Hiking, A Metaphor

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After I made the decision to add Avastin to my treatment (as I wrote about in my previous post), I went into an even lower period, during which I retreated into myself, trying, but failing, to find peace with this latest setback.  Instead, I worried and fretted.  I worried about the Avastin and what havoc it would wreak on my body.  I sat around wondering how much time I had left on this planet.  I worried about dying, not because I was afraid of the afterlife (because I am not), but because I felt like I had so much more to teach my girls and that Josh wasn’t yet ready for a life without me.  I mourned once again the dreams I’d lost, particularly the third child I will never have.  Whenever my stomach felt unsettled, I relived with the fear and anxiety that comes with hindsight those weeks before I was diagnosed when I naively thought the symptoms of my cancer was nothing more than IBS.  I worried about the growth of other cancers in other parts of my body, wondering if the pain in my leg meant some kind of bone cancer or if my vague sense of bloatedness meant peritoneal spread.  In much the same way that so many, including myself, felt their sense of safety was shattered after 9/11, I now felt the same once again, except this time, it was my own body that had betrayed me, my own body that had launched an attack against me.  These are the kind of thoughts that torment me in this prison that is my cancer, thoughts from which I can never escape in my waking hours and that only become louder, more insistent and more disturbing during my low moments when the future seems bleakest and the prison is as inescapable as Alcatraz.

The bottom came when I decided in an effort to pull myself out of my rut to go to a class called Shockwave.  I had aspirations of actually getting stronger while on chemo.  Shockwave is as hard as it gets in terms of fitness classes, as confirmed by the number of studly men who routinely participate – men typically shun the easy and moderately difficult classes in my experience.  Shockwave is a circuit training class with four different stations, one of which is rowing and it’s on the rowing machine where the class gets somewhat competitive (but always in a nice supportive way).  The last time I’d taken the class was in June, when I was first showing symptoms.  Before that, I’d been a regular in the class and was proud of how I could always hold my own – I could never keep up with the men but I was always in the middle of the pack with the women, some of whom looked like they were former college rowers.  Well, four months, a hemicolectomy and six rounds of chemo later, I was a frail shadow of my former fitness self, finishing dead last by a wide margin after each rowing circuit, the muscles in my arms and legs quivering and weak from the exertion.  Cancer or not, I was embarrassed by my performance, wondering how I could have let my fitness level deteriorate so much.  Sure, cycling classes have been a consistent part of my post-cancer diagnosis workouts, but Shockwave was always the hardest class, the one that really tested my fitness, the one that would build my fitness; building my fitness seemed utterly impossible at that moment.  I felt myself falling deeper into the rut after that class.

Minutes later, as I was waiting to pay for lunch at the gym’s cafe, the world began to swim, my arms began to tingle and beads of sweat appeared on my forehead.  I thought for a moment that I would have to ask the cashier to call my husband because I really thought I was about to collapse.  Instead, I grabbed a banana and ate it as quickly as I could.  Maybe my body was reacting to the overexertion of Shockwave or maybe my body was angry at me for not having eaten much of a breakfast that morning and for skipping dinner the night before and for generally eating terribly for days – for me, poor eating is another manifestation of feeling down in the dumps about having cancer – more likely it was both of those things.  I slumped into a couch in the lobby of the gym, digging into my sandwich as quickly as possible to stop my arms from shaking, and said to myself in much the same way that I would scold my children, “Julie, this is not acceptable behavior!”  I had to stop moping.  I had to treat my body and myself better.  I had to eat better.  I had to recognize and accept my new physical limitations, including accepting the reality that I probably couldn’t handle Shockwave for now.  No matter how distasteful the reality of the situation, I had to accept that I had metastatic disease and to accept that I was facing a long war, and then I had to move on.  These are the things that I kept telling myself as I sat there trying to force a sandwich that tasted like cardboard down my throat.

I’ve said before that the emotional roller coaster that is cancer is not for the faint of heart; the ups can be unbelievably exhilarating and the downs can be crushing, and the journey between those two points can make you puke your guts out, literally and figuratively.  Getting up after a fall, recovering after a defeat in the latest battle, regrouping, finding a new equilibrium, it all takes time and is part of a process that involves the body, the mind and the spirit, that at its core requires oneself to dig deep and find strength within one’s soul to move beyond the darkness and despair, to find air and light and hope within the prison that is cancer.  My process of getting up, recovering, regrouping and discovering my new equilibrium after the most recent defeat began on that couch at the gym.  Hiking five days later would be a pivotal part of that process for me.

