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Life After Cancer: Rediscovering the Backcountry

I think all kids are athletic in some way, and I was no different. Growing up, I would hike and ski with my dad, hunt frogs on camping trips, and climb trees with zero thought to my own peril. In adolescence and adulthood, however, I never thought of myself as athletic. I dabbled in various physical activities: belly dancing, hiking, and—my favorite—dancing at clubs. My body was this sturdy, curvy thing I rather liked, even if I thought it a little too soft and a little too round.

Above Photo: Brendan Nicholson

In college (which I attended in my ’30s), I decided I wanted to experience what it was like to really push myself physically. Though I’d never taken one, I signed up to learn to teach spin classes. Amazing! Suddenly this jiggly body of mine was sweating and toning up. I bought a mountain bike and was tickled pink to go with this fitter version of myself. I felt strong. Invincible. Every scrape and bruise I received on my mountain bike I showed off in skirts like a badge of badassery. It was during this time I picked up skiing again, after a 15-year break. I felt a bit awkward at first, but in no time I was zipping down groomers and pushing myself to ski bigger, steeper stuff. Soon I was hopping rollers and learning to go fast, backwards, and in the trees. Cartoon hearts of joy exploded out of my eyes whenever I was in the mountains. I loved the storms and the sun, the mud and the snow—pedals, skis, or shoes, just GET ME OUTSIDE!

My perception of who I was changed with my body. I fell in love with my strong little shape and flaunted it at every opportunity. I’m pretty sure in the summer of 2008 none of my T-shirts came close to touching the waist of my pants. A full time nursing job and non-college life decreased my fitness somewhat, but for the first time since childhood, I considered myself fairly athletic.

Until I was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer at age 34. No family history, no weird genes, just out-of-the-blue cancer. The body I felt I’d just discovered was taken away. My sense of vitality was taken away. So much was taken away.

A dear friend of mine (who happens to be a doctor) told me in preparation for chemo, “You know, it’s THE MOST extreme sport out there. They get you as close to death as possible, and then bring you back.” When I heard this I thought it comical. Chemo being compared to an extreme sport? Turns out he was right. I spent months feeling like I was base jumping with no chute, awaiting landing.

My body, the wonderful, transforming vehicle I’d just fallen in love with, had turned on me. Betrayed by my own cells, I lived the only life you can live while going through cancer treatment. Every physical activity, from walking down the driveway to showering, became an unpleasant chore. I detached myself from my body in order to be OK with watching it deteriorate. Where I’d previously found joy being active in the mountains, during treatment I learned to find joy without my body. Conversation, thought, music, movies, reading, and writing became my outlets. I realized during this horrible time how out of touch with my mind I’d become. Yes, I’d become more in touch with my body, but my constant need to be doing something physical had chased me out of my head.

The badness of chemo would ebb and flow. Sometimes I felt relatively OK, and other times I was really, really sick. One injection I received with every treatment made all the large bones in my body feel like I’d been thrown down a flight of stairs. Lying in my bed experiencing this pain and the side effects of the drugs was awful. Yet I could still think my way to better places, better times, a skill I hadn’t needed for a long time, but one I use to this day.

Like all things in life, cancer treatment had an end. Eventually, there were no more surgeries, no more radiation, no more chemo, and less doctor visits. Slowly I began to reconnect with my body, which by this time had changed completely. I had zero strength and zero endurance, and the musculature of my right chest, arm, and shoulder had gone through a radical reorganization. I had hair to grow, organs to detox, skin to heal, taste buds to repair … it felt as though I’d just moved into a rundown Victorian house and I was in charge of the restoration. Where do I start? How can I fix this mess? Will it ever be the same?

My trajectory toward relative fitness was not a straight line. It was a seesaw of unexpected ups and downs. I hired a trainer to start—I was so excited to get fit! After my second or third session, my arm swelled up due to lack of lymph nodes (a condition called lymphedema), and I was instructed not to do any physical activity for eight weeks. After the eight weeks, I went for my first mountain bike ride in two years and started doing yoga. The swelling came back, but this time the blood vessels, nerves, and tendons in my arm bound together and formed a tight, painful cord from my armpit to my wrist. The “cording” had to be manually broken apart, which a therapist taught my husband to do. My sweet husband for eight weeks twice a day had to inflict this pain that at times brought tears to my eyes. Sometimes they came from my own pain, other times from seeing the pain in his eyes. Not what I thought recovery would be like.

I ditched all upper extremity activity for a long time and started walking, which led to hiking, which led to a goal of mine: ski touring. Through my progress with ski touring, I slowly started to recognize my body as mine again. How do you forgive someone who tried to kill you?

Photo-Cred---Brendan-Nicholson

Photo Credit: Brendan Nicholson

 

One particular ski tour was a brutal hike up. At the top, my partners wanted to ski something I didn’t, so I sat at the top of a mountain in a safe place and waited. It was a brilliantly sunshiny day with only a slight breeze. I sat at the top of this mountain with a breathtaking view of the Wasatch, ate a sandwich, whispered the phrase, “I forgive you,” and started to cry. I forgave my body, myself, for all the pain, heartache, and fear. She’d just carried me up to this beautiful peak, this summit in the sunshine. Only someone who loves me would do that. I made a conscious effort from that moment forward to no longer think of my body as a separate entity, as the enemy.

I’m a few years out of treatment now, and every day I work hard to do the best things for my body. I eat a whole-food plant-based diet, I lift weights again, I jog, I’m as stoked as ever for ski season, and my sweet husband bought me a new mountain bike. I just got back from Moab where I rode my guts out for the first time in years, no arm swelling or painful cords.

I have a new respect for my body, for the fragile state of homeostasis and the diligent, vigilant work required to maintain it. I feel as though I had to claw myself up a jagged peak to reach my current level of fitness, and I will work like hell to stay here. Every delicious bite of whole, plant-based food, every sip of water, every sweaty workout, every burst of laughter keeps me here on this planet in this sturdy, curvy body, healthy and strong, and for that I am truly and profoundly grateful.

In this video interview, shot at Alta, Kate talks about skiing, cancer, and recovery:

The Summit from Brendan Nicholson on Vimeo.

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