Cancer is a word, not a sentence. It does not define you. It is just one word in a sentence, just one part of your life. Survivor is a word I associate with attitude. How we interpret the experience of cancer and integrate it into our lives is fundamental to how we co-exist with it.
To survive is also not a graduation ceremony, it is simply seeing the world from a different perspective. It is an adaptation. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and in the manner in which you live but your aptitude does not decide how far you will go.
My husband and I are usually found working around the world somewhere on a super yacht. It sounds luxurious, and admittedly there are days that appear on social media which portray it to be a bit more lavish than it really is. But, you live in close quarters with your work colleagues, and slave around the clock to meet the extravagant needs of the worlds 1% wealthiest. Like every job, there is sacrifice. The hardest that we find in our industry is to be removed from family and friends for months at a time.
This is something that became more apparent for us when 4 years ago, some 8,000 miles from home, I found a lump in my breast. The situation quickly escalated when on the day of my biopsy in the USA, we flew home for my fathers funeral. We were now facing the biggest storm of our lives.
My Dad taught me a lot about how to navigate this next stage of my life – he fought his own battle for 7 and a half years with Multiple Myeloma. I look back over his experiences and quite honestly, that is what got me through some of the toughest days that followed. He always encouraged me to face life's challenges with fortitude, and this would be no different - to have “Courage in pain or adversity”.
I was diagnosed with DCIS, basically what that means is the cancer was contained within the walls of the ducts. So, the good news was it could be removed. And it was. I received a Mastectomy shortly after and quite simply “got on with life” – Because that is what you do right? After 6 weeks I went back to work and found myself in the middle of a busy charter season in New York City.
A year later I opted to have a reconstruction, and waking up to see my chest again literally changed me in the blink of an eye. I felt a bit like humpty dumpty, I had been “put back together” – But there was still a crack. The surgeon used my latimus dorsi muscle and I had completely underestimated what this would now mean. The recovery from this was more physically demanding than I had anticipated. But, I “got on with it”. Because that is what you do, right?
Well, this cancer was determined to teach me a lesson, and last year I found another lump, this time in my armpit. It was too familiar to be “nothing” and despite the surgeon’s reassurance of “a 2% chance, very unlikely, but we will check it anyway” - It was cancer. Again. It was now considered invasive, with a growth rate of 80%, it was fuelled by Hormones and the HER2 protein. The week I received this secondary diagnosis, was a fortnight before we were to be leaving for Africa. It was a bucket list adventure, years in the making, with Hot Air Ballooning over the Serengeti, Trekking with the Gorillas in Uganda and Scuba diving in Zanzibar – The following week I found myself on the way to the operating theatre, instead of the airport.
I had 28 lymph nodes removed. I stayed in Florida for the 6 rounds of Chemotherapy because I had access to Perjeta – a drug hat was not yet easily accessible in New Zealand. My goal was to be home for Christmas, and I was. I then had 21 sessions of Radiation, and 11 more rounds of targeted treatment - all combined with ongoing hormone therapy. It literally took a year (and some) out of our lives. It was a dramatic change of course.
While I was now on a journey of another type. I plotted, and I planned. To me, a journey is a peaceful stroll on the country side, it is something you take while cruising in a Mustang on a sunny summers day. This was a trek, a long arduous journey and requires continuous, strenuous effort - stamina. I was determined to show this cancer who was boss, but how? Kilimanjaro. This cancer quickly became a catalyst to a next level Africa trip.
This “she’ll be right” attitude we have all be raised in, doesn’t quite work when you are faced with an altered reality. I tried. There was a huge amount of denial, suppression of emotions, and neglect of physical healing. No, you don’t have to “get on with it”. You have to find a way to “adjust”.
Those who know me will probably tell you that most days I am a bull at the gate, I am relentless in my pursuits and some days my enthusiasm even gets on my nerves. I was told early on in my cancer journey that “this is a marathon, not a sprint” – Something that in our gruelling pursuit of climbing Kilimanjaro, one step, one breath at a time suddenly all made sense. It does not matter how slow you go, as long as you get to the top.
My husband and I are in no way, shape or form mountaineers. Our job allows us to hug the coastlines of the world, we live on the ocean - at sea level. We don’t often venture far from the shore, inland is a foreign concept, mountains are viewed from a distance, snow only happens in cold places and volcano's, well they erupt. It wasn’t until our 3rd day that we realized we had never actually done a multi day hike before, we hadn’t even slept in a tent together. We were quite literally fish out of water.
So, you might ask why we were testing the limit by climbing to the rooftop of Africa - the highest freestanding mountain in the world. Let me ask you – Why not? Why is it that we wait for a traumatic event to make the intentional decision to participate in life. These moments don’t have a tendency to leave you post-it notes, they arrive unannounced and uninvited, they are irrevocable.
Kilimanjaro is one of the worlds highest peak that can be reached without technical skills, yet only 2/3rds of hikers reach the summit, the others are turned around with altitiude sickness, hypoxia or hypothermia. To put it in perspective, Kilimanjaro is twice the height of New Zealands Mount Taranaki. At it’s highest point, she is 5,895m above sea level.
The saying on the Mountain is “Pole, Pole” - Swahili for “Slowly, Slowly”. At first you think you can’t possibly go any slower, but once you accept that, and your “bull out of the gate” impatience is in check, the scenery is spectacular. We had groups power past us, but once you get to camp there is nothing to do except to sit and freeze in the mountain breeze, so again - a lesson in the climb. All it requires from you is to put one foot in front of the other, again and again and again. Being present through the entirety of the trek allows you to see the beauty in every step of the way, not just the summit ahead.
For our final ascent, we were woken at midnight and started our climb at 1 am. Ahead of us was a trail of headlights, and many of them were already coming back down. As altitude became more prominent, so did their effects. It appeared that people were dropping like flies - I wondered what was going on up there! Arriving at the crater edge just on sunrise, there was still a 200m walk around the rim to the summit.
My husband fondly calls this part the “zombie zone” - No one speaks, no one looks at each other, we are literally shuffling along in one direction together. At this point the oxygen saturation is at 80%, which has turned our brains to mush and there is a full buffet of altitude sickness going on. Mere meters to go, yet that final 200m took one hour and a half.
Uhuru Peak is the highest point on Mt Kilimanjaro – And in Swahili it means “Freedom”. Standing there, and knowing this, broke me. The sudden onset of tears couldn’t be explained to my guide, I couldn’t even explain them to myself. Freedom.
To acclimatise is to adjust to the changes in a particular environment. I know I am not the same person I was before this storm brewed but you cannot change the wind, you can only adjust the direction of your sails. I ask you to challenge your current perception, let my Kilimanjaro be a metaphor to conquer your own personal mountains.
By Beks Kay x