Today’s guest post comes from my awe-inspiring friend, Jenna. She is an accomplished hiker, rock scrambler, and Colorado 14er climber who hasn’t let turning 70 or a cancer diagnosis cramp her style!
While the past few years have brought new challenges, Jenna has always accepted them gracefully and with a positive attitude. She may not be as fast or far ranging as she once was. But I guarantee you, on any hike, she is the person who is most appreciative and grateful to be out there.
I asked Jenna to share the story of her cancer diagnosis, treatment, and triumphant comeback to hiking, and she kindly accepted. May she inspire you to push through tough times to reach your goals!
Photos courtesy of Jenna.
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My story begins at a Colorado 14er trailhead on Oct. 23, 2016. As with many 14er hikes/climbs, I slept in my car at the Mt. Antero trailhead off CR 162 in order to be ready for a 4 a.m. solo start. The weather forecast was great, and I was looking forward to pleasant climb.
Though I felt fine when I got up at 3 a.m., my headlamp showed that something definitely was not right. There was blood in my pee. WTH?
“I could have died.”
I drove back to the ER in Denver once the sun came up. They recommended follow-up with my PCP for a number of tests.
I didn’t get very far. Twenty-six hours later, I was in the urologist’s office (stat!) in real trouble suffering from a total urinary blockage. This was followed by two visits to the ER in a week. Yikes.
I had to stop to think: what would have happened had I discounted the warning sign and decided to “tough it out” and go up the Mt. Antero trail anyway? It could have been ugly, and I could have died.
Fast forward past a number of MRIs, CT scans, and a diagnosis of stage 3 renal (kidney) cancer. I was quickly scheduled for a nephrectomy (kidney removal) at University of Colorado Hospital on Dec. 22. Crap. Really?
After the unexpected diagnosis, it was time to do some inner reflection, accept the situation (no use crying about it), and get mentally prepared for the surgery.
Fortunately, I was (otherwise) in very good physical shape, having completed Colorado Mountain Club’s Alpine Scrambling Course at the age of 70. I’d also participated in numerous hikes (including ten Colorado 14ers) throughout the previous summer and fall.
The Colorado Mountain Club schools, plus years of hiking experience, had prepared me well for unexpected events and tough times — plus a host of life experiences. (When you’re a senior, I guess you can say that.)
I was facing a huge life challenge, but a lot of good things came together at the right time. My son flew in from Hawaii. I also had a wonderful group of friends who encouraged me and visited me during my two-night stay in the hospital, then at home.
I was fortunate to still be working full-time and had excellent medical insurance, plus Medicare A (hospitalization). Fortunately, I did not need chemo or radiation and now just have periodic scans. There is a small chance of a reoccurrence, but I’m staying positive.
Back in the saddle
I was back on the “trail” on day 7 after surgery. I hiked maybe a wimpy 0.25 miles that first day on a paved path.
Over the next few days, I gradually increased my walking distance. On day 11, I made it out to Elk Meadow in Evergreen for a short hike.
At the 30-day mark, my surgeon OK’d me to resume more “normal” hiking, and also downhill skiing. (She knew I’d probably do it anyway.) I ended up with nine ski days that winter. Not too shabby!
A reunion and a comeback
Before my diagnosis, I’d made plans to attend a reunion of Peace Corps buddies in Hawaii the following April. We had all served together in Chile from 1968 to 1970, and I was determined to go. In fact, my goal as I left the hospital was to do some hiking and climbing in Hawaii as well.
The reunion was great. It was so good to see my friends and their families. I felt fortunate that my son and his girlfriend, who live in O’ahu, were able to join us on Hawai’i, the Big Island.
The high point of the trip was summiting Mauna Kea (13,796’) along with my son via the Humu’ula Trail. The pic below was taken about halfway up, and Mauna Loa is in background. Final hike stats: about 13.5 mi. round-trip and 4,800 ft. elevation gain. Sure reminded me of a 14er!
I had originally intended to climb two days after arriving in Hawaii, but the forecast had been scary: 25 degrees, snow, and 70-plus mph winds. Fortunately, we had a bluebird day after the reunion. It was Cinco de Mayo, Hawaiian style.
I was a bit slower on the ascent than I had anticipated. But putting everything into perspective, and considering where I’d been medically five months earlier, I felt extremely fortunate.
The f*ck cancer climb
Fast forward to July 1, 2018. My really badass friend Karla accompanied me on a successful summit of Mt. Antero (“I’m back!”). We climbed a non-standard route approaching via Little Browns Creek, then scrambling on Class 2+ rock to the summit.
Karla posted our accomplishment to my Facebook profile:
Despite the fact that Jenna has summited other peaks since her cancer, this was her F&CK Cancer Peak, and I got to be there with her!
My future plans include hiking and climbing, mixing in some tough peaks, and giving back through volunteering. There will be age-related issues in my coming years, for sure. My desire is simply to embrace them as they come, aging gracefully (but staying active).
Thanks for the opportunity to share my story! Hopefully it exemplifies the kinds of positive messages and energy Sarah brings to the blog every week: Believe in yourself and be passionate, resilient, optimistic, and thankful.
I hope you felt as inspired by Jenna’s Colorado 14er comeback as I did! If you have any questions for her, please drop them in the comments.
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Originally published June 4, 2019.