My 14 year old daughter, with big brown eyes, stares into mine and says, “Mom, you have too much cancer in your life.”
I stand like an island, detached with grief, missing my friend, Judith, who inhaled her last breath on a hospice bed, with a body invaded by cancer. Judith befriended me because of Above + Beyond Cancer. Because of Above + Beyond Cancer I have a lot of cancer in my life. In some odd way, this is a blessing. My pal, Jeff Lawrence, is a pancreatic cancer survivor who trekked to Nepal with Above and Beyond Cancer in 2013, says “cancer is the best worst thing that has happened to me.” Having too much cancer in my life is the best worst thing that has ever happened to me.
Four years ago, I was digesting the news of my sister-in-laws need for a stem cell transplant, when the co-founder of Above + Beyond Cancer asked me to train and co-lead a team of cancer survivors to the Base Camp of Mt. Everest. Now, two stem cell transplants later and near death heart failure, she remains cancer free and I continue to train cancer patients.
Our “Machu Picchu Team” trains weekly at the YMCA Healthy Living Center in Clive, Iowa. We run laps, climb stairs, trek, lunge, squat, lift, balance, laugh, sigh, grunt and giggle. I carefully observe my crew of cancer survivors and caregivers, adjusting form, coaching, encouraging.
I spy Susan Brown. A tiny sweat bead trickles around her right temple and along her flushed cheeks, her chest expanding with deep breaths. Susan’s dark and newly growing wavy hair is damp from stair climbing. Thirteen weeks ago, when I first meet Susan for a fitness assessment, a thick, straight, dark brown wig framed her grinning face. One June 13th, of 2014 Susan walked out of her last breast cancer treatment. On June 17th, we began training for our transformational journey to Peru. Sue admits, “That first night I felt intimidated. Everyone was further along than me, not just in physical fitness, but from their cancer treatment.”
Susan attends every Tuesday training session and hikes 7-8 miles a week. She walks past grocery aisles lined with sweets and instead fills her cart with fresh produce. In 11 weeks, Susan shed 12 pounds. She feels healthier now than before her cancer diagnosis. “Training with other survivors, caregivers and advocates has been invaluable to my recovery, not just physically, but mentally and spiritually.”
At training, Susan stands in warrior pose, arms spread, one reaching towards her new friend, Joni Livermore. Joni completed six weeks of radiation treatment for a second occurrence of cancer, when she had applied to join the Above + Beyond Cancer’s team to trek to Machu Picchu. “This team has taken my fear and sadness to hope and happiness.” Joni wears a compression sleeve on her petite frame while we lift weights. She smiles with determination and masters anything I throw her way.
When I step back and observe my crew, coaching and encouraging, I am in awe of their resilience. I am thankful for their increased endurance and strength.
Joni says, “Life has no guarantee and is often unpredictable. I can sit and worry about things I can’t control, or I can live each day fully and advocate for the things that are important to me. I credit Above + Beyond Cancer for helping me live with this in mind.”
Because of Above + Beyond Cancer, I have too much cancer in my life. Because of Above + Beyond Cancer I am blessed to train with compassion and vulnerability. It is the best worst thing.
Mary Van Heukelom is the Health and Fitness Director for Above + Beyond Cancer. She is the a Certified Personal Trainer and Co-Leader for the 2014 Transformational Journey to Peru.