THE ALPS—ONWARD AND UPWARD
(AND SOMETIMES SIDEWAYS)

   Two surgeries and eighteen weeks after my diagnosis, mentally I was more than ready to hike the Alps. Physically, though, they seemed almost insurmountable. Chemotherapy had not only left my body weak, but it had left me with serious neuropathy in my feet which affected my balance. Not exactly ideal circumstances for any hike…let alone...The Alps.
   It is not unusual for cancer patients to have blood transfusions after extended chemotherapy regimens. Just walking a hundred yards can leave you totally exhausted. And—since it’s important that you don’t over exert yourself after your body has been in its lowest physical condition—I couldn’t start training for two months post chemo. But ultimately, my physical therapist, Bonnie, played an essential role in getting me in shape for the trek. I trained for the trek by actually hiking at elevation and with weight in my pack. It wasn’t easy, my balance was an issue due to neuropathy. Trekking poles are essential but I still would fall.
   Though I knew I would be the weakest member of the team physically, I was determined to make this trip. The only way I wasn’t going to make it was if I died on the mountain. And, trust me, I did not pack funeral clothes for the trip. I was going to make it.
   On July 18, 2011, I began my trek up the mountain. I was hiking the Chamonix to Zermatt Haute Route, ten months post-chemo. I was nauseated within the first hour of each hard day. And, while I wanted to blame it on the altitude, our guide, Hilary Sharp, quickly told me it was fatigue. She was right, of course. But I wasn’t giving up. As I walked, I dedicated the trek to every person who had died from cancer, as well as, to every cancer survivor.
   As I hiked, I stayed in the NOW. I had to be present. Every time I took a step, it was important where I placed each foot. Otherwise, I could be meeting my creator sooner than perhaps planned…and I’m not exaggerating. It was difficult. I cried every day. But I was never crying because I wanted to give up. I was crying because it was so hard. And cancer had been so hard. But when things are hard, you have to push…and then push some more. We have strength that we don’t know we have.
   I fell many times on the trail. One time, it was an all out face-first hard fall. At that point in the trek, the guide didn’t know I had been taking cancer treatments, and she was less than  compassionate. “Get up,” she told me. I just stared at her. Of course, I was going to get up. But the fall had rocked me a bit. We were on snow and ice at that time…and I was carrying a heavy pack. So it was a bit more challenging for me than to simply, “get up.” Even so, it ended up turning into a positive moment for me. After we were down the trail a bit, I remember thinking, “Okay, that was a knockdown punch. But I did it. I got up.”
   Initially, I did not share my cancer diagnosis with my guide because I was afraid she wouldn’t allow me to go on the hike. Midway through the trek, she found out by chance. She got the news that a very close friend of hers had died of cancer. And I took that opportunity to tell her about my own diagnosis. She showed great compassion. But she said that, after seeing my extreme fatigue, she had already figured out something was wrong. Still, it was good to have it out in the open.
   After she knew the whole story, she really looked after me and wanted me to be successful. I can still hear her saying, “Come along, Jan.” To help make my trek successful, she had me walking directly behind her. Hilary is a world-class guide. And she knew how to get over even the most compromised passes.
   Winston Churchill’s quote, Never give in, never, never, never, never, never…was presented in a speech to the students at Harrows, England in 1941. The words of that speech rang loud in my ears. And during my hike in the Alps, the quote was a mantra. I heard that message so loud sometimes that I thought my eardrums would burst.
   On the last day, when we got to the last mountain pass and the final ascent, Hilary stepped aside and said to me, “Lead your team to the top, Jan.” I did. But it was with a few tears...not because of the physical demands, but because of the sheer emotional component of what we had accomplished as a group. I didn’t do it alone. I may have taken each step by myself, but I knew I had many people praying...it was almost as if I was in a zone outside myself for most of the trek.
   A trek like the Haute Route forces you to be very present. I knew in my heart the hike was for every person cancer has touched. It is hard to explain it well. But, for me, each step was defying cancer’s existence, and I saw it as a temporary way for me to have a win over cancer. It’s important to get those wins when you can. But it doesn’t have to be a trek in Switzerland. It can be as simple as a family gathering at the beach.
   When you have cancer you’re going to get (lots of) knockdown punches. And they don’t feel good. But you get up from them the same way I got up from my falls on the mountain. And I can tell you that in the end, I came off that huge mountain using my own two legs. And, God knows, it may not have been a pretty sight—and I am so grateful that we only took still pictures and not videos—but still...I got it done.


What else you will find in this book ...

Contents

Foreword by Mike F. Janicek, M.D.
Board Certified in Gynecological Oncology
9
Introduction 17
Chapter 1: Trekking to Parts Unknown 21
Chapter 2: Finding the Survivor in Me 55
Chapter 3: Smiles and Inspiration 67
Chapter 4: My Journey of Faith and Spirit 97
Chapter 5: Cancer “Cans” for Caregivers 113
Chapter 6: Keeping the Faith 121
Chapter 7: Sharing the Joy 123
Chapter 8: The Journey Continues 127
Epilogue 131
Grace Space 133
Appendix: Signs, Statistics and Risk Factors 149


 




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