On top of a cliff overlooking New Paltz and the Hudson Valley, Birdy reached out her arms and said, “After this, who cares about 5 years? The cancer is not coming back! I don’t care anymore!” Graduation day at cancer camp meant that we each reached our high climb – be it clawing our way up a rock face, dancing up boulders, picking our way across fields of stone, or hiking our way to the top. The calm of looking out for miles, knowing that together we accomplished something that few of us had thought would be possible for us again, was deeply moving. As we tied a white thread around each other’s wrists, not a person, stone, branch, or gust of wind failed to recognize the power of the moment. My First Descents FD1 week with Birdy, Indo, Splat, Token, Button, Lambo, Frankie, Smores, and Copilot (as well as amazing staff members Derf and Sweet D, camp mom Ola, medical volunteer Swifty, photographer Mojo, and chefs Biscuit and Pata) was life changing in every sense of the word.
Sometimes the universe gives you the lessons that you need. Even through cancer, I stubbornly clung to the way I knew best, despite those ways were simply not working. And I got frustrated with my mind, my body, and the way the world around me worked. In many ways, cancer only ramped me up further – suddenly I had not only my own internal pressures to contend with, but a wicked sense of survivor’s guilt. My motivations for my actions in the past year have stemmed from two places: 1. developing future financial and career stability (shocker, cancer is EXPENSIVE and my finances are more unstable than I ever dreamed they could be) and 2. living for those who did not reach the other side. The level of pressure I put on myself and the ways in which I pushed myself to work full time through treatment and then launch into classes 2 weeks after chemo ended were not the admirable self-sacrifice I thought I was making, but instead a continuation of an unhealthy cycle. First Descents held a mirror up to my face no matter where I turned.
My week was filled with soundbites that have further reaching ripples than simply clinging to a cliff or climbing a mountain.
1. Pace yourself
I’m in a Boston state of mind. I walk fast, talk fast, drive fast, and fill my days with activity. It quickly became apparent that I was the only person of the group to work full time through chemo. In my year of remission, there has not been a moment where I really focused on processing, relaxing, and taking time to myself. This past week is my first vacation in 2 years of working since college. It was quickly apparent that I take the same approach on the mountain. My first time climbing, I practically ran up the the cliff, rather than the deliberate steps required to learn technique. And again, during our 6 mile hike, I quickly found myself out of breath. Both times, Sweet D was the rational angel on my shoulder, metaphorically whacking me upside the head.
For the past 2 years, I have been out of breath. I graduated from college doing too much (double major and double minor? who thought *that* was a good idea?), spent far too many hours alternating between applying for jobs and feeling bad about myself for not getting those jobs, and then loaded up my plate far too full with work, school, medical appointments, and volunteer work. There has not been an hour built in to be quiet with myself, especially after I got sick. Even over the past 6 months, I have taken on too much and stopped doing things for myself. I stopped cooking for myself, having negative impacts on my waistline and temperament. My stress level is up, sleep is down. After a summer online programming class, I find my even my dreams punctuated by the error sound from my code editor.
It is difficult to be deliberate with your time and your actions. Growing up in an age where I could pop onto iTunes to get the latest hit song or download a video game immediately on Steam, instant gratification is something I have come to expect. Working harder is not necessarily going to make success come faster – but being smarter about the way in which I use my energy will. This was my hardest lesson of the week.
2. Trust your feet
Cancer is a disease marked by your body betraying you. Normal cells go rogue and require some form of generally devastating treatment to stop it. You either have chemo which indiscriminately kills healthy cells with the bad, get shot full of radiation or radioactive iodine, have limbs and organs chopped off, or endure difficult organ, bone marrow, and stem cell transplants. Sometimes more than one, often with handfuls of pills meant to control the side effects of treatment. When you rock climb, you use rock shoes with sticky rubber soles that grip the irregularities in the rock face. If you can get just a toe on the slightest edge, you are holding tight. Your success is about balance and trust more than it is about strength.
Trusting my feet quickly became a game of mental gymnastics. For me, it was much more difficult to trust myself than to trust the rope to hold me or the belayer to be paying attention. The number of times I yelled, “But there’s no where to put my feet! They won’t hold!” when inches away from solid footholds must have been maddening to my instructor. He knew better than me that my feet would stay put, but nothing but accepting that I could fail (thinking I surely would) let me make a move. And then my feet stuck! A miracle!
After enduring any serious illness, your body is a stranger. Your mind still places you back where you were before getting sick, and it is hard to reconcile between your past and present. During my 6 months of treatment, I put a whole lot of trust in other people to survive – my oncologists, my nurses, pharmacists, radiologists, CT and PET techs – because I could no longer rely on myself to get what was needed done. I think it took being halfway up the rock for me to regain that lost confidence in myself.
3. Your body is a tool of your mind
It was universal. We all had moments clinging to the rock, thinking we had no moves left. Suddenly, a look of determination would cross our faces and we would blast over the difficult footwork. When climbing, your instinct is to hold 0n for dear life and your body follows suit. In order to get off the ground, your body has to be at the command of your mind. While we all have varying levels of physical limitations, most of the time time our minds limit us long before our muscles fail.
The wonderful instructors from Alpine Endeavors, in particular Bobbo (who must be the world’s most patient rock climbing instructor ever), got it. They seemed to understand the emotional difficulties that many of us were having with the rock – and universally turned us around. For the first time in years, I really needed coaching. Bobbo shouted advice or words of praise as a constant reminder that I could climb. Even when I was certain I could not make another move, the second that I believed that I could, it happened. We all need to believe in ourselves a bit more.
4. Focus down, not up
When you climb, your legs do most of the work. The places where your hands once held you steady become the point at which you push yourself higher. As you climb, of course you must look up to find where your hands can hold, but you spend more of your time looking down to be firm on your feet. You look to see where you have been to help guide you to where you need to be. The reminders of tougher moves give you further confidence that you can make the next high step or awkward position.
I’m a planner. Cancer came around and was all, “Pft, you silly thing” and threw a wrench in just about every plan I had ever made. Suddenly I found myself banned from the State Department and Peace Corps for 5 years post-treatment, with limited geographic mobility due to my current proximity to Dana-Farber and other top cancer centers, and my ever-nagging wanderlust taking a backseat to paying for anti-emetics instead of plane tickets. Cancer forced me to take stock of what I had, what I had learned, and how to reconfigure that information into something useful going forward. That process is difficult, and it has taken me a very long time to find positives in rearranging my dreams for myself to fit my reality. I feel a bit more comfortable with that new reality now.
I can’t wait to get back out on the rock again.
And I see no more fitting end to this post than my dear friend Token’s (of S#!% Cancer Patients Say fame) words: “And I ended in New Paltz, New York with 9 fellow cancer survivors who embody everything that is great about the human race and why it is absolutely imperative that we end cancer. In each of these nine survivors I met; I saw what it’s going to take to cure cancer: resilience, trial and error, careful thought, and most importantly the incredible, unstoppable human power of will that doesn’t take no for an answer, that shuns mediocrity and viciously opposes any other possible outcome than complete and total victory.”