Guest Post: Above + Beyond Cancer: A Spiritual Journey to the High Himalaya

Dr. Richard L. Deming is a highly inspirational physician and cancer center medical director who serves as a member of the ACS CAN Board of Directors. At our last Board meeting, I had a chance to hear Dr. Deming discuss his recent, incredible journey to Nepal. He traveled with a large group of cancer survivors and caregivers to hike the Himalayan Mountains with the courage and confidence they had gained during cancer treatment. His story is a great example of how individuals can fight back against cancer, something we strive to give people the power to do by joining ACS CAN and advocating on behalf of cancer patients everywhere. I asked Dr. Deming if he would be willing to share his experience with all of you and he readily agreed. His story follows:

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Dr. Richard L. Deming is the Medical Director of Mercy Cancer Center and the Medical Director of the CyberKnife Radiosurgery Center.

Climbing a mountain is a metaphor that many cancer survivors use to describe their cancer journey. Most cancer survivors come through their cancer journey with a new perspective on life. In the process they also acquire courage and a desire to live life fully with passion and purpose.

On Sept. 22 of last year, 19 cancer survivors and 17 caregivers began the journey of a lifetime: Above + Beyond Cancer: A Spiritual Journey to the High Himalaya. From the outset it was designed to be a mind-body-spirit journey into the mountains of Nepal.

As a cancer doctor, I have learned so much about life by witnessing the transformation that occurs when individuals and families face a cancer diagnosis. Cancer becomes a mountain to climb, but it also becomes a teacher and a catalyst to changing one’s life.

The cancer survivors who joined me on this journey to the Himalayan Mountains were not mountain climbers. Most of them had never been athletes and had never pursued such a difficult physical challenge. They came on this journey because of the courage and confidence that they had gained on their cancer journey.

The cancer survivors included seven men and 12 women, ages 22 to 72.  They came from diverse backgrounds and professions.  The group included survivors of many different types of cancer.  Some of the survivors had already completed cancer treatment; others were still in process of undergoing treatment for incurable cancer.

We followed the Dudh Kosi River up the Khumbu Valley.  The trail began in lush vegetation and traversed Sherpa villages and dense rhododendron forests.  As the trail weaved its way up the mountain, the trees became less plentiful and eventually the trail left the vegetation behind as it emerged onto the slopes of the high Himalaya. The trail became steeper and the physical demands of climbing the mountain became more difficult.

Although I often describe our Above + Beyond Cancer group as “19 cancer survivors and 17 caregivers,” the truth is, we were truly one team with a common purpose.  On the mountain the labels fell away quickly.  The world is not a dichotomy of survivors and caregivers.  We all share the same path.

The tremendous effort required to climb the mountain trails drained many of their physical energy. Everyone experienced, to a certain extent, bouts of bronchitis, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, headaches, blisters, sore muscles and altitude sickness. The group also experienced the magnificent beauty of the world’s highest mountains along with a sense of joy, adventure, awe, laughter, wonder, and fellowship. It’s during times of difficulty that you learn the most about yourself.

Nothing of value has ever been accomplished by an individual on his or her own. None of us is as good as all of us. We all succeed with the help of others. Each teammate was aided, comforted, and encouraged by others on the journey. It’s this mutual interdependence that is the true essence of any human experience.

We hiked more than 100 miles together while we were in Nepal. We also climbed three mountains. The first “hill” we climbed was Nangkartsang, a mere 16,500-foot stroll. The second peak was Chukung Ri, an 18,200-foot peak that challenged all of us. The final mountain we climbed, Imja Tse, is a glacier-covered mountain that rises to 20,305 feet above sea level.

We spent two nights in tents at basecamp to get acclimated to the altitude before climbing Imja Tse. On the day before we climbed Imja Tse, we carried out an American Cancer Society Relay For Life. We had brought 1,000 prayer flags with us from home. Each flag was decorated with photographs and remembrances of family and friends who had been affected by cancer. The first lap was done in celebration of the cancer survivors. The next lap was for the caregivers. All of us, including our Sherpas, enthusiastically joined the survivors in this lap of recognition. The third lap was the most emotional. It was done in memory of those who had lost their lives to cancer. As we circled our campsite, the prayer flags overhead reminded us of family and friends who had died of cancer. The final lap of our Relay For Life was called Fight Back. We vowed that those who have died will not have died in vain. The faces of our loved ones looked down on us from the flags flying overhead as we exchanged hugs, shared tears, and supported one another.

We departed basecamp for the summit of Imja Tse at 1:30 am the next morning.  The sky was clear and we travelled by the light of headlamps.  As dawn blossomed, we made our way from the rocky trail onto the face of the glacier that covered the top third of the mountain.    We walked on bridges of snow and ice with 50 foot-long icicles dangling on either side of us.  As the sun rose higher in the sky, we walked the final ridgeline to the 20,300-foot summit.  We hugged, laughed and cried in a combination of exhilaration, exhaustion and gratitude.  Who could ever have imagined that cancer would be the common bond that would bring us to the top of this mountain?

Now, more than ever, we choose to live our lives fully engaged and passionately committed.  No matter how many days we have left on this earth, we do have today.  It’s only by reaching for something that’s above and beyond what you think is possible that you have any idea what you can accomplish.

 

Dr. Richard L. Deming is the Medical Director of Mercy Cancer Center in Des Moines, Iowa and the Medical Director of the CyberKnife Radiosurgery Center of Iowa. He is also a member of the ACS CAN Board of Directors.

 

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