Adventurer Ben Moon on the Upside of Battling Cancer and the Power of Canine Companions

Adventurer Ben Moon stands shirtless beside his dog outside.
Sophie Kuller

Ben Moon is a climber, surfer, photographer, author, and filmmaker. It’s been 18 years since he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, but he still wears a colostomy bag and has dedicated much of his life to educating young men about the need to get tested and stay active to be healthy. With a film in the works, a new book, and a new home, we caught up with Moon to get his take on the pandemic, dogs, and cameras, and more.

Men’s Journal: What does health mean to you?

Ben Moon: I feel that health is the sum of so many factors—not just the physical. Our mental and emotional wellbeing is so often overlooked by Western medicine, yet it affects every part of our lives. These past couple years we’ve all been overwhelmed by uncertainty and a feeling of helplessness, which has taken a huge emotional toll. I think it’s so important to just acknowledge that and be kind to ourselves.

Are there things you learned during your battle with cancer that provided strength during the pandemic?

The early days of the pandemic had many echoes from my diagnosis of rectal cancer at age 29 and the battle that followed. The paralyzing uncertainty, the search for information, and the utter loss of control all felt so similar. In both cases, I watched the momentum of my career and months of work disappear literally overnight. In the case of my cancer diagnosis, I had just become established as an adventure photographer with a career on the rise, shooting and traveling almost nonstop for Patagonia and other outdoor clients.

When the pandemic gripped the U.S. in early March 2020, I’d just released my first book, Denali: A Man a Dog and the Friendship of a Lifetime—a deeply personal memoir. I was home on a break from the book tour, about to fly out for the next leg and my largest public speaking gig to date with an audience of oncologists. On the day the lockdown started, the book tour halted after it had just begun, all of my public speaking engagements were canceled, and every major film project I’d lined up was postponed indefinitely. I was also three years into building my dream house. It felt as if I could lose it all.

The anxiety was worse for me during the first few months of Covid. During the cancer battle, it was just me facing mortality and I took it a day at a time. But being unsure if everyone I loved was going to die from an unknown respiratory virus was a crippling feeling for an empath. In both cases, I found time outside and in the ocean to be the best source of relief from the anxiety and uncertainty of it all. And a hug from my pup, of course.

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What has life been like since the release of your short film and book? How did the decision to go public with your illness impact you?

The unexpected success of the short film definitely changed my life in many ways. I’m a relatively private person, so having my personal story go viral with every media outlet contacting me, news trucks idling outside my house, and even Oprah sharing it was a wild experience. The thousands of messages from viewers that followed made me realize if I were to share a deeper version of my story, it had to be in my own words. I reached out to Jon Krakauer and he generously offered advice in navigating the publishing world and introduced me to some of the individuals who made the book possible. It was a daunting prospect to have such personal details published, but I kept telling myself that if it helped even one person through a challenging experience, or saved a life by encouraging them to get screened for colorectal cancer, it would all be worthwhile. I adopted my new pup, Nori, right as I began the book proposal and she was a daily reminder of the power of the bond that exists with our canine companions.

A screenplay has been written for the book, and last year I signed with Spyglass Media to adapt it for a feature film. Right after the book came out, the film director Max Winkler and actor Charlie Hunnam called me and shared how deeply they had connected to my story. There had been offers before, but none that felt right to me. The producers are really great—they made The Peanut Butter Falcon and Little Miss Sunshine, both huge indie films, so I’m hoping the film comes to fruition soon. I also narrated the audiobook, which was a lot more challenging than I imagined it would be. The first thing I saw when I entered the studio was a photo of Michelle Obama from her time recording there. No pressure!

What do you miss about your life pre-illness? Has there been an upside?

The most obvious answer: I miss having full digestion intact. But living with a colostomy bag has taught me a lot about patience and humility.

What draws you to writing and photography as your media of choice?

By nature, I’m highly empathic and a constant observer, so composing still or moving images helps me sort out and make sense of my feelings and surroundings. You have to simultaneously see the overall scene while noticing the minute details that will either enhance or detract from a scene. It’s all storytelling, whether in a single frame, a series of images, or a film. Within that realm, I’ve played a lot of roles—from photographing to directing to producing. In the end, the goal is to share the best stories in the most impactful ways.

Writing a book in some ways is the simplest, most stripped-down form of storytelling, but you can’t lean on visual elements, sound design, or music to draw the audience in. For me, writing the Denali memoir was one of the most challenging and vulnerable experiences of my life.

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Who are the most influential climbers in your life?

I met Conrad Anker in the summer of 1998 on a climbing trip and he gave me words of encouragement that shaped me and my climbing in many ways. He and his family are still special to me today. If you’ve seen the film Torn you understand what they’ve all been through.

