I’ve gotten a few request to see my essay which helped me earn the CancerClimber grant for Kilimanjaro.
It goes without saying that this is an incredibly personal piece of writing and I really poured my heart out in certain parts. I’ve chosen to share it because I know the importance in openness, especially when it comes to the serious stuff. My only hope is that I can provide some courage in strength in others who have been affected by diseases like cancer.
I’m jolted out of a peaceful slumber by my alarm clock at a painfully early 4:00 am. It seems like I had just drifted off to dreamland, surely I had set my alarm too early. I remember what I have planned for the day and the reason I’m up well before the sun. Dawn patrol. I groggily stumble downstairs and fire up the coffee maker. A delightful dark roast aroma engulfs the kitchen as I gather some food items for today’s venture. There are just a few weeks of preparation remaining before my third attempt at completing the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse, and my training partner, Eric, will shortly arrive to pick me up. I had wisely prepared my gear the night before, so all I had to worry about was getting dressed and eating breakfast. It’s important to have all bases covered when setting out for the type of training event we were about to attempt. All my equipment was laid out by the door; I just had to trust that my body was up to the task.
I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia at the age of eight. My symptoms were subtle and non-specific: Fatigue, aches and a fever. I lacked the energy of a typical eight year old and my mom became concerned when the myriad antibiotics prescribed by our family physician failed to improve my health. Nothing seemed to work. Because we lived in a rural mountain town, our options for care were limited. We spent weekends traveling to hospitals and specialists in surrounding towns, each one a bit further and a bit bigger than the next. My parents simply could not stand to see their son suffering and demanded second, third, fourth and fifth opinions regarding my health. The sixth opinion: your son has cancer.
We hit the trailhead, still rubbing sleep out of our eyes, mentally preparing for 20 miles and 7,000 vertical feet of back country skiing. Climbing-wise, the actual race only goes up a bit more than the ski we have planned. The distance, however, is a lengthy 40 miles from Crested Butte to Aspen, Colorado beginning at midnight, often in subzero temperatures. Today’s test piece should give us a good idea of how well we’ve been training. Being a thin snow year, much of my fitness has come from morning runs and bike rides; not ideal training for endurance skiing, but better than nothing. The bitter morning air stings my nostrils and makes my eyes water as I make my final gear adjustments. Extra layer? Check. First aid kit? Check. Did I forget to turn my avalanche beacon on? Yup, better do that. In a few minutes we’ll start out striding up the road, hopefully to return eight long hours later.
I remember my first night in the hospital. My dad slept curled in the bay windowsill, my mom in the reclining chair next to my bed. I didn’t sleep. The steady hum of the IV machine and the blinking lights of the medical equipment kept me wide awake. “Cancer…?” I thought to myself, “What does that mean?” As an eight year old, I had no concept of the seriousness of my condition. “This is going to ruin my summer,” I remember grumbling to my parents. They hid their concern behind moist eyes and forced smiles. Mom and Dad knew what was going on, and knew the long, arduous road ahead of me. I didn’t realize at that point that this disease could ruin my life.
I had attempted the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse twice before. On each attempt, my partner was not up to the task. Whether it was gear or body, he just couldn’t go on. This is fairly normal for the Traverse. People think they are capable of the effort and bite off more than they can chew. Next thing you know, they’re being evacuated with frost bitten feet and broken skis. I knew I needed to take care of myself and trust my partner to be prepared this time. I can’t train for him and I can’t control his attitude. The most important thing to keep in mind in this type of event: take care of yourself; know that your partner will do the same. Work as a team, but make sure you’re individually prepared.
After three grueling, challenging years of chemotherapy, my 11th birthday present was remission. Finally, a second chance to be a kid. Blowing out my candles I made a promise to myself: never miss a day to play with your friends, ride your bike or have fun. And for several years I was able to keep that promise. I rarely passed up the chance to go out to the lake or sleep over at a buddy’s house, constantly immersing myself in activities and the young teen social scene. But when I turned 14, I started to slow down. I didn’t feel like myself. I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do anymore, I lacked my typical energy. Slowly, painfully, I began to realize I had felt this way before. A month before the beginning of high school, I was told that my leukemia had recurred.
