Conor Hall Knows How to Ask for Help
The outdoor-recreation professional thought he could get through cancer on his own. A week of surfing and climbing with new friends showed him otherwise.
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Conor Hall told his story to producer Paddy O’Connell for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I was a college athlete. I was in great shape. A little swollen lymph node on my neck. I’d gone in to have them take a look at that, not really thinking it was anything at all. I was told I had big tumors in my chest between my heart and my lungs up through my neck. And I really thought that I was gonna die.
My full name is Conor Hall. In terms of nicknames, the most prominent one is probably El Presidente, or Prez for short. I currently live in Denver, Colorado, but I grew up in Crestone, Colorado, which is one of the, and I say this fondly, but probably one of the weirder mountain towns out there. I think it’s impossible to grow up in Crestone Colorado and not come out with some endearingly weird tendencies.
I’m a horrible singer, but I love karaoke. It gets the people going.
I’m a complete political nerd; I’ve spent a long time working in Colorado politics to promote causes that I believe in and care about. I serve as Colorado’s director of the Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. So I do a lot of economic development work, a lot of stewardship, conservation work, a lot of education, workforce development work, and a lot of work around public health and more equitable access to the outdoors. I honestly think I have the best job in government.
I also love, maybe not surprisingly, to do just about anything outside. Hiking, camping, snowboarding, kayaking, SUP-ing, anything that gets me out. The through line in those passions really come back to community.
There was this running joke in my middle school, high school, and college friends that I was invincible. There were just a very high amount of these very close calls with death or extreme injury that I kept walking away from. Falling off a cliff, being missed by a giant rock in a climbing mishap. I had to do an unplanned emergency unassisted landing in cow pasture in a skydiving mishap. I’d been in a horrendous mountain biking wreck. I rolled a car multiple times, dodging a deer. Every single time I walked away completely fine. That just really starts to permeate into your mentality. That’s really how I, for better or for worse, looked at myself. So to get this diagnosis…this was a whole different thing.
It was the last day of my sophomore year in college at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. I had been taking like ten credits over the credit limit, was burning the midnight oil, so I had gotten pretty sick. I just thought it was a bad cold. I went down to the little health services center. I’d got something for my cold, a decongestant. I was walking out and I had this little swollen lymph node on my neck and I was like, “Hey, should I be concerned at all about this?” They’re like, “No, probably not, but we’ll get a scan just in case.”
So I went down to the local hospital and got a scan. Then things started to get weird. Noone would tell me the results. They took me back to the school, and there was a lot of whispering. They asked if I could bring in my twin brother, who went to school with me there, for the news. And they got my mom on the phone. And that’s when I knew this was something that was probably pretty bad.
The CT scan had revealed two major tumors in my chest, wrapped between my heart and my lungs, 11 or 12 centimeters. And then tumors all up through my neck and my lymph nodes. Basically spells out that I have Hodgkin’s lymphoma, stage two bulky.
Everyone was crying. I think I was the only one who wasn’t crying. I immediately went into that mode of trying to comfort everyone and tell everyone that it was gonna be fine, when in reality I did not think it was gonna be fine.
It wasn’t until probably an hour later when I was finally alone just sitting on my dorm bed, where it all started to hit me, and I just completely broke down. Just feeling these feelings of pity and fear and anger all wash over me. It was just such a scary thing. My immediate connotation with the word cancer was death.
I had to focus on the treatment full-time. So that’s what I did. I’d go in to do my chemotherapy treatment every two weeks. I was in there for five hours where they just pump all of these chemicals into you. And it is an awful experience. There’s no way to sugarcoat that.
I couldn’t go to school that next semester, and so I came up with this whole plan to stay mentally sharp. I taught myself economics and stock trading. I was learning Spanish, and came up with 50 books to read. And then, to try to stay physically sharp too, after every session, I would go play sand volleyball with all my friends. We’d do three, four hours of hard, intense, sand volleyball, and sometimes I had to push a little bit to make that happen. But there was something so important to me to physically get out there with those guys, but also just mentally, emotionally, to know that I could still do that.
It was tough and awful and scary, but I certainly felt that it was important to maintain that positive attitude, just finding ways to live beyond that diagnosis.
A couple months after I finished treatment, I went on a First Descents program. This nonprofit that helps young people battling cancer, who’ve survived cancer, heal through adventure; through kayaking and rock climbing and surfing.
I was like, Well, I don’t need a support group, but I’ll go do a free adventure for a week anytime. You don’t have to twist my arm. I went surfing in North Carolina, and I met these 12 other young people from all around the country, all different walks of life, all different types of cancer, and we spent this amazing week together.
There’s something so incredibly re-empowering about riding your first wave, or cresting a rock wall, or running your first rapid after months, sometimes years of this body-breaking, mind-melting treatment. Just that you can still do some of these things, that you’re still powerful.
But the most important thing was the community that was built there. It turns out I actually did need a support group. Especially at a young age, facing your own mortality like that, the highs and the lows and the loneliness. These people all intimately understood that, and had battled with that. And that comes out as you’re waiting to catch a wave or you’re sitting around the campfire. It is truly healing through nature and healing through adventure.
And so I just saw and deeply experienced firsthand the effect of community and the power of it. You can be vulnerable, and there’s a lot of power and good in that. It’s a really natural way for any young person to build community and to get that kind of re-empowerment.
I left that trip and I said, I’m gonna do anything I can to help this organization, and to make sure that any person in my shoes, anyone battling cancer, who has survived cancer, has access to this type of healing and this type of community. So that’s what I’ve done for the past 10, 11 years now.
I’m really happy to say I just celebrated 11 years in remission. I feel incredibly lucky and incredibly blessed. When I sum it up in a sentence, I always say it was a blessing I would never wish upon anyone else.
I think it amplified those deeply-held values of relationships, of community, of really appreciating and enjoying life. Even if you feel alone in that moment, there are always people there that will support you. Even sometimes complete strangers, because I think people are inherently, deeply good. Every person in this world has some community. Reach out and ask for it.
Conor Hall is the director of the Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry for the state of Colorado. When he’s not improving access to the outdoors or enjoying it himself, you can find him trying to sing “Don’t Stop Believing” at a karaoke bar. Learn about the incredible work First Descents does by visiting firstdescents.org.