16 Years Old at Diagnosis
The summer before I was diagnosed with cancer, I was in the mountains teaching backpacking and wilderness skills to children, many of them from disadvantaged backgrounds. At 16, I had spent the last ten summers exploring the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California, and I found purpose and solace on backpacking trips. That August, I had summited one of the highest peaks in the area, a harrowing scramble up the side of a mountain covered in loose rocks. When I reached the top, sweaty and shaky, I was rewarded with some of the most beautiful views I’d ever seen of Sonora Pass. Fewer than six months later, on a bright February day, I was diagnosed with leukemia. My parents, both in medicine, had misdiagnosed me with anemia a few weeks before. When iron supplements failed to remedy my flagging energy and easy bruising, my father grimly consulted his textbooks and brought me to my pediatrician. That afternoon, as we waited anxiously for my lab results, I sat on the porch and soaked in the sunshine and the trees, just starting to bloom in the warm Bay Area weather.
That evening, my parents, sister, and I drove to Children’s Hospital Oakland, where I was admitted with acute promyelocytic leukemia, a sub-type of AML. Lying in the emergency room that night, my first question to my doctors was, “Will I be able to go to the mountains this summer?” When they told me no, I secretly willed them to be wrong. I spent the next four months in treatment in the air-filtered oncology ward at Children’s Hospital. For weeks at a time, my immune system was so weak that a cold or flu could have killed me. Visitors scrubbed up before entering my hospital room. I missed the outdoors with an ache and I felt confined in the hospital. When I tried to curl up near the window in my room and stare out at the trees, my nurses gently reminded me that chemotherapy causes light-sensitivity and requested that I go back to bed.
Held captive in my room, I dreamed of the cherry blossoms I saw in bloom the day I was diagnosed, and I imagined floating to the roof of the hospital, where I could breathe fresh air. I longed to be in the Sierras, and was secretly convinced that I wouldn’t be cured until I could escape from Children’s Hospital and breathe the mountain air. Chemotherapy might fight off cancer cells, but being locked in the isolation ward was a different kind of poison. After my final round of in-patient chemotherapy, my blood counts bounced back with unexpected speed, and my oncologist gave me permission to spend a day or two in the mountains.
My father and I drove to Sonora Pass that weekend to go backpacking. Only months earlier, my strong body had carried fifty pound packs and shepherded children through Kennedy Meadows. Now, I was rail-thin and carried a pack with little more than a Dostoevsky novel and my sleeping bag. We hiked only a mile before I was too exhausted to go on, and I lay in the tent that afternoon with the door unzipped, listening to the trees sway in the breeze and breathing the pine-needle scented air, feeling happier than I had in months. A few weeks later, my bone marrow biopsy came back negative and the leukemia was officially in remission.
That summer, I defied my doctors’ predictions and was healthy enough to spend the summer backpacking through the mountains. The mountain air had never smelled as sweet as it did that first summer I returned to the Sierras. Since then, through many triumphs and changes – going to college, fighting off a serious post-chemo infection, graduating from college, celebrating my official cure, teaching and pursuing a PhD in English, relocating to Washington DC with my boyfriend – I have returned to the mountains every summer to challenge myself by hiking up steep mountain trails. Last August, ten years after I finished chemo and could only hike a single mile, I backpacked thirty-four miles with my boyfriend in Yosemite. There, on a mountain pass, with the sun warm on our skin and the breeze rustling through the trees, he proposed to me. As I joyfully look forward to this next stage of life, I am reminded that we can never be sure what lies ahead. Cancer taught me that we may not anticipate the challenges we will face, but each backpacking trip renews my belief that a challenge on the trail or in life yields the most spectacular views.
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