By Vanessa Spiller, as told to Rachel Friedman
It was a Tuesday. I was shaving in the shower when I felt a lump under my arm; it was hard and small, no bigger than a pea. After the doctor told me I had aggressive Stage 11B breast cancer which had metastasized to my lymph nodes, he said: “I know you feel like a bomb just went off and the pieces are flying around everywhere, landing all over you.” That was exactly right. Even harder than finding out that I had cancer was telling my two kids. They think you’re going to die. I was so angry that this disease had come along and changed all of our lives forever. I have never been more scared or felt more vulnerable.
Looking Beyond Traditional Support Groups
I tried attending traditional breast cancer support groups but never felt like I fit in, although they are wonderful resources for many people. I didn’t want to focus on the physical and emotional pain I was in. If anything, I wanted a distraction from it. It was my husband who discovered Project Athena, a nonprofit that sends women recovering from serious illnesses or injuries on intensely physical adventures. On each trip, a small number of “Athenas” get to go for free while the other women participating – made up of some friends of Athenas but mostly strangers – fundraise to provide the scholarships. They had a Grand Canyon rim-to-rim hiking trip a few months after I was scheduled to finish chemotherapy. Before cancer, I’d completed marathons and triathlons. But at my lowest point during chemotherapy, I could barely drag myself off the couch to walk around the block. I knew this trip would help me get my old athletic self back. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship and with it came weekly phone calls from a Project Athena trainer dedicated to getting me into mental and physical shape for the epic trek, which would cover in two days what most people hike in four.
A Healing Journey
On the Grand Canyon trip no one treated me like I was sick. I had decided to go alone so no one knew me when I arrived and it was up to me to reveal that I was one of the Athenas. I was happy to share my story but that wasn’t the focus. Instead our group of twenty concentrated on how to help each other through the arduous hike, which pushed every person’s physical limits, sick or not. After lacing up my scuffed hiking boots on day 2, I seriously considered taking them off again and catching the next plane home. It was 3:30 a.m., dark and cool with no hint of the blistering heat to come. But I knew what was in store: more painful blisters, muscle soreness, extreme exhaustion, and 120-degree heat with no shade. I also knew that once I was down 7,200 hundred feet into the Canyon, the only way back out was to start walking: twenty-three miles, including 7 straight up the other side. It had taken thirteen long hours the first day. About 1/3 of our group had opted out of day 2, exhausted and dehydrated, but I was determined to finish. I remember thinking as I hiked: I just need some shade. And then not too far down the trail there would be this huge rock overhanging. I’m faith-based but not religious but I remember thinking that God and this trail will give me everything I need in this moment. And for the first time I connected that feeling to my cancer. I’d felt pushed to my limits many times during chemotherapy, thinking on certain days that I couldn’t possibly go on feeling like this any more. And then the next morning I’d feel just a tiny bit better, just enough to push forward. That’s what I try to carry though with me every moment now. Whether it’s something large or small I’m struggling with, I tell myself: you have all the resources you need.
Paying It Forward
After the Grand Canyon, the founder of Project Athena asked if I wanted to train future Athenas for upcoming trips. It’s been a great way for me to remain part of this incredible community that helped me so much. I recently went on another excursion – three days of biking and kayaking 130 miles from Fort Lauderdale to Key West, Florida – and it was amazing to watch a new group of Athenas conquer incredible physical challenges. In April, it will be three years since my diagnosis. Recently a friend who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer called me. She was sobbing and understandably overwhelmed. I told her what women told me that I never believed until very recently. You will get to the other side of this. It will take a long time but I promise that you will get there.
Vanessa Spiller is a certified nutritionist living in Virginia Beach.
Rachel Friedman is the author of The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure. She has written for The New York Times, BUST, and Guernica, among others.