By Tania Lown-Hecht, Outdoor Alliance.
The summer before being diagnosed with cancer, I was in the mountains teaching backpacking and wilderness skills to kids from California's central valley. At 16, I had spent the last ten summers exploring the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California, first with my family and later with friends and groups of uncertain first-time backpackers. 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 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 the hospital, where I was admitted with acute promyelocytic leukemia. 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 willed them to be wrong. I spent the next four months in treatment in an air-filtered oncology ward. 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 to stare out at the trees, my nurses gently reminded me that my treatment caused light-sensitivity and requested that I go back to bed.
Held captive in the hospital, I dreamt 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 the fresh air. I longed to be in the Sierras, and was secretly convinced that I wouldn’t be cured until I could escape from the hospital and breathe the mountain air. Chemotherapy might fight off cancer cells, but being locked in the isolation ward was killing me in a different way. After my final round of 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 dad and I drove to Sonora Pass the next day to go backpacking. Just a few 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 book and my sleeping bag. We hiked only a mile before I was too exhausted to go on. That afternoon, lying in the tent with the door unzipped, I listened to the trees sway in the breeze and breathed the pine-needle scented air, feeling happier than I had in months. A few weeks later, my bone marrow biopsy came back negative—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 after cancer. Since that time, I have often recognized triumphs and changes with life-restoring trips to the mountains—before college, after officially being cured of cancer, before graduate school, when my husband and I got engaged, finishing my PhD, to celebrate our marriage. When I was a teenager, these wild places sustained and restored me. As an adult, the mountains remain an indelible and beloved part of my life. If cancer taught me that we may not anticipate the challenges life will throw at us, each backpacking trip renews my belief that a challenge on the trail or in life yields the most spectacular views.