To Climb Mountains

When you are in the mountains, you find out who you really are.  Any mistake I make could mean death. And when it comes to that moment, you want to survive. You want to live. I climb so I can live every moment of my life.

Nimsdai Purja, 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible

One year ago, I got rid of cancer. For the second time. I found out I had it on a Monday, saw the Oncologist on Wednesday.

“When would you like to have surgery?” he inquired gently, obviously prepared to give me time I didn’t need.

Neil answered on my behalf; we’d already talked about it. “What’s your schedule like at the end of the week?”

We operated two days later. I wasn’t fucking around.

The first time I had cancer was 12 years ago, and in that December, I was post-surgery and waiting for radiation because chest incision wasn’t healing. It was a long, hard haul and I thought it would be over soon. It was just beginning.

The second time I was fighting more than a disease that seemed to find me a perfect hostess. I knew exactly what it took to survive. I intimately knew what battle would look like, what would have to change about life. I knew exactly what my family would go through. I could see the whole mountaintop, top to bottom, not just the path in front of me. I really didn’t want to do it again.

Like the first time I had cancer, this too was found by luck. I had been too traumatized by appointments and tests and waiting to get regular mammograms like I was supposed to. I hadn’t had one in 7 years. But for months, I had this feeling that I needed to, and the longer I stalled, the greater the anxiety. Finally at the doctors’ office, alone because of Covid, the nurse called my name. I started crying. Minutes later when her breath caught and tone changed as she looked at the images on the screen, I sighed deeply, immediately weighted down by the future. It wasn’t much, but it was there. Another mountain to climb.

I watch a lot of climbing movies – big mountain climbs in remote areas to elevations I could never get to. When I was a kid, I dreamed of going to Everest – at least to base camp. It turns out that even though I had a chance to, I couldn’t – severe altitude sickness incapacitates me at just 7,000ft, far below the 17, 000+ feet above sea level of Everest Base Camp One. But the perseverance of the climbers, the focus and determination – and sometimes the mistakes – is facinating to me. In a strange way, I can relate, though I wonder at what often seems like the arrogance and masochism involved in intentionally causing your body and family so much distress.

Recently while watching 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible on Netflix, I found myself really resonating with something the first man to solo Everest and the first to climb it without oxygen, Reinhold Messner, said –

In such a concentrated situation, climbing and meditation is the same.  When the pain is really forcing you to go down, you keep going up. You are really on the edge of possibilities. The edge of life and death. 

This perfectly described my fight with cancer. It was my climb, my mountain. And it remains my meditation.

I’ve written a lot about survivorship and much now seems naive – almost sappy. My life and health was profoundly impacted in ways only my family is truly aware of. It certainly wasn’t full of pink ribbons, gratitude, and acceptance of lessons learned. And after this second round of cancer, I again face debilitating issues, more tests and more uncertainty about what life will look life for me in the future. The summit celebration was very brief, and a year later it seems remote and the journey still long.

In reading about successful climbers, I am especially interested in who never leaves the mountain. Why do some make it and some don’t given all the same preparation, fitness, money and supplies?* Successful adventuring of any sort requires flexibility of the body and the mind. A willingness – and ability – to shift the plan when it isn’t working, to let go of your thoughts about what success looks like and form a new strategy. Most importantly, to be in the moment, making decisions about the moment that IS, not the one you want. This is also what being a survivor requires.

I realize now that the first time around with cancer, I treated my body like the climber who continues despite the dangerous weather, dwindling supplies and increasing mental befuddlement from oxygen deprivation. The summit was the only acceptable goal. This time, I was more aware of the ghosts around me, those who had every reason to make it and didn’t. The climb takes hard work, a lot of preparation and support, but sometimes it is simply luck that gets you through. The gods smile on you and for one blissful moment at the summit, you weep for the goal achieved before you start the treacherous journey back to an approximation of where you started.

There is no right way to do cancer. No one type of survivorship. This time, I am left with even deeper compassion for this soft body. A deeper appreciation of how the years dwindle and what I want to spend my time doing. Also, a deeper sadness over what I can’t just force into being – the summits I glimpsed but never reached. In this survivorship, I am more willing to turn around and wait for another “weather window”. More willing to not push so hard. I am getting better at accepting that it might not be a bad thing to not achieve whatever others see as success. Sometimes the mountains climbed, the summits reached, the views gained, and the accomplishment felt are only known to a few. Maybe only to you.

So here’s to you, fellow cancer climbers, summit achievers, attempters, and especially to those who never made it off that mountain. I see you, love you, and am grateful to be in your company. We are a tribe of the unwilling who nevertheless gave our all.


* Read “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why” by Laurance Gonzales for a facinating look at this question, as well as his follow-up “Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience”.

**The word Namaste has been overused and appropriated in recent years. It is derived from Sanskrit, and is still in daily use in Southeast Asia (not just on coffee mugs and social media influencers posts). It is loosely translated as a greeting to the divine in the person you are addressing and an acknowledgement of the divine connection/sameness of all. It is with the acknowledgment of its origins, and its deep meaning, that I use it here.

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