The unexpected advice that helped me learn how to live after cancer
by Patti McCarthy
In September 2012, I was on top of life. My husband and I celebrated 25 years of marriage. Our three kids were in college, all doing well. I was awarded a top honor at my job. I couldn’t have been happier, more successful, or healthier.
Then on October 4, I got the call: “Patti, you have invasive breast cancer.”
I made my doctor spell out invasive, as if it was a foreign medical term I had never heard of. I was devastated. I got by on a wine and tears diet for weeks. I felt betrayed by good health and doing all the right things.
After the lumpectomy, my oncologist told me they found an additional tumor and some precancerous cells. My cancer was aggressive. I would need active treatments for a year. I felt powerless. I am normally a positive, happy person. Happy is my family nickname! Everyone tried to help with the right words, but, honestly, I wanted to slug the next person who told me to be positive or offered up the “miracle cure” for cancer. I was positive I was going to beat cancer, but at the same time, I was also angry and anxious.
Tales from the Trail
How I Got My Hiking Nickname
The hiking community is like a small town. Everyone knows you. To keep this Joe straight from that Joe, hikers get nicknames, called trail names.
Normally, when my husband and I hike, we meet a handful of people. On one particular outing, we met a ton of hikers conquering the whole trail at once. I was bald and in the middle of radiation treatments. I mentioned how I had been x-rayed all over and injected with so much nuclear medicine that I must be glowing by now.
My trail name became “Glow in the Dark.” I was happy it wasn’t “That Bald Girl.”
I did get one great bit of advice, though. That advice was to find a purpose, a passion to focus on. A passion that would let me live life, and not be swallowed up by cancer. For me that passion had always been hiking.
For years I wanted to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650-mile trail from Mexico to Canada. My husband and I started small sections at a time, five months before I was diagnosed. Beginning with day hikes, we built our confidence to do overnights, eventually celebrating our aforementioned anniversary with a five-day hike. With this hike, we had accomplished 122 mountain miles of backpacking.
Honestly, I wanted to slug the next person who told me to be positive or offered up the “miracle cure” for cancer.
When I found out I had cancer, I thought my hiking days were over. However, after some time had passed and I had begun to come to grips with my diagnosis, I resolved to hike as much as I could.
My husband and I went on to hike an additional 244 miles. Those miles were hiked in between surgery, chemotherapy, radiation treatments, and Herceptin infusions. They were hiked while dealing with hair loss, relentless anxiety, low immunity and B12 levels, multiple infections (including shingles), and other stuff that would be TMI. At times, dizzy and exhausted, I’d think, Why am I here? Why do I insist on doing this?
What kept me going? My refusal to let this stupid disease defeat me.
After my last treatment, my husband and I took a celebration hike. The sun was shining. My iPod was blasting Zeppelin. I was in the moment. I couldn’t help but to sing – and sing loudly. I felt happy. I realized it had been too long since I’d felt that. It became apparent how healing this trail has been for me. It was a solace, a means of getting away and refocusing on what was important. It gave me strength. It helped me live my life, not cancer. For that I am forever grateful.
Patti McCarthy is a breast cancer survivor living in Encinitas, CA. She has written a book about her experience, Hiking Cancer: 400 Days of Cancer and How I Hiked Through It.