For me, the will to live is synonymous with the love of life - love of experiences, people, places, things. I have an insatiable curiosity about what makes people tick, about what other places look like, smell like, and feel like. I am an avid reader. I love to travel. I am thrilled when I meet a new, interesting, fun person, even from a distance. And I enjoy the things I have collected or been given over the years, each one conjuring a pleasant memory.
I am an advocate for change, for pushing the boundaries of one's comfort zone. We must know cold to appreciate warmth. We must be hungry to really enjoy food. We must know death to fully understand the joy of life. I came to appreciate this more than ever in December of 1989.
Two weeks before Christmas, I was diagnosed with a rapidly advancing breast cancer. As the tests came back, my prognosis went from bad to worse. I was in shock. I had been busy living life, with a husband. career, travel, sports, and entertaining. Like many other women, I have since come to learn, I thought my life would go on indefinitely. Yet suddenly I was faced with cancer, the C word, the one that most often follows the word deceased.
I was thirty-nine when I found a lump in my breast. I had never thought about cancer, and, even though the lump was clearly there, it seemed inconceivable that I might have breast cancer. To be certain, I went to the doctor for my first mammogram. When the doctor said, No problem. It doesn't show anything. Go home, it was like music to my ears. So I went home. Happily. Naively.
On some deeper level when I found the second lump, I knew I was in trouble. What I didn't realize yet was that the cancer had aggressively spread to eleven of my lymph nodes and that I would be lucky to survive the next three to five years. I knew I would have to summon up all my resources. I would have to educate myself on a disease I knew nothing about. I would need to locate health care specialists who could help with both my physical and emotional needs. I would have to do something radical in terms of treatment.
I knew I was not ready to die. I thought about what my father said before he died. No man's life is complete without his death. It is the framework for his life. But my father had done everything he wanted to exceeding his own expectations and dreams. I hadn't. When I looked at my wish list of things I still wanted to accomplish, I was haunted by the fact that I might not get to do them. I loved my family and friends and couldn't bear the thought of not being with them, of all the great times yet to come.
With the tremendous help of my supportive husband, I took control of my destiny. We made endless phone calls to different hospitals' oncologists, finally locating a promising clinical trial in which I was enrolled. I was one of the first people in the country to go through an experimental protocol that called for intensive chemotherapy followed by a bone-marrow transplant. The treatment also included two surgeries, three months of outpatient chemotherapy, and seven weeks of radiation. The transplant required that I spend two months in the hospital, seven weeks in a sterile room the size of a closet.
I almost died in isolation. The massive doses of drugs ravaged my system, filling my lungs with fluid. I got pneumonia and for the first time came to understand the release that comes with death. I also came to understand why I wanted to live.
As my atrophied body struggled to build itself back, my mind revisited a recent trek in Nepal that had kindled my desire to do more climbing. At night, as the sedatives to relieve my discomfort took hold, I would visualize myself standing on top of one peak or another, fists thrust defiantly and exultantly skyward. These visions, however disconnected from reality they may have been, kept me going. The visions of mountains with me atop their summits became my mental symbol, something I desperately wanted.
When I left the hospital, I was barely able to walk four blocks. But at the end of my first walk in eight weeks, I stood with my arms raised high overhead, with the hospital - and, I hoped, the cancer - a shadow in the background. One step at a time, I walked, then hiked, then started thinking seriously about getting back into the mountains. To climb again became my passion.
At the same time, I wanted to help others. Even with the tremendous love and support of my husband, family, and friends, I felt isolated by the devastating side effects of my illness. How could they really understand the mutilation of my body, and the loss to self-esteem as a woman that accompanied the loss of my hair, the early menopause, the pain of arthritis that followed the drugs, and the emotional upheaval that left me drained and confused?
I knew that others in the same situation would understand. There was no organized support group in my hometown, however, so I started one and facilitated it for two years. Together, the women in the Wellness Group and I rebuilt ourselves.
