How is hiking more than 800 miles in the mountains like a cancer journey?
Scott Bishke interweaves the story of backpacking and camping across the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) in Montana, with his wife, Katie Gibson, with flashbacks to Gibson’s fight against cervical cancer.
She had completed treatment for recurrent cervical three years before, when she had been given a 10 percent chance of survival.
She was now cancer free.
His book is Crossing Divides: A Couple’s Story of Cancer, Hope, and Hiking Montana’s Continental Divide (copyright 2002).
My son hiked more than half of the Appalachian Trail more than 10 years ago, so I loved reading Bischke’s beautiful, haunting descriptions of the landscape and the life of a long-distance hiker.
My son was attempting a thru-hike, the entire Appalachian Trail (AT) in a single season.
Equipment difficulties slowed him to the point that winter at the north end of the Trail in Maine was going to overtake him.
So, though he hiked from the Springer Mountain, Georgia trailhead, where my Mom dropped him off, past Harper’s Ferry, Pennsylvania, around the half-way point of this 2,200 mile hike, he jumped to Mount Katahdin in Maine for the last 100 miles, where he hiked with his girlfriend, now wife.
Hikers reserve their highest respect for thru-hikers that complete the AT, the CDT or the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in a single season.
The PCT is a 2,663-mile long trail that stretches from Canada to Mexico, through California, Oregon and Washington.
Next, come section hikers, like Bischke and Gibson, who tackled the 800-mile section of the CDT that crosses Montana.
They are hiking the 3,100-mile trail one state at a time.
Then, there are the rest of us, day or weekend, or weeklong hikers, who like to be out in the wilderness, but only for a little while.
Gibson’s Other Journey
Gibson was 30 when she was first diagnosed with papillary adenocarcinoma of the cervix, cervical cancer.
Doctors thought they had removed it all in a radical hysterectomy surgery.
They dismissed her concerns less than two years later when she began to have symptoms, but the cancer had, indeed, recurred.
This time, they told her there was no cure and gave her the grim prognosis of 12-23 months, with a 10-percent chance of survival for five years.
This time, she sought out second and third opinions and looked for doctors that had a path to healing, not those who gave up without trying.
She found a team that laid out the options and a plan with milestones for each.
Additional surgery, radiation, radioactive implants and a round of chemotherapy followed.
What Else Did She Do?
Waiting for the results of tests, waiting to monitor the effects of treatment, waiting until the next scheduled treatment all require calming the mind when you don’t know whether to be worried or whether you are already doing all you can do.
Gibson not only had her husband as advocate and family and friends eager to offer kindness and support, she had a steely resolve to work through whatever it took to get better.
An active outdoors person who enjoyed nothing more than hiking for weeks on end, she adjusted her outdoor activities to include kayaking and canoeing and swimming, instead of long-distance hiking, in the summer after treatment for her recurrence.
Her cat, Tigger, was a balm with its constant presence and affection.
She started a knitting circle that provided non-cancer-related companionship and eventually outgrew her house.
She visualized the sunlight and white seagulls guarding her against weakened cancer cells who couldn’t make it to shore.
She and her husband journaled, finding that the entries grew farther and farther apart as her health improved.
She was already nearly a vegetarian, eating very healthy foods with little red meat.
Post-surgery, however, she had to relearn which foods she could tolerate, having developed a lactose intolerance, for instance.
She learned yoga and studied Spanish.
Mostly, however, she avoided negativity and negative people, including the doctors who had treated her for cancer the first time, but were completely overwhelmed by the recurrence.
In Scott’s words:
“Kate and I were fully committed to finding a ray of hope – not false hope, but at least a path where healing remained a possibility.”
“Kate’s current doctors seemed not to believe in the likely efficacy of the treatment options they could present us from that point forward.”
“To live without hope for the future is no life.”
“Yet daily Kate’s will to live grew.”
“ We planned to search and learn, to try and pry open the door to hope.”
In September, 1998, five years after Kate had been diagnosed with cervical cancer, she and her husband walked into Yellowstone Park, completing their 810-mile hike
Her doctors surprised her with a celebration at a checkup on the five-year anniversary of being declared cancer-free in 2002.
Dr. Carl Simonton was a radiation oncologist who, with his wife, a psychotherapist, pioneered the importance of the mind-body connection after observing the difference in outcome between those who thought positively and those who did not.
Bischke uses a quote from the Simontons to summarize Kate’s approach:
“In the face of uncertainty, there is nothing wrong with hope.”
Lymphedema is a swelling of the parts of the body where the flow of lymphatic fluids has been inhibited.
This can be caused by removing lymph nodes during cancer surgery to determine if it has spread from the original site or from radiation treatment after surgery.
Lymphedema resulting in swelling of the arms is a common side effect for breast cancer surgery or radiation.
Swelling of the legs is a common side effect for cancers in the pelvic region, like cervical, uterine, ovarian or prostate cancer.
Treatment includes specialized massage and compression sleeves.
Cancer survivors at risk for lymphedema are often advised not to get shots in the arm where lymph nodes were removed or put pressure on the arm by lifting heavy objects.
Where Is She Now?
The company’s first product was Flora of the Yellowstone, an application to identify flowers, bushes, trees and grasses in Yellowstone Park on your smartphone or tablet.
Apps for Glacier National Park Wildflowers, Colorado Rocky Mountain Wildflowers and Flora of the Wasatch are now available.
Order your copy of the book about Kate’s cancer journey from amazon by clicking on the title, Crossing Divides: A Couple’s Story of Cancer, Hope, and Hiking Montana’s Continental Divide.
Carol Covin, Granny-Guru