Guest blog: Breast cancer survivor, Leslie Vanoni, on climbing Mt. Shasta

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The sun still shining, the inside of our tent warm and bright, we are told to at least rest even if we can’t fall asleep. Bridget whispers to me “I am nervous”. I whisper back, “Me too”. Earlier she told me she wished people would stop treating us like we were the experts because we have climbed before. I agreed; all it really meant was we knew how much work was ahead…

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On the hard, uneven ground in my sleeping bag beside Bridget – I can’t sleep; the tent flapping in the heavy wind holds my attention. I will the wind to stop but it keeps blowing. I turn on my side, my face inches from Bridget’s. She is asleep. My eyes fill with tears looking at her bleach blond curls and tanned face peaking out of a bright blue mummy sleeping bag. Was I crazy to bring my young daughter not once, but twice, with me to climb Mt. Shasta? Or am I the luckiest mom in the world? I decide I am both.

Frederique (a close friend of my sister’s and now like a sister to me) emailed me the day we started our climb last year to tell me she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. In passing, I told her we were climbing again this year and suggested she join us, and bam!, she and her son signed up. I have been so grateful to share this experience with her, her son Arthur, as well as Bridget this year.

With the wind howling and head lamps lighting the way, our team of six left base camp at 3 AM. Slowly and methodically we followed our guides up the mountain, split into groups of three. We roped ourselves together and changed to crampons and ice axes. Frequent but short breaks for water and food kept us warm as we progressed. On one break, we sat under the Red Banks with the sun just coming up and our guide asked how long I’d been in remission. Two and a half years since my second diagnosis, I told him. Eric then shared that his mother was diagnosed a second time with metastatic breast cancer (just like me) when he was in the 7th grade (young, like Bridget). For a few moments there was only silence – each one of us acutely aware of why we were there, roped together. Finally I gathered the courage to ask if she survived. When he replied “it’s been over twenty years, and she will be at the dinner Thursday night”…my heart filled with hope.

Eric, Marlyss, Bridget and I reached the summit first. Totally spent, Bridget and I laid on the ground, barely aware of our photo being taken, and a fellow climber asked how it felt to reach the top this time. With relief, I realized I hadn’t thought about reaching the summit at all this year. The following morning – dirty, dazed and euphoric – we hiked back down. Arthur said “you’re my Aunt Leslie now”.

My spirit continues to heal with every step on every Climb Against the Odds with the Breast Cancer Fund.

Thank you for supporting the work of the Breast Cancer Fund to prevent Breast Cancer before it starts.

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