During those two years, I gained a new appreciation for the tremendous satisfaction of giving to and helping others. I also learned how little we know about breast cancer and how little was being done. My mission became twofold: to climb and to call attention to breast cancer. And that mission became my raison d'etre. I became passionate about it, and I believe that passion has kept me alive.
There is always the question of why one person survives and not another, why some people cling to life while others give up hope. I have found that the people who love life the most and live it fully have an inner fire that drives them. Whether it is golf, needlepoint, crossword puzzles, or bocce ball, it is something they clearly can't live without. I wanted to help others and find that special passion and, barring that, share mine with them.
Three years after my cancer diagnosis, I realized how I could achieve that. I would organize and lead a climb up one of the world's highest mountains to raise awareness of, and funds for, breast cancer research and care. What set this climb apart was the makeup of the team: seventeen women - single women, mothers, grandmothers - ranging from twenty-one to sixty-two years old. These were mountain climbers in the traditional sense. The only thing they all had in common, other than being women, was that they were all breast cancer survivors.
Peter Whittaker, whose involvement really ensured the climb would happen, picked both the mountain and the name of the project, while Jansport underwrote the cost of the entire climb. The mountain was the 23,000-foot Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest peak in the Western hemisphere. The project was christened Expedition Inspiration.
Many people have asked me, Why, when you almost lost your life to cancer, do you again put it on the line by climbing mountains? Why climb a mountain for breast cancer? Personally, I revel in the awe inspiring, breathtaking beauty of mountains and the satisfying singular focus it takes to climb them. The physical and mental perseverance I have to expend in order to stand on a summit demonstrates, in my mind, that there is nothing out of reach.
Far beyond what I personally get out of it, mountain climbing as a vehicle to further the cause of breast cancer awareness calls up some very poignant parallels:
In both climbing a mountain and dealing with breast cancer, you face your deepest fear, the reality of death.
Each is an individual struggle that is better handled with team support.
In order to survive, it takes one small uphill step at a time.
In the process, you find out what your ultimate values are. You develop a greater sense of self and self-worth.
For thousands of women suffering through breast cancer, the message was clear. Many sent letters stating, If you can climb a mountain, I can get through chemo. If you can climb a mountain, I can go out and walk a few blocks. For the Expedition Inspiration team members it reinforced what facing a life-threatening illness can teach you: that too often we walk through life unconsciously. There is, in reality, no time to waste. Now is the time to go for it.
The Expedition Inspiration team - the first true national support group-alleviated some of the fear of joining the club by demonstrating that getting a cancer diagnosis does not necessarily mean your life is over.
Through Expedition Inspiration, we helped educate women not just about breast cancer, but about themselves. I have met few women who are not hard on themselves. Most of us give endlessly, forgetting about our our health and well-being. With this project, we wanted to empower others to let go of what doesn't contribute to their wellness and to applaud their own talents and interests. We wanted to teach the importance of knowing our limitations without limiting ourselves.
Through the Expedition Inspiration Fund for Breast Cancer Research, which includes ongoing international expeditions as well as locally sponsored Take-a-Hike, I have dedicated myself to helping others. I have written a book, to encourage others to follow their hearts. I feel as if I have been given a special gift - the gift of life - and I don't want to squander it.
But I never lose sight of what rejuvenates me, what sparks my will to live. So I take frequent forays into the wilderness, always finding the solace or answers I seek. I look for the laughter, the irony in all things, realizing how infinitesimal we are in the much bigger Picture I remember to laugh out loud daily, sometimes for no apparent reason.
On rainy afternoons,I reevaluate my wish list. What else do I want out of life? What else can I do? Ten years from now I won't look back and say, I wish I had _____. Ten years from now, I'll have a new wish list of all the great adventures yet to come. There's so much to live for.
Laura Evans survived breast cancer with a bone-marrow transplant. She has so far climbed five of the eight major mountains in the world and led a team of breast cancer survivors in a successful climb of Mount Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere.
Laura Evans The Climb of My Life: A Miraculous Journey from the Edge of Death to the Victory of a Lifetime (San Francisco, Harper, 1996)