I would get regular bone scans and MRIs to see changes in my body, but they didn’t see anything. I remember sitting with my oncologist – watching him read the reports and seeing the look of surprise on his face. Oncologists are trained not to react, and yet I very clearly remember thinking, “Oh wow, he’s surprised – pleasantly surprised.”
I finished a year of chemotherapy and radiation and then started hormone therapy. Later I took part in a drug trial and was on the drug for eight or nine years after surgery. I’ve been cancer free for 16 years…
Understanding that you can go about your life and have it be normal and then in an instant it's not…that changed me. We all die, we are all terminal creatures – that's just a reality. Everyone knows that, but most of us don't face it. I had to look at death up close and personal – twice! And they weren’t just brushes with death. I was rubbing shoulders with it! We sat next to each other for years!
On the one hand, coming so close to death doesn't change anything because people are still jerks and there are still idiot drivers. People still steal parking space. Death doesn't change any of that but it can change how I deal with it. Someone might be a jerk on the road or steal my parking space but it’s not the end of the world. Since I know that anything can happen at any moment, and none of us know when we'll die, I want to spend as much of my time doing things that give me pleasure or help somebody else.
A year after I finished treatment I went to Washington State to climb Mount Rainier to raise money for breast cancer research. While I was there I met a Sherpa that split his time between the Cascade Mountain Range and leading treks into the Himalayas. A month after meeting him he was leading a trek into Sikkim in the Himalayas.
“Julie you should come with me.” He said. “It’s so beautiful.”
“Wow that sounds great. That would be so cool.” I thought to myself. “It’s too short of a notice but it’s a great idea. We’ll do it some other time.”
Ron and I talked about it for another week and finally we decided why not do it now? See – my thinking had shifted after all I had been through. Part of the experience with death made me open and receptive to these opportunities. This was the once in a lifetime trip people always talk about, so why not do it now? I was healthy then and who knows what the future holds? I knew I might not have another opportunity.
So I trekked into the Himalayas and it was every bit as wonderful as I had hoped. And then I climbed Aconcagua in Argentina (the highest point in the Western and Southern Hemisphere), Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (the highest mountain in Africa) and Elbrus (the highest mountain in Russia and in Europe). After climbing Elbrus I discovered there was a race in the mountains. I had never run a mountain race before and I was there, so why not? After climbing Elbrus I ran an 18 mile race over a high pass of 15,000 feet. Until a few years before I had always hated running, but that event spurred a passion in me and I’ve run several ultra-marathons since.
Through all of this I figured out that even though I had always had this image of myself as being sensitive and weak, it turns out I'm the strongest person I know.
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