Weeks earlier, my well-meaning friend, S.J., who wanted me to have some time away from the kids and the hubby and hopefully cancer too, had signed me up for a day of hiking amidst the beauty of the fall foliage with a local group.  I was a bit wary because I would have completed six rounds of chemo by then and wasn’t entirely sure if my body could handle a hike along Breakneck Ridge Loop (with an emphasis on the “Breakneck” part) but my friend signed me up when I was still feeling optimistic and good, so I resisted the urge to cancel the reservation.  My Shockwave experience cast considerable doubt in my mind about whether I could do the hike, but after discussions with S.J. and the organization, the result of which was a backup plan to cut the hike short if necessary and a request by me of S.J. to bring a deck of cards so we could play Go Fish in the woods while we waited for the rest of the group, I felt okay about going ahead with the hike.  Besides, the doctors were telling me that continued exercise was a good thing, particularly in light of the clotting and increased blood pressure that Avastin might cause, exercise being proven to prevent both ailments.  The Saturday after the Shockwave class, on an unseasonably warm day in early November, I met S.J., our guide, 11 other young, robust-looking, crunchy types and the black van at 8 a.m. in front of the Starbucks in Union Square for our day of hiking.  The guide drove us 1.5 hours north into Westchester County and up the east side of the Hudson River and parked the van in front of a steep rock that went seemingly straight up 1200 feet and announced that that was what we were going to hike, climb and scramble up.  I said, “Holy shit!”

Before I proceed with this story, you have to understand my history with hiking, which is extremely limited.  I am an immigrant from Vietnam.  My parents were born in Vietnam and all my grandparents were born in China.  I did not grow up hiking or skiing or kayaking or doing anything remotely outdoorsy.  To the people of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, the notion of voluntarily subjecting oneself to physical exertion in the primitiveness of the wilderness is insanity.  We had risked our lives to come to America so we could rest comfortably in our well-built American homes (and not sleep on the ground like a bunch of poor, shelter-less peasants) and drive our Japanese cars on smooth paved roads (and not risk twisting an ankle navigating through roots and undergrowth).  The outdoors to them meant laboring in the rice fields and risking life and limb amidst the tall grasses where the Viet Cong had planted hundreds of landmines for the enemy American soldiers.  So no, the outdoors was definitely not part of my childhood.

Then, I went to Williams, a small liberal arts college nestled in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts where hiking and the outdoors seemed like an essential part of life and a far cry from the decidedly suburban life outside of Los Angeles I’d known for most of my life.  Because I was all about exploring everything that college had to offer that was so wonderfully and excitingly new, I signed up to take a hiking class to satisfy my P.E. requirement.  I showed up that first Wednesday afternoon of classes, along with a handful of other freshmen, wearing my too clean and distinctly uncool looking tan boots.  The trail wasn’t particularly strenuous but it became very clear quickly to me and Scott, the instructor and the head of the college’s outing club, that something was wrong.  I could not keep up, not because I wasn’t physically fit, but because I couldn’t see.  I could easily manage the uphills but slowed considerably on the downhills.  Because I had never hiked before, I’d never realized how my poor vision would affect my ability to hike.  (I describe my vision in clinical terms in The Bliss in Making the Journey Alone.)  I’m told (because how would I know otherwise) that depth perception comes with having vision out of both eyes, something which I don’t really have since the vision out of my left eye is practically nonexistent.  In retrospect, it was rather stupid of me not to realize that my vision would be a significant impediment to hiking considering how even going down stairs in my daily life presents me with some anxiety because of my lack of depth perception.  My visual disability made the three hour class a miserable slow experience, in which I felt not only like I was holding up the rest of the class but like I was a complete and utter failure.  But the fear of falling when going down because I couldn’t gauge depth was more powerful than the desire to not be a failure.  I told Scott after those three hours that I wouldn’t be coming back.  In my mind, I felt like I had allowed my visual disability to win, that because of my physical limitations, I would have to concede defeat in this battle, one of many in the long war I had been waging against my blindness for 17 years with more to come in the years ahead.

I never forgot that loss and how much it hurt.  It haunted me.  It annoyed me.  It rankled.  I hate losing.  About a decade later, I decided that I would find a way to conquer the outdoors with help from organizations committed to making the outdoors accessible for people with disabilities.  After all, Erik Weihenmayer, a totally blind 43-year-old man had climbed Mt. Everest in 2001.  If he could conquer Mt. Everest, I, with my limited sight, could hike.  I went to New Zealand for two weeks with Wilderness Inquiry, during which I learned the value of trekking poles for someone like me.  Trekking poles allow me to gauge depth, making me feel safe and confident, in some respects acting as extensions of my arms and hands.  They transform hiking into a pleasant experience.  Years after New Zealand, Josh and I hiked up Mt. Sinai (yes, as in where Moses received the Ten Commandments) as part of our honeymoon to see the sunrise and then had to climb back down.  I hadn’t thought to bring my trekking poles on my honeymoon so going down Mt. Sinai was another miserable hiking experience during which I cursed myself repeatedly for my poor planning.

