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Hiking Cancer

BY Patti McCarthy
PUBLISHED January 31, 2017
Editor’s Note: This piece was submitted by a contributing writer and does not represent the views of CURE Media Group.
In September of 2012, I was on top of life. My husband and I celebrated our 25th anniversary. Our three kids were in college, doing well. I was recognized with a big award at work. That summer, we completed 122 miles of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) a hiking trail from Mexico to Canada. I couldn't have been happier, healthier or more successful.
That month I had my annual mammogram. I was called back for a second mammogram. I wasn’t worried. Getting cancer never remotely entered my mind. Oct. 4, I got the call.
“Patti, you have invasive ductal carcinoma.”
I had breast cancer. I was devastated and angry. I felt betrayed by good health. Betrayed by my spirituality. Betrayed by doing all the right things. I had never experienced anxiety before. It was a wild ride of emotions. When the oncologist told me I needed surgery, a Portacath, chemotherapy, additional intravenous Herceptin for a year, radiation, hormone therapy, I felt powerless. My last treatment for cancer was 400 days later. To me, that was when I became a survivor.
When I think about what contributed to my survivorship, I think of three basic things: my medical treatment, the support I received and my focus. My medical team, for the most part, was awesome. But one bit of advice I would give is to make sure all of your doctors are really on your side. I made the mistake of choosing one doctor simply because the office was closer. From friends and family, I received a tremendous support; sometimes from most unexpected places. The biggest gift people gave me was their time: coffee dates, beach walks, talks in my kitchen. I truly had no idea just how much people cared. The most loving support came from my husband. He accepted me in all my states, saw me through all the stages and told me all the time that I was beautiful. Another source of support came from the support group. I never thought I would enjoy a support group, but nothing beats support from people who have walked your path before you.

Doctors and nurses try to tell you everything to expect, but sometimes they just don’t know everything. I got advice by listening to other women in this group share their stories. It is cathartic to be able to speak your story and know that what you feel is normal.
The best advice I got was to find a purpose, a passion to focus on, anything that will remind me of life, and take my mind off of the 24/7 nature of cancer. My aunt had lung cancer. Her comment to me was, “We’d be justified being on the couch all day.” She found focus in training for and doing the RAGBRAI bicycle race across the state of Iowa just six months after her surgery. Whether it's biking, your kids,  doing art or, in my case, hiking, find a passion.
When I heard I had cancer, I believed my hiking days were over. However, it soon became my resolve to hike as much as I could. We hiked an additional 244 miles. Those 244 miles were hiked between surgery, chemo and radiation treatments, and Herceptin infusions. These miles were hiked while dealing with baldness, anxiety, anemia, neutropenia, rock-bottom B12 levels, multiple infections and chemo brain. On one hike, I wore a cardiac monitor. Normally when we hike, we see a handful of people. On one particular trip, we met a lot of thru-hikers doing the trail at once. I was bald. I was talking about how ironic it is that doctors try to avoid X-rays but, once you have cancer, that’s over. You are X-rayed head to knees and injected with nuclear medicine.
“I must be glowing by now.”
My trail name then became “Glow in the Dark.” I was just happy it wasn't, “That bald girl.”
What kept me going? I don’t know. There were times on the trail, especially in the desert, when I was dizzy and exhausted, I’d think, “Why am I here? Why do I insist on doing this? Irish stubbornness? Nature?” It’s because I refused to let this disease defeat me. This trail let me live my life, not cancer. It was an escape and a chance to refocus on what was important. It gave me strength. For that I am forever grateful.
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