It was during the first hour of her climb that the fear hit.
Until then, Kari Darnell had been excited about summiting Mount Hood as part of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s annual Climb to Fight Breast Cancer. But now that she was out on the ice, in the dark, out of breath and teetering on the precipice of a mountain -- and a panic attack -- things felt quite different.
“When you climb, you look down at the ground, at the person’s feet in front of you,” said the 39-year-old breast cancer survivor from Kirkland, Washington. “But at one point, I looked down and saw how steep the mountain was. That’s when I started to panic. I’m afraid of heights and I had to talk myself off the ledge, basically. I thought, ‘Trust the tools you’re given. Trust your boots, your crampons, the techniques they taught you. Slow down if you have to.’ I used every mental tool that I had to get through that moment.”
Anyone who’s been diagnosed with cancer has most certainly felt the same overwhelming, heart-pounding sense of fear. And like Darnell, they’ve had to trust the tools offered by their cancer care providers, such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. But more tools are needed to eradicate the disease and the untold suffering it causes, which is where The Climb to Fight Breast Cancer comes in.
Since 1997, the organization has raised awareness and vital funds—more than $7 million so far -- toward finding a cure for breast cancer. It’s also provided survivors, their friends and family and others who want to support the cause a chance to climb a mountain and save a life, perhaps even their own.
Although the program offers more than a dozen climbs, Mount Hood is the Survivor Summit, a sky-high gathering of women who’ve all heard the chilling words, “You have cancer,” then gone on to sacrifice their breasts, their hair and in some instances, their ability to have children, all in order to beat back the disease. Some of these women make the summit mere weeks out of treatment, chests tender from radiation, scalps prickling with new growth. Others are years past their diagnosis and treatment, but still determined to show themselves – and cancer – the dizzying heights a person can reach by continuing to put one foot in front of the other.
Each woman’s route through breast cancer is a little different, but the goal for these women is the same: the celebration and satisfaction that comes with conquering a mountain, both literal and metaphorical.
Kari Darnell’s path through cancer began in November of 2012 when a tiny bit of nipple discharge quickly led to her first mammogram, followed by her first biopsy, followed by her first surgery: a mastectomy. While she was able to dodge the treatment bullet, she still feels the isolation a cancer diagnosis can bring. Girlfriends may empathize – and Darnell is quick to acknowledge her friends’ unequivocal support – but they don’t have the same concerns: fears of recurrence, worries about fertility, not to mention trying to figure out how to return to the carefree dating scene after dealing with cancer, mastectomy and reconstruction.
An outside sales rep for a fitness equipment company, Darnell, 39, has always been somewhat athletic, hiking, biking and running in races, including a half marathon. But the Colorado native had never climbed a mountain, something that appealed to her post-diagnosis.
“I wanted to know what it would be like to be on top of a mountain,” she said shortly before traveling to Oregon for the Survivor Summit of Mount Hood on June 15. “I look at it as a celebration, an outward sign of inner victory.”
After a Christmas party conversation with two past Climb participants, Darnell and two friends decided to form Team GEM14 (named after their bimonthly “girl empowerment meetings”), setting up a rigorous spring training schedule. During the week, the trio would jog up and down “huge flights of stairs on Capitol Hill” with progressively heavier backpacks; weekends were spent hiking to the top of Poo Poo Point, Mt. Si and other local peaks.
And while she did experience that brief moment of panic out on the ice, Darnell said the weeks of training and mental preparation definitely paid off. Her team traveled to the mountain on a warm Friday night in mid-June, spent Saturday training on the snow, then after a few hours of sleep, got up at midnight and made the grueling, five-hour hike to the top.
“It was a really, really incredible experience – on so many levels,” Darnell said in an interview a few days after her climb. “We definitely had some tears when we hit the summit. It was extremely challenging and extremely rewarding.”
Part of that reward was the fact Darnell was finally able to connect with other breast cancer survivors her age. Although their time was fleeting (Climb participants have to follow a strict timetable dictated by safety and weather conditions), Darnell said she appreciated being able to have conversations with women who completely understood the world she’d been living in for the past year.
“Our experiences were different because of the different stages but I was able to ask them questions, like ‘What did your doctor say about this or that?’ or ‘Oh, were you ER positive?’ and they’d totally know what I was talking about,” she said.
But the bonding was bittersweet.
“I had mixed emotions about it,” she said. “It was neat to connect but at the same time, it brought up a lot of questions for me, like why is this happening to so many women?”