So I had learned my lesson and had my trekking poles ready for my hike through Breakneck Ridge Loop, except they were totally useless for the first 2.5 hours.  For the first 2 to 2.5 hours of the Loop, you go up, and pretty much straight up at times, as in sprawled out on your stomach on the rock surface, searching for something to grab hold of with a hand and a crack in the rock to stick a foot in.  I chose to go last in the group because I hate feeling rushed with people on my heels.  S.J. was like a little mountain goat, scrambling up ahead of me and then turning around to make sure I was doing all right.  I followed her lead and we did just fine, even if I had to occasionally ask S.J. or our guide as I lay outstretched on the rock, “Ugh, where exactly am I supposed to put my foot now?”  Of course, I wasn’t the only one wondering so I didn’t feel so bad.  Despite the cancer, despite six rounds of chemo, my body handled the two-hour scramble easily enough, albeit with some breathlessness, heart pounding and some weird tingling in my hands that was no doubt a result of the chemo-induced neuropathy; there was no embarrassing lag behind the rest of the group.  It was a dramatically steep climb.  Later S.J. would tell me, “I turned around at one point and saw you pulling yourself up and I thought to myself, ‘I really hope Julie doesn’t die here.’”  In my history with hiking, I’ve always loved going up.  S.J. observed that I in fact moved faster the steeper the climb got.  For me, the absence of depth perception isn’t a problem then.  I love the physical demands of climbing.  I love pushing my body’s physical limits of endurance.  I love the symbolism of climbing and reaching for a goal.  I could climb forever and I would be happy.  Unfortunately, as they say, what goes up must come down.

Because we had climbed 1200 feet, I knew we would also have to go down 1200 feet.  For the sake of prudence both because of my vision issues and the fact that I was about to face round 7 of chemo in 48 hours and didn’t want to be completely spent, I made the decision after we’d reached the top to break off from the rest of the group and take the shorter loop back with S.J. and me on our own.  As I told the guide, “I detest going down!”

For me, going down is a process fraught with fear and dread, fear of twisting or breaking my ankle, fear of falling and suffering a worse injury, fear of not really seeing where my feet should go.  Whereas the climb up Breakneck Ridge was about rock and open sky and glorious views of the Hudson River, the climb down was about making our way through a canopy of shedding trees, some of their brown, red, orange and yellow leaves still clinging to the branches but most of them having fallen to the ground in a thick carpet that obscured the trail, at times completely.  For me, the carpet of leaves posed its own treacherous traps hiding the uneven terrain underneath, and so I grasped my trekking poles more tightly, putting more of my weight on them as we gradually descended through the winding path.  “Stay on the trail,” S.J. urged me from up ahead.  “What trail?” I yelled back in response as I stood there in the middle of the woods, frozen for a moment, unsure of where to go, seeing only leaves and more leaves on the ground.  I made myself move forward, one step at a time.  I let the many other hikers walk pass me as they all made their way down like little jack rabbits, forcing myself to give them friendly smiles as they went by, even as I somewhat bitterly recognized the great disparities between their vision and mine that would allow them to move so agilely and me so clumsily.  I lumbered down, ever so cautiously and awkwardly, nervous, timid, anxious, afraid, with my trusty poles in hand.  I made to lift the right pole out of the dirt, but only half of it came out while the bottom half remained stuck in the earth.  The right pole had broken.  I stood there, staring incredulously at the broken pole in my hand and the part standing upright in the ground.  Great.  Now, it was going to take even longer for me to descend.  S.J. carried the broken pole and scampered ahead while I followed with my one good pole and my right hand drawn into a tight fist that was evidence of all the tension that lay within.  Darn, I should have splurged on those Leki poles, instead of these cheap REI poles, I berated myself.

For me, fighting cancer, especially when suffering or recovering from a defeat, is like making the descent.  It is a time loaded with fear, anxiety, nerves, hesitation and so many other negative emotions, where the sky and the path are uncertain and it feels like no matter what weapons you take along to help you, the weapons may fail and the journey seems endless.  You make yourself smile and say positive things because that’s what people expect of you, but inside you are bitter, so bitter.  And you despair as everyone else moves past you, all of them so blissfully happy for they are free of the prison that is cancer.