You recently moved from #vanlife to a home you built with your father and friends. What was the vision?

My home is on the Oregon coast in a small beach town called Pacific City. It’s a stunning place to live—and also for photographs and film productions. From the earliest phases, I wanted the house to feel like a sanctuary with lots of private spaces and natural light, as well as a place to build community and foster creativity. My partner Sophie Kuller is an incredible fashion and lifestyle photographer, and we’re building out the on-site photo and production studio together. We’ve already had so many creatives and musicians come through to visit or collaborate, and we’re hoping to continue that as we settle in here.

The world seems like it’s on fire with political divisiveness and violence, so I feel really fortunate to be able to live in a place that has so much natural beauty right outside my front door. These past few years, it really helped me stay grounded when the news and state of the world became almost too much to bear. Observing the ocean rhythms of wind, tide, and swell—as well as the birds and vibrant sea life—help put things into perspective. I mean, it’s hard not to smile when you watch a bald eagle soar by just as a rainbow takes form.

What’s a typical day like for you at home?

I typically check the surf conditions right away, then go for a walk with the dogs to have a closer look at the waves. Spending time in the ocean is a great way to start the day and gain perspective. After that, it’s phone calls and emails, connecting with my reps, and brainstorming new projects with collaborators. Also, Wordle, and a maté.

Biggest day-to-day health tip?

Stay hydrated and prioritize sleep and outdoor play. I’ve found that these factors affect our energy levels and mood more than anything. Often when I’m fatigued or having digestive issues, it’s due to lack of hydration.

Favorite books and bands we need to know about?

Currently, I’m reading Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jaouad. I also just finished Nowhere For Very Long by Brianna Madia. Khruangbin is in constant rotation. I also love listening to my friend’s music, from Goth Babe to Gregory Alan Isakov.

Let’s talk dogs. Purebred or mutt?

Mutt, without a doubt. Mixed breeds are healthier, more unique, and ever-grateful for you giving them a second chance at life. Denali, Nori, and my partner’s pup, Echo, are all mixed breeds that were rescued.

How about your favorite cameras. Are you a Nikon, Canon, or Sony guy?

Sony all the way. I’ve been shooting on the Sony mirrorless system for the past eight years and am now a Sony Artisan of Imagery. Their cameras and cinema tools are mind-blowing in so many ways. Sony also hosts events all the time that foster community among creatives where the engineers ask questions on how to improve their cameras. At the start of my career, I shot film for five years on Nikon, then used Canon digital SLR’s for a decade before switching to Sony.

Best road trip?

I recently took two 3,000-mile trips with Sophie in the new Rivian R1T—which made me believe that electric vehicles are truly the future. It’s so much quieter and more comfortable. Being able to drive far off-road to find an epic campsite in an electric truck was incredible. The dogs slept peacefully during those long drives. When we had to leave them, the pet mode allowed us to keep them in the truck with the climate control set to a comfortable temperature. That’s a huge weight off your mind when it’s hot out.

Van or house?

Living in a van or a small space is something everyone should do once. I’ve now had two three-and-a-half-year periods where I’ve lived in a camper van. The first was at the start of my photo career, 21 years ago, when I’d upgraded from a Subaru wagon to an old Ford camper van. It was a means to an end as I was living off something like $6,000 a year. More recently, I built out a Ford Transit with my dad and lived in it while I built my house. I also wrote nearly my whole book in that van, usually parked at the beach or on the building site. On the flip side, waking up in a home you built with your own hands is a magical feeling. A van is a small sanctuary during a transient lifestyle, but a home truly is a place to land.

Best surf ever?

Any time spent in the ocean is magical. My favorite surfs are often those shared with just a few dear friends, watching the light sparkle on a glassy wave while cheering as they drop into a beautiful one. I love watching someone’s eyes light up as they experience the wonder of their first real wave—or witnessing an eagle watching you from the cape, then diving down and pulling a salmon from the sea in its talons.

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?

The best advice I heard recently was, “You know what you know.” That can be translated into trust your gut and follow your intuition. When you have that persistent voice in your heart or mind telling you something, you need to listen to it. This applies to our creative journey and also to when relationships or friendships either require something more or need to come to an end. Exercise that deep intuition and most bad advice will be quite obvious.

I’ll also add: Live with gratitude instead of fear. Be kind and try not to take things personally. You never know what others are going through. Embrace relationships that lift you up and walk away from the ones that drag you down. Life is too short to give energy to negative people.

Finally, whether it’s climbing, surfing or just life: Don’t look down. Look where you want to go.

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