I’m a long term survivor of what is considered “terminal” brain cancer. After living through 5 recurrences, 6 brain surgeries, radiation and chemo – many people ask me: ‘How can you be so happy going through that? What is it that gives you hope and that positive attitude? Tell me what you do!’
I love to share it with you because we all have something in common – we are all struggling through hard times in life. I hope you will smile and feel at peace along with me through the good, bad and ugly times in life.
The doctors told me I had less than a year to live. Four years after my diagnosis, I was still alive. I decided to climb the 14,167-foot Mount Shasta to celebrate. During the climb I truly became aware of the similarities between “climbing a gnarly trail” and “struggling a terminal trial”. Here are the key strategies I learned to use to successfully make it to the peak of Mt. Shasta and to live through cancer – with a smile.
Okay, it takes a whole book to really describe my strategies, but I’ll try to wrap it all up in a shorter summary. You can always find my book, Life’s Mountains, if you want to delve in deeper.
Here are the 11 things I learned in my climb. I hope it reaches out and helps you too.
One – Prepare: To successfully make it to the peak of Mt Shasta it took preparation. I gathered gear I needed for the climb (ice axe, harness, boots with crampons) and I exercised five days a week to get physically fit. To prepare for the battle through cancer I also exercise and gather gear. Physical gear – supplements and healthy foods.
Two – Guides are like Gold: Whenever you are trying to learn something new you often go to an experienced person to get good advice. Right? On Mt. Shasta I found out that guides are like gold. Without my guide Genaro, I never would have made it to the peak. Without his advice and example, I would have failed. Living life battling cancer I need mentors! I tracked down survivors, elders, wise friends, to gather guidance.
Three – Step-by-Step: Climbing Mt Shasta I had to take a slow pace called ‘rest step’ so I wouldn’t get worn out and give up. One, two, rest. One, two, rest. Without the step-by-step approach, I would have failed. With “terminal” cancer, I take it step-by-step also. If I look ahead, I lock in place and the future seems impossible. So I take it day-by-day, sometimes even minute-by-minute.
Four – Overcome Anxiety: Going through cancer, we all know anxiety very well. Early in my climb up Mt. Shasta anxiety took over. Physical pain in my legs, fear I would fail. Soon enough nausea and diarrhoea overcame me. I felt like stuff was going to come out both ends at the same time! Anxiety is ulgy. Being diagnosed with terminal cancer brings on anxiety, no doubt. Overwhelming. During the climb I realized that I brought the sickness on myself by getting caught up in the “what-ifs”. With cancer the “what-ifs” can lead to anxiety and depression! It gets deeper and deeper, like falling into a black pit. While climbing Mt Shasta once I started living in the moment, not thinking about the “what-ifs” the sickness of anxiety went away. SO true for me battling cancer too!
Five – Teamwork: On Mt. Shasta during the dangerously steep part of the climb we all needed to be tied together with rope and harnesses. So if one person fell, the others would drop and slam their ice axe into the slope, holding on tight, keeping them from sliding down the mountain. Being part of the team had many benefits – safety, feeling of security, keeps you at a good pace. I don’t know if I would have made it to the peak without the teamwork. It is the same way while I climb the mountain of brain cancer. I am blessed to have many teams helping me – my family, my church, my doctors, my caregivers, internet support groups. Taking the challenge with teamwork, makes me feel like it is more do-able.
Six – Working through Pain: You guys have heard of the saying “No pain, no gain.” I had to work through pain to make it to the peak of Mount Shasta. My thighs were on fire, they burned with each step. My boots cut into my shins. Our guide told us “You need to work through your pain”. If you stopped because of the pain, your muscles would tighten up and it would get worse. I needed to work through the pain. Same for me working through cancer, it can be painful for sure. Physical pain and emotional pain! I need to “keep on keeping on” as David Bailey said. I need to keep working through the pain or it will take me down. Pain can also bring benefits! Like giving birth brings us our child.
Seven – Taking Breaks: During the climb, every hour or so, we took a break. We sat up strait, relaxed, took deep breaths, and checked our gear to make sure everything was in order. Living through brain cancer I need breaks too. I find a still quiet place and do nothing. It’s refreshing! Silence is beautiful! It’s like hitting the “reset” button on the computer. After my break, my brain works clearer.
Eight – Energize: During our break climbing Mount Shasta we drank water and ate to keep up our energy. An amazing energy gel called GU, smooth creamy chocolate gel. Yum! Living through cancer treatments, we feel physically fatigued and worn down. Emotional stress also depletes our bodies from energy. It gets harder doing the daily stuff around the house. Just like on the mountain, I need to drink and eat well. Good healthy stuff to energize my immune system and give me the strength to keep up the fight. Other things like laughing, listening to great music, singing, dancing, moving – brings energy.
Nine – Encouragement: Climbing Mount Shasta, almost at the peak, we got to what is called, Misery Hill. It has that name for a reason. I was ready to give up. Matt my husband and a guide saw the look on my face and started the encouragement. “Don’t stop!” “Move those feet!” They took a tag team approach, like big, cheerleading men. Sometimes living with cancer I feel like there is no one there cheering me on. Sometimes I need encouragement every day, every hour. I learned I don’t need to wait to hear it from a “person”. So I love my friends and family there to encourage me, but I’ve learned that it’s not limited to that. I love Nike’s commercial where it said “Athletes tell themselves they can do the impossible, even when they are not sure they can.” Talk about encouraging themselves!
Ten – Notice the Miracles: When I finally made it to the peak of Mt Shasta I knew it was a miracle. Statistics said 70% would fail the climb. I was a cancer patient, not in the best shape, old worn out gear, was in pain. Anyone predicting would bet that I would fail. However, I made it to the peak! To me, a miracle!
Eleven – At the Peak: At the peak of Mt Shasta I was amazed. Seeing a view, I never would see anywhere else in the world. However, I surprised myself. I thought the BIG reward for successfully making it to the peak would be seeing the beautiful view. But that was not it. The reward I truly valued was living through, being moulded by; the experience of the climb itself. For me it’s the same thing with cancer. It’s not the reward of surviving that I truly value. It’s the changes it’s made in my life through my experiences climbing my own “life’s mountains”. Expect trials to keep coming in life like peaks in mountain ranges. I can smile each day regardless of my circumstances. I can smile.