3 cancers, 2 women, 1 goal

A patient and caregiver bond over their shared diagnosis, lust for adventure and quest to cure the ‘harder cancers’
Linda Carter and Sue Frohreich
Linda Carter, left, with her friend and climbing partner Sue Frohreich Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Her first thought was that there’d been some kind of cruel mix-up.

“I lost my husband to pancreatic cancer five years ago when he was age 60,” said Linda Carter* of Oak Harbor, Washington. “I was like, ‘Are you sure you have the right records?’”

Sadly, it wasn’t a mix-up, just a cruel coincidence.

The 60-year-old certified public accountant — who weeks earlier had gone to her very last breast cancer follow-up — now had stage 4 pancreatic cancer. It was a double whammy of a diagnosis, the kind of thing that might put most people under the coffee table in a fetal position.

Carter took it in stride. She started chemotherapy for her inoperable cancer, then made the decision to step up — way up — to raise funds for cancer research.

On Sept. 29, this local “wonder woman” is going to try and climb the Seattle Space Needle in the fifth annual Base 2 Space fundraiser for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

A fast friendship

“She’s amazing,” said Sue Frohreich, Carter’s friend, former physical therapist and fellow teammate on Beat It, the team Carter put together for the Base 2 Space climb. Launched in 2015 and hosted by the Space Needle Foundation, the event has so far raised $2.5 million to accelerate new research at Fred Hutch.

“She really was a Wonder Woman during her breast cancer treatment,” said Frohreich, who works at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Fred Hutch’s clinical-care partner. “On Halloween, she even wore her Wonder Woman cape and T-shirt when she came into SCCA.”

The two friends had already decided to participate in Base 2 Space before Carter’s second cancer diagnosis as a way to honor patients, friends and family (including Linda’s late husband, Dan) and help raise much-needed awareness and funds.

Incredibly, Carter decided to see it through, despite that she would be climbing while going through chemotherapy for her second cancer.

“Linda is very tough,” Frohreich said.

Her story bears that out. Carter found a lump that turned out to be breast cancer shortly after her husband’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis in 2014.

“At the time, I thought, 'I’ll get back to you,’” Carter said.

She did, a month later, after his death, going through a lumpectomy and then treatment at SCCA. There, she met Frohreich, a physical therapist with expertise in lymphedema, a common side effect of breast cancer treatment.

The two bonded over a lot: their love of numbers and order (they’ve both worked as CPAs); their mutual cancer diagnoses (Frohreich is a two-time breast cancer survivor); and their common passion for travel, adventure and the outdoors. Frohreich also encouraged Carter to get as much exercise as possible during and after treatment, a strategy that stuck.

Carter joined the cancer-exercise support group Team Survivor Northwest and became an active member of a local dragon boat team. (“You have to keep your paddle in the water, even during the toughest challenges,” she said.) She also trained for and participated in a handful of 3-Day Susan G. Komen walks; climbed Mount St. Helens with her new cancer buddies from TSN; and, in 2016, she and Frohreich went on an ambitious five-day trek to Machu Picchu.

Today, the two travel together, fundraise for favorite causes, wear matching silver paddle charms and sometimes even finish each other’s sentences.

“We help each other,” said Frohreich, laughing. “We have to, since we’re both deprived of estrogen.” 

Lifting each other up

Frohreich said she was floored when Carter was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. But she was not at all surprised when her friend decided to go through with the Space Needle challenge.

“It’s one of those shocking things,” she said. “She is just so strong. But this is a big thing for her to do, Base 2 Space. When she asked me to join her, I said, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ It’s so important to do activities like this, to help these patients.”

Frohreich, who was diagnosed with early stage breast cancers in 2002 and again in 2017, also firmly believes that exercise is medicine.

“It’s so important for survivability, to counter the side effects of medication and fatigue and depression,” she said. “It also builds muscles and can help you stay at a healthy weight.” 

Scale the Space Needle’s open-air stairway on the only day all year it is open to the public. Take in stunning, 360-degree views of the Seattle region — all while raising critical funds for cancer research.

Need extra motivation? The top 10 individual fundraisers earn the opportunity to climb the Space Needle spire in 2020.

Register today for Base 2 Space.

