Conquering Our Everest of Cancer

A pancreatic cancer survivor describes the ways in which undergoing cancer treatment is comparable to summiting Mount Everest.

Like so many, I’ve always been fascinated by the lore of Mount Everest. At 29,031.7 feet, nearly five and a half miles above sea level, the highest point on earth, people dream of summiting it and taking a couple of selfies before starting their perilous trek back down the mountain. What drives people to put their lives on hold, train for months, if not years, spend tens of thousands of dollars, all for the chance to conquer it with no guarantee whatsoever?

In reading Jon Krakauer’s New York Times bestseller “Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster” about the ill-fated 1996 expedition where 12 people died descending the mountain during a blizzard, I was struck by the many parallels between the ends people go to climb Everest and what it takes to beat cancer. Both have the goal of conquering it, and both are focused on surviving.

Pushing through brutal cancer treatments is much like climbing Everest – it taxes a person beyond their breaking point, but the real work comes in getting back down the mountain alive, much like staying alive after our treatments are over.

Quoting Rob Hall, one of the expedition’s head guides who perished on the mountain on May 11, 1996, Krakauer wrote, “‘With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill,’ Hall observed. ‘The trick is to get back down alive.’”

Anytime we are thrust into a volatile situation whether it be by our choice or some freak accident, we are forced to prove ourselves. Do we have what it takes? In proving ourselves, we also learn about who we are and what makes us tick.

Thomas Hornbein, who summited in 1963 via West Ridge, which was then thought to be unclimbable, wrote in “Everest: The West Ridge,” “But at times I wondered if I had not come a long way only to find that what I really sought was something I had left behind.” Much like Everest, cancer pulls out of us and our courageous caregivers something we had left behind, things we had always sought but didn’t know we were seeking. What is the essence of our lives? What matters most to us when our veneer is cut away, the pretenses we live by?

Above the famed “Death Zone”, at 26,000 feet, where oxygen is about a third of normal levels and frostbite can occur in minutes, climbers in trouble are often left to fend for themselves.

Months of treatment for pancreatic cancer, starting with surgery then radiation and chemotherapy, thinking I would not make it, tested me to my limits. On my own, with only a handful of those with this diagnosis seeing five years, I fought to survive against the odds. It made me wonder if I had not come a long way only to find that what I really sought was something I had left behind. Amid this, I learned so much about myself. For instance, I learned:

I have what it takes.

Perhaps the question most ask when we are placed in a horrendous situation is “Do I have what it takes?” Whether we are asked this explicitly or implicitly, we must answer. While it’s true we often don’t know, “I don’t know” is not an adequate answer. It’s often in climbing the last few feet towards the summit we can answer, “I have what it takes.”

I can do more than I thought.

My treatments taxed me far beyond what I thought I could do. Complication upon complication obstructed my path. I would like to say I had some inner strength, but that doesn’t get at the heart of it. I think it was more so that failure was not an option, so I was forced to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving. We can do more than we think.

I can face more than I thought.

I suppose the difference between “doing” and “facing” is that facing is much like a foreboding storm where one doesn’t know if it will blow by or create a white-out, putting an end to our ascent. Cancer is much like this. Early in the process, our doctor says things like, “We’ll ‘try’ this treatment and hope for the best.” We hope they’re right, but we both know it’s a medical guess, the best they can do for us right then. Only after the treatment works do we let out the breath we had held for months. We can face more than we think.

My life is interlocked and interwoven with others.

Much like being up on Everest, our fate is tied to others both physically and mentally. Dealing with cancer is not a private slog, but rather a public one – starting with our near family and a few close friends, rippling out from there to others who we will never know. Like it or not, our lives are interlocked and interwoven with others.

Family matters.

Perhaps one of the hardest things for me to face has been what will happen to my family if my cancer wins. Not only my immediate family, my spouse, and three daughters – what about my yet unborn grandkids and their kids? Everyone faces this question of their mortality in that we all face a certain end. But for us cancer survivors, especially those in active treatment, we face it today and live with it on an ongoing basis. Family matters.

I wish I could say all this has been easy, but it has not been. Much like summiting Everest, surviving cancer is at best an iffy proposition marked by hellish weather, sub-zero temperatures, rockslides, avalanches and little oxygen to sustain us in our climb. But for as long as we can, we need to keep climbing, putting one foot in front of the other, not looking down, pressing upwards towards the top. And once we’ve conquered our Everest of cancer, we must survive the trek down and stay alive.

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