When my trekking pole broke, my mind flashed back to the time when I went cross-country skiing years before with my friend A.M. and her parents.  A.M., unlike me, had grown up with the outdoors.  She’s one of those people who had her own set of skis when she was three.  Needless to say, I was a terrible skier by comparison and all I remember of that afternoon skiing with A.M. and her parents in the woods of Vermont was how often I fell on my ass on the downhills – it is tricky to control cross-country skis when descending, and trickier still for someone as unathletic as I — and A.M.’s mother saying, “Julie, you fall so gracefully.  I know if I fell, I would break so many bones in my body, but you’re so flexible and limber.”  I remember laughing hysterically when she said this to me with such utter seriousness and sincerity, as I brushed the snow off my hair and butt and pulled myself up into a standing position for what seemed like the hundredth time that day.

A.M.’s mother made me realize that day that there is grace and beauty in every fall, that ultimately, it’s all a matter of perspective.  I saw myself as a graceless skier but she saw me as someone who knew how to fall (helped by the fact that I’m so petite by comparison to A.M. and her family) and get up time and time again.  I also realized that day that laughter too is a matter of perspective.  Rather than being angry and frustrated at how bad a skier I was, I chose to laugh about it because it really was pretty darn funny how bad I was.  Then I started laughing at my broken trekking pole and the ridiculousness of me hiking when I couldn’t even see the path that well.  Sometimes, there’s nothing else to do but laugh at the absurdity of life, at all the things that can go wrong, at all the hardships, at all the things that seems so impossible and insurmountable, at all the things I’m terrible at.  If I can’t laugh at myself in my most embarrassing, humiliating and trying moments, then I would be truly lost.  Laughter allows joy to flow into an otherwise joyless situation and forces some of the fear out.  And with joy comes gratitude and love and hope.  Even though my pole broke and a piece of my sense of security was therefore gone, I knew that I would be okay because S.J. was with me, that no matter how slow I went down that mountain, S.J. would be there to support me, that I had exercised prudence in cutting our hike short, that we would make it back to the van with plenty of time.  Everything would be okay.  Sometimes, we just need to let all the fears go, to let all of the what-should-be’s, what-might-have-been’s and what-will-be’s go and just rejoice in what is, in the physical beauty of the woods, in the friendships and the love and the support that abounds, in the laughter that resides within our soul and that can be found in even the seemingly most mirthless of situations.

It’s hard to find laughter and joy in the trying times, during the descent, when in the throes of fear and doubt.  I succeeded that day on my hike with S.J., and I strive to do so every day as I wage my war against this cancer, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.  I told S.J. later that the descent had been my favorite part of the hike because that was ironically when I had felt happiest.  Indeed, when I find unexpected moments of joy in a life that is now dominated by cancer, when I can find by my sheer willpower and determination air and light and laughter in this prison and maybe the promise of escape one day, I experience a high that I had never known before I had cancer.  As we returned to New York City from Breakneck Ridge, the rain came down in torrents and then cleared minutes later.  The weakening sun shone to the west and to the east in a vast expanse of dark clouds was a brilliant rainbow whose arc was complete and could be seen from one end to the other.  Until that moment, I’d never seen a complete rainbow.  I took it as a sign of more laughter and joy to come.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Paula Roberts
    Nov 22, 2013 @ 15:41:14

    Thank you Julie. After 10 months of this battle, I too am finding some peace. When you write I’m so moved. So again, Thank you.

    Reply

  2. Debbie whitmore
    Nov 22, 2013 @ 22:28:03

    Julie, you know how your words completely inspire me. I feel like I’m reading a great novel and I am waiting eagerly to read the next chapter. Life is scary for us now and I do hate how cancer consumes too much of our time. It is knowing other strong people like you, and walking to same path with me, that gives me a desire to keep putting one foot in front of the other, even when I want to crumble. xxxooo Debbie

    Reply

  3. Katie Vogler
    Nov 25, 2013 @ 08:04:14

    You are amazing. If I had only half your drive, I would be much better off. But take it easy on yourself!

    Reply

  4. Elizabeth Reardon
    Nov 25, 2013 @ 22:51:23

    from AM’s mother.
    Dear Julie, AM told me about your post because of your memory of our day of cross country skiing together, so I read it all and was very moved by how your memory of that day brought happiness into the present moment and the challenges you are facing – with cancer , with hiking, with falling down. I’m still hiking, and cross country skiing and falling down and getting up again not nearly as gracefully as you I am sure. May you continue to find laughter and joy in the beauty and sometimes absurdity of the present moment . Thanks for your words.
    .

    Reply

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