Stride, stride, stride, kick, kick, kick. Switchback. Kick, turn, kick, turn. Stride, stride, stride. Rest. Breathe. Breathe. Kick, kick, kick. Breathe.
Conditions were less than ideal. The mantra for the season had been “If it looks good, it’s probably thin. If it looks thin, it’s probably thin” and that held true for the day. It had been snowing gently since we left the truck and the wind was beginning to pick up. Eric was skiing incredibly strong. I could hardly keep up with his pace and was desperately trying to hide my exhaustion. Blisters were developing on my heel and I was starting to have binding issues due to the new snow. My pack was heavy. I was cold.
Eric had crested the ridge we were trying to gain and I decided to make him wait. I was tired, hungry and in no mood for conversation. I stopped in a stand of trees and let out a sigh. I was still. I was quiet. I was empty, and felt like giving up. I made myself feel it all. The pain, the hurt, the hunger, the thirst, the doubt and the agony. I let it consume me and take hold. It swirled through me, flowing from head to toe, infecting every inch of my being.
And then I made it stop.
I kindled a spark.
I can do this.
My second bout with Leukemia was much more personal and introspective. I felt much more alone. The support from friends and family had not changed, but I had realized the terrifying gravity of the situation. I could die from this disease. My own mortality was confronting me at the raw age of fourteen and I felt helpless in my own body. How could this be happening to me? Something about those formative years of high school combined with a life threatening illness made me go within. I was forced to find my own strength. My body had betrayed me, but still, somewhere within I found determination. I could rely on my will even when I couldn’t rely on my flesh. Fortifications built in my mind, blocking out the negativity and the potential for disaster. A battle raged inside of me, willpower against cells and chemicals. I had no other choice. I had to be strong. I wasn’t ready to quit. I went through high school refusing to let cancer become me and forced myself to rise to the occasion. That’s all I wanted. To be normal. To be another kid. To be happy.
As I approached Eric, who was looking calm and relaxed, I cracked a grin. “Tough going back there, dude. Way to crank it out!” He ribbed me about dragging behind and I replied, “How about letting me break trail for a bit?” Without hesitation or waiting for his answer, I cruised by his resting spot and began the assault up the summit ridge. My legs and lungs burned as I moved each foot forward. I settled into a brisk rhythm and steeled myself for the next half hour of effort.
I can do this.
As the wind swayed the trees and the snow whirled around me, I found peace. I knew what I had to do, and knew I could do it.
I was granted a clean bill of health on (and have been in remission ever since) June 15, 2004. Beating cancer twice at a young age has instilled in me a work ethic and a yearning for more: I don’t settle. I don’t quit. I am not satisfied with a halfway effort. I need to push myself to see how far I can go and what I can accomplish. I’ve pursued 100 mile bike races, extended travel in foreign countries, epic backcountry ski mountaineering challenges and an undergraduate degree. I have plans, goals and dreams. I want to climb all the 14ers in Colorado (12 down), climb Denali next year, attend graduate school and eventually earn my PhD. I want to discover my limits, push my boundaries and live every last ounce of my life to the fullest. I want to continue living with passion, enthusiasm and adventure.
The opportunity to stand atop a continent, at 19,341 lofty feet above sea level, gives me chills. Deep down inside, I know I can do anything. Setting foot on Kilimanjaro’s summit would solidify that notion. This journey would give me the tools to inspire and motivate cancer survivors of all walks of life. I’m not a unique example of a cancer survivor. I’m like anyone else who has had to confront and combat this terrible illness. The difference is in how I reacted to it. I used my battle with cancer as a catalyst, an opportunity to look at the world differently. I know that each day should be used to the fullest. I know that tomorrow is not guaranteed. I know that quitting is not an option. Summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro would give me the opportunity to inspire and empower fellow cancer survivors and cancer patients on a grand scale. Thinking about how this endeavor might change my life almost makes me chuckle. Change my life? How will it change other people’s lives? I’ll help prove that cancer survivors can do anything.
As we descended the final pitch, the truck came into view. I paused to take in the peaceful, snowy valley below and to reflect on the day. It had been a difficult route to complete, but I had found the strength and faced it head on. This training day was over, but with less than a month before the race, many more challenges were further down the road. I knew I could handle them. I’ve conquered worse before. I’m prepared and I know there’s nothing in life that I can’t face.