Team “Beat It” currently has 16 members poised to climb, including friends, family, co-workers of Carter’s, cancer patients and volunteers who want to help move the needle on cures for cancers like breast and pancreatic.

The team’s fundraising goal is $10,000, every bit as ambitious as the category they signed up for.

“We’re in the ‘Trotter’ wave, the very first 9 o’clock group,” Frohreich said. “But we’re hoping that maybe they can move us to the end of the Trotter wave so we can just take our sweet time going up.”

“We don’t want to slow people down when they’re climbing,” Carter said. “Normally, I’m excellent on stairs, but we’ll have to see how I’m doing that day. I’ll be realistic. I may just do 100 steps, which I do every day, anyway.”

“We have enough members we could just carry her,” Frohreich joked.

Like many affected by cancer, Frohreich uses humor to cope. But when it comes to caring for her patients, she’s all business.

“As a physical therapist, I see all the cancers,” she said. “Solid tumors, blood cancers, orphan cancers, all of it. And they’re all important, because every individual is important. But right now, pancreatic research resonates so much with me. We really need to help raise money to go against the harder cancers. And early diagnosis and better outcomes for all cancers is critical.”

Carter is all for research, too. And for giving compassionate caregivers like Frohreich credit where it’s due.

“Sue is doing such critical work,” she said. “And she’s faced with the emotions of losing people every day and seeing new people come in. She’s had cancer in her own life and recent diagnoses within her own family. Cancer has hit her so hard and so personally. It did me, too.”

Working for a cure

The fourth leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., pancreatic cancer is also one of the most feared because of its lack of symptoms and low survival rates.

The American Cancer Society lists the five-year relative survival rate at just 3% for people diagnosed with metastatic, or stage 4, disease, but the ACS also stresses that “treatments improve over time, and these numbers are based on people who were diagnosed and treated at least five years earlier,” in this case between the years 2008 and 2014.

Carter’s husband, diagnosed in 2014, didn’t even have a chance to undergo treatment.

“He lived just a month after his diagnosis,” Carter said. “He was way stage 4.”

Carter is currently on a chemotherapy regimen that includes two separate drugs. Her first infusion is administered at SCCA, followed by two days of infusions via a portable backpack that she can wear wherever she goes.

Hutch researchers are working on a number of approaches to combat pancreatic cancer, including finding better biomarkers to help with early detection, developing precision therapies to target the mutations that cause this cancer and creating genetically modified immune-cell therapies. One new drug developed at the Hutch is currently in Phase 3 clinical trials.

Facing fears

Base 2 Space participants will go up 832 steps and 98 flights of stairs. Climbers gain 520 vertical feet; the Space Needle itself is 605 feet.

Naturally, what Carter really wants is a chance to go to the very top, despite that she has a touch of acrophobia.

“I'm a little afraid of heights,” she said. “That's why I jumped out of a couple of airplanes, to get rid of it. But I’m also very excited. Every time I come to Seattle, I look at the Space Needle and think, ‘I’m going to climb that.’ It’s something to look forward to.”

Incredibly, Carter’s pragmatism extends to her stage 4 diagnosis.

“I’m very calm about it,” she said. “I wake up in most mornings and think, ‘Oh yeah.’ But I don’t feel like I’m going to die; I’m not really that terrified. I just think, ‘OK, what do I need to do? Get this done, and this done and this done.’ I’m very practical. It’s the CPA in me, I guess.”

That CPA mentality is also what drew both to raise money directly for research.

“I don’t like all the glitz,” Carter said. “I don’t like waste. Putting money toward identifying cures, like Fred Hutch, is much more important.”

Much like climbing a mountain or sitting through a series of chemo infusions, Carter knows that scaling Seattle’s best-known landmark is going to be a slog.

But she has a plan.

“I’m going to do the dragon boat count to it,” she said. “I just count to 10. Then I do it again. Just some kind of cadence — whatever gets you through. There’s always that doubt, ‘What if I can’t do it?’ But you just dig deep, and you do it anyway.”

*Editor's note: Linda Carter passed away in February 2021.

Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she blogs at doublewhammied.com and tweets @double_whammied. Email her at dmapes@fredhutch.org. Just diagnosed and need information and resources? Visit our Patient Care page.

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