A day into her African odyssey, before even stepping foot onto the trail leading up to Mt. Kilimanjaro, breast cancer survivor Kerri Brenner wanted nothing more than to go home. She sobbed in her hotel room, pacing with panic, wondering what the hell she was doing here. Yes, the land sure was foreign and the people in a different way than anything she’d seen before, but that wasn’t why Kerri wanted to go.
She wanted out because she wasn’t a mountain climber. She was a 33-year-old small-town Midwestern gal, mother to an adorable three-year-old daughter, wife to a loving husband, someone who found plenty of contentment in life without the need to travel to faraway continents.
This last year with cancer was unlike anything she’d been through before, but it hadn’t changed her aside from the obvious physical effects. Had it? What can explain, then, why she voluntarily signed up for the opportunity to embark on a journey halfway around the globe in attempt to climb Africa’s tallest mountain with a group of cancer survivors? Because she couldn’t not do it? Because maybe, just maybe, she could?
Thirty miles down the road from Kerri Brenner’s hometown of Colfax lies the farm that Connie Duinink has lived on with her husband for many years. It’s where she bakes her famous birthday cakes for her grandchildren, which she did even throughout chemotherapy, having to lean against the counter for support when no one was watching.
Connie would be the first to tell you she’s a proud farmer’s wife. Her demeanor couldn’t be more serene or sincere. Everything about her suggests wholesome Iowan, meant to live amongst the charming fields she calls home, steering clear of anything too flashy or fanciful. The 63-year-old is quick and bright and knows there’s a whole big world out there in which people attempt to explore all corners of it in search of something else, something new. But she’s simpler than that, and by choice. The breast cancer survivor surely has many more years to live in her, but at the same time doesn’t seem to want anything more than what she’s already got.
So why Mt. Kilimanjaro? What was it?
If you’ve never climbed a mountain in your life, is it possible you are a mountain climber? How would you know?
On New Year’s Day 2012, a group of 19 cancer survivors and 21 caregivers, many who had not left North America before, most who had never gone seeking a peak of any kind in their lives, went to find out.
The first few days they looked like rookies, but only because they were. After figuring out the best system for drying out their socks and stuffing their sleeping bags and balancing the weight of their daypacks, they could focus solely on the mountain itself.
The middle of the excursion wore them down, leaving some ill with fevers, nausea and more, and the rest at a minimum cold, dirty and weathered. Many saw their breaking point, stared it in the eye and forged on.
It’s fairly certain they wouldn’t have done so had they been alone, even though the mountain and its magic is able to capture your spirit for days on end. They didn’t just have each other, they needed each other. And one man, Dr. Richard Deming, was there to harness their last bits of energy and take them all the way to the top.
A long day’s walk from reaching the crater camp at the top of the volcano known as Kilimanjaro, the survivors and caregivers woke to the morning knowing the goal ahead of them could not just be accomplished under any mindset.
Dr. Deming began with an inspirational reading from a favorite author followed by a pair of stories represented on colorful prayer flags that would be included among the 700 that would float atop the mountain the next morning for something the American Cancer Society calls Relay For Life, which would symbolize celebrating survivorship, honoring those lost to the disease, and finding ways to fight back. One was a story of a very ambitious, talented young patient of his who had died from cancer at the age of 22. The other was a tale of an elementary school girl back in Iowa who had been diagnosed with cancer and is currently undergoing treatment. Neither, for obvious reasons, could physically make the journey. But as Dr. Deming so eloquently explained it that morning, there were many more than 40 people going up the mountain that day.
With hardened faces, more determination than excuses, more will than weakness, the group left Barafu camp in search of the crater camp, well aware it lay hours and miles and infinite steps away with nothing in between but the harsh nature that had remained there for more years than we can fathom. They fully knew they’d stumble over uneven ground, step foot on all types of terrain, feel pain much like they had during cancer treatment. Yet they continued to climb upward, occasionally looking behind them not to contemplate turning around, but to absorb, just for a moment or two, how far they’d come.
They were not mountain climbers. And that makes them the most incredible kind.