based funding campaign.

The group plans to charge for some community events, and to host a benefit concert and sell “SOE” T-shirts in the near future.

“We need to start somewhere,” Ganster said. “And this is where we’re starting.”

Survivor’s Outdoor Experience welcomes donations of all sizes.

For more information and to donate online visit www.survivorsoutdoorexperience.org.

Donations also can be made by check, written to the organization and mailed to Survivor’s Outdoor Experience, 403 S. Lincoln St., Suite 4, PMB 85, Port Angeles, WA 98362.

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Features Editor Marcie Miller can be reached at 360-417-3550 or [email protected]

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