As much as Above + Beyond Cancer is about living, it’s about losing. As much as it’s about the living, it’s also about the lost. We’ve learned over the past few years that there is much joy to be had when celebrating those who have survived their cancer scare or their cancer battle, and while we may be quick to tell these tales, the very reason they are so inspiring is due to the fact that cancer is such an ugly force that needs to be reckoned with. The reason the stories of those who live on to tell their tales of trials and tribulations, those who go on to climb mountains both figuratively and literally, are so powerful is due to the fact that there are those who aren’t able to go on sharing lessons and anecdotes with us all. Cancer can inspire because of what else it can do.
While 16 cancer survivors make their way to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail in late September on Above + Beyond Cancer’s sixth major endeavor of the sort, one soul will make her way to the top without being able to express much in her own words or photos. Her name is Brenda Price, and the ashes from her physical being, which ceased to exist when she passed away from ovarian cancer on February 11, 2014, will be carried along with the members of Above + Beyond Cancer to the famous ancient site of the Incan people, a sacred place Brenda traveled to with friends the year before her death.
How this story came to be is far from normal, but not much this foundation does is. Founder, Dr. Richard Deming, has been heard a number of times saying, “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.” What is normal living, anyhow? And how distant is it from the peculiar?
Above + Beyond Cancer has taught us over the past few years that perhaps these mental barriers of what is normal versus strange, what is possible versus impossible, what is irrationally unrealistic versus what is beautifully surreal are unnecessary labels, and that anything is possible in this world. Like leading groups of cancer survivors who’ve never left the country or comfort zones in general to mountain peaks around the globe. Or like meeting famous folk singer Willie Nelson’s band at a show in Clear Lake, Iowa, having Willie’s harmonica player of 41 years, Mickey Raphael, see the Mt. Everest base camp logo on the sweatshirt of Above + Beyond Cancer Program Director and brain cancer survivor, Justin Anderson, who was in charge of arranging the band pickup from the hotel in his home town, and sparking up a conversation about the organization, eventually leading to Justin agreeing to personally carry some of the ashes of Mickey’s long-time partner – Brenda Price – along the Inca Trail all the way to Machu Picchu to leave a piece of her in a place that was special to her. More of her ashes can be found on the outdoor-lover’s favorite trails and hills around the globe.
Normal? Who knows really what that means? Beautiful? Absolutely. “It’s definitely kind of wild,” says Anderson. “But I don’t put it past the kind of things that seem to happen in this organization.”
Anderson, who has been a part of Above + Beyond Cancer since its inception in 2011 as both a cancer survivor and director, is a music lover and aficionado himself, hence why he was working at the famous Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa for Willie’s show. The connection with mountains and music let Anderson know this borderline unbelievable connection and circumstance was meant to be. “I guess we were all just in the right place at the right time,” he said. “This was meant to happen.”
When Anderson found out he’d be a part of Willie Nelson’s show last year, he phoned up friend and Above + Beyond Cancer founder Dr. Deming and invited him to attend. Deming also struck up a relationship with Raphael, providing an additional medical opinion and spiritual guidance on Brenda’s cancer diagnosis and difficult decision-making process. A bit later on, Deming and Anderson just so happened to be traveling along the East Coast of the U.S. around the time of Willie Nelson’s 80th Birthday celebration concert in New York City, and were invited to attend the festivities through their newfound relationship with Raphael. Then, a few months later when Price was in hospice in her hometown of Salt Lake City, Dr. Deming, who just so happened to be skiing in the area called his new friend to check on Brenda, who was in her final days of life here on this earth. Dr. Deming arrived to be by their side in less than 15 minutes.
The right place? Yes. The right time? Absolutely. Near the end of Price’s life, her multiple-mile-long hikes turned to mile-long ones, then to hikes down the street, and eventually hikes down the hallway. Raphael skipped out on a performance at the Grammy’s to be by Brenda’s side on these walks. Later, Raphael quit Willie’s tour to be with her on these journeys big and small. The day after he went to be by her side indefinitely, his tour bus and crew suffered a major highway crash. No one was killed, but Raphael says he might have been had he still been on the road due to his seat’s location in the vehicle. Right place at the right time.
Raphael recalled Brenda’s favorite saying, “Live while you’re alive,” as he explained how this all came to be. It was clear that he and Brenda, their story and their spirit, belong in Above + Beyond’s ever-growing family. For both the living and the lost are alive here. Their tales may not surprise us at this point, but they will always inspire us.
Above + Beyond Cancer will carry some of Brenda’s ashes to Machu Picchu, along with a prayer flag decorated by Raphael in her honor. You can follow along with the journey at the official blog here.