A 43-year-old third grade teacher from Auburn, Washington, Alaura Keith started down the cancer path when she discovered a painful lump in one of her breasts at the age of 37. A biopsy and diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer came next, along with a sobering warning from one of the oncologists she consulted: she needed to seek treatment right away -- or as she put it “I needed to get started yesterday.” Shortly thereafter, Keith began the first of 13 weekly chemotherapy infusions which shrunk her golf ball-sized tumor down to the size of a marble. A lumpectomy and 17 more weekly rounds of chemo followed. After that, it was time for radiation: 30 daily doses of the stuff.
An avid runner and amateur athlete up until her treatment (she either coached or played softball, volleyball and basketball), Keith suddenly found herself barely able to climb out of bed for months on end. But thanks to the encouragement of friend and long-time Hutch supporter Denise Whitaker, a few years later, she decided to climb a mountain.
Keith trained for a year – a combination of hiking, spinning, running stairs, mountain bike riding and strength training – then did the Survivor Summit of Mount Hood last year with the Pink Fireballs, as a way to mark her five-year cancerversary. The climb, she admits, was grueling -- “I kept thinking if I could go through all that treatment, I can climb this mountain” -- but it was also inspiring in many ways.
Keith’s mother had died unexpectedly two years earlier and along with her gear, Keith brought some of her mother’s ashes to bury at the top of the mountain.
“My mother had never done any hiking but she loved the beauty of the world and I thought she would like it,” she said. “She lived in Oregon and always felt bad that she couldn’t be there for me while I was going through treatment. Bringing her up there with me was like telling her, ‘I made it, Mom.’”
Keith also loved the connection she felt with nature and with the other survivors and those who climbed in honor of loved ones they’d lost -- or were trying to save -- by raising crucial funds toward cancer research.
“The camaraderie was amazing,” she said. “And being that high and able to see all the other mountains was beautiful. I don’t know how to explain it but it made me feel like I was back to normal, back to myself. Like I’d reclaimed my life.”
And although she told herself the mountain climbing was a one-time experience, she soon changed her mind.
“When I got off the mountain, I swore I would never, ever put on another crampon again in my entire life,” she said. “But about two weeks later, I said, ‘Sign me up, I’ll do the next one.’ It’s like childbirth.”
Keith is currently training for a summit of 10,781-foot Mount Baker, which will take place the last weekend in July. Once again, she’ll be climbing with Denise Whitaker and the Pink Fireballs; this time, she’ll also be joined by her husband and a neighbor.
Climbing a mountain – and spitting in cancer’s eye – isn’t the only way these two survivors have embraced their new normal. Both Darnell and Keith give back in other ways.
Darnell has become a member of the UW Medicine volunteer outpatient advisory council and said she’s thrilled to raise funds for the Hutch. She and her teammates were especially excited to make their $9,000 fundraising goal.
“I feel very strongly about raising money for Fred Hutch,” she said. “I know firsthand the treatment and the care and feel so good about supporting this. Cancer was always something that scared the heck out of me and when this happened, I wanted to make sure the things I got involved in were things I could wrap my head and my heart around. ”
Keith tutors children in her school district who’ve been diagnosed with cancer and also advocates for breast cancer survivors, including two colleagues who are currently in treatment. She’s also dedicated to raising funds for new treatments, including a vaccine for triple negative breast cancer that’s currently in the works.
And although she modestly claims she has no “great thoughts” about her cancer experience, she sums things up with a profound piece of advice that applies to everything from mountain climbing to dealing with diagnosis to the slow scientific slog that comes with any cancer breakthrough.
“When I climbed last year, I kept telling myself to put one foot in front of the other,” she said. “And that applies to treatment or anything else you’re trying to work through. You can’t do anything more than that. Instead of thinking about reaching the peak or getting to the end of treatment, just concentrate on the moment that you’re in and on taking that next step. That’s going to get you to wherever you need to be.”
Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has also written extensively about health issues for nbcnews.com, TODAY.com, CNN.com, MSN.com, Columns and several other publications. She also writes the breast cancer blog, doublewhammied.com. Reach her at email@example.com.
Solid tumors, such as those of the breast, are the focus of Solid Tumor Translational Research, a network comprised of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, UW Medicine and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. STTR is bridging laboratory sciences and patient care to provide the most precise treatment options for patients with solid tumor cancers.