Surfing 101: As Told To

Preview: Cancer Survivor Ben Moon’s Coming-of-Age Memoir

The Pacific City–based photographer, filmmaker, and surfer gives us a snapshot of Denali, out in January 2020.

By Benjamin Tepler July 24, 2019 Published in the August 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

In 2015, Pacific City–based photographer and filmmaker Ben Moon released Denali, a surf-laden, seven-minute tribute to the dog who had carried him through the most difficult years of his life. To call it a tearjerker is a gross understatement. Sixteen million people streamed the video online. It set the stage for a new memoir, Denali, expected to be published in January 2020. Roughly following the life span of his dog, the book chronicles the now-44-year-old’s struggle with colorectal cancer at a young age, his rise as an adventure photographer, and his transition from professional climber to surf contemplative.

I found out I had colorectal cancer at age 29. Close to stage three. The difference between stage two and four in colon cancer is weeks. I liken it to a gas-soaked bonfire that isn’t lit yet, and the torch is within an inch of combustion.

I almost died because I ignored the symptoms. Being younger, going through colon cancer where it’s typically thought of as an “over 50” disease ... that’s what spurred me to write this book. Doctors still say, “You don’t need to get checked out [in your 20s or 30s].” Had they treated me that way, I wouldn’t be here. If this book helps just one person, it’s worth the four years of agony to write the thing.

Dogs are a steady, solid friendship. Cancer is really challenging, and it can be hard to ask for help. Having a dog that’s there for you ... they don’t expect anything from you, they just give.

I had a lot of friends who kept getting me outside. I climbed during all my treatments as much as I could—even two weeks after my surgery. I had no ab muscles. [The doctors] filleted me. I went and climbed Chain Reaction [a very difficult, classic route at Smith Rock near Bend]. I figured out how to swing my hips without using my abdomen. You just have to keep yourself going or else you kind of give up, mentally.

Having a colostomy and being a young athlete, body image is a huge thing. Having a poop bag hanging off of my abdomen felt like my life was over. A lot of people just become hermits and don’t date and are afraid to go outside. And people are like, “You actually surf? Climb?” Yeah, every day.

[With the film], my friends were like: “Ben, Denali is gone, you should move on.” But there was something there that was beyond my friendship [with Denali] that kept pushing me to share it. I thought just my friends would watch it. Two days later, my phone exploded from everybody from the Today show to Oprah. After the film, I got thousands of emails and letters telling me how it had impacted their lives or helped with their own process [with cancer]. People saying: “Thank you so much for helping ... nobody wants to talk about this stuff ... I convinced my dad to go to a doctor, and they caught it just in time.”

When you’re going through an illness, it’s good to be reminded that you’re a small part of a much larger universe. You can be out on a tiny day on the ocean, just longboarding, and you’ll be humbled by the fact that you are in a vast body of water, that there’s a whale breaching like 20 feet away, sea lions popping up, pelicans cruising overhead. Always something to make you realize how small you are.

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