I recently crossed off another item on my adventure list … Backpacking! Since this past fall my intrigue in backpacking has been building. I was coming across different people who had been, or discovering different opportunities for me to give it a try. It sounded like a challenge I was ready to see if my body could handle.
The Effects of Chemo
This past summer, from May to August of 2018, I went through low dose chemo treatments. Even though they were low dose, they were more than enough for my body to handle. I was told at the beginning of my treatments that I may not get sick and I probably wouldn’t lose my hair because of the low dose. Well, I got really sick and ended up losing my hair. I spent the summer not moving too far from the couch and eating pretty much only carbs. That was the only thing that sounded good with my nauseous stomach. After my treatments were over, I put on about 10 pounds and lost all the muscle tone that I had. I was feeling weak and the most out of shape I had ever been in my life. All through my life I have always been active and athletic. I was fortunate to never have had any issues with weight. I would exercise after I had my girls and my baby weight would come off pretty easily. So the fact that I had gained some weight was a personally bothersome side effect from the treatments. I also didn’t have a lot of energy after the treatments to put towards exercising to lose the weight. So, I was feeling down and not loving my body.
Getting Back to Exercising
I took it easy through the month of August, after my treatments, but as September came around my energy was beginning to increase and I was ready to get to working on getting back into shape and losing those extra 10 pounds. I asked my oncologist if it was ok if I started to push my body through exercising. I didn’t want to hurt myself by trying to get in shape. I was worried about my liver and didn’t want put too much stress on my body. He told me to listen to my body and if I felt up to it that I should do it. I couldn’t really hurt myself. If anything, it should help. After I left that appointment I was excited and thought, Let’s Do This!!
I started out by just walking and thought I would try out a PIYO class at our YMCA. After that first PIYO class I realized just how out of shape I was. It was bad. It’s hard when you’re used to being in shape to go to not being able to keep up in those classes like the other regulars. I knew I needed to take it easy and I started working on just building up my cardio when I could. Walking, getting on an elliptical machine at the Y here and there and then eventually trying to go for a little jog. Which was mainly walk for a little bit, jog for a little bit.
By the end of October I realized I wasn’t getting to the gym as regularly as I needed to. I wasn’t making it a priority. I wasn’t seeing much progress in losing the weight. I knew the only way I was going to get to the gym regularly was if I started seeing a trainer. After looking back on the times in the past couple years that I had been regularly working out, it was when I was meeting with a trainer. Brandon had started working out at Cook Performance, in Batesville, in August, and was really enjoying his group workouts. So I decided to start with a personal trainer there two times a week. I knew they offered quick, 30 minute, intense, strength training workouts. I wasn’t worried about the cardio. I could do that on my own. I knew I was too weak to jump into a group workout, so I started with one-on-one sessions to build up my strength. I thought I could work towards being able to join a women’s group. So, I started with Tucker at the beginning of November. I really enjoyed the workouts. He would work with me on what I was able to do and he pushed me farther than I would have ever pushed myself.
After a few months of strength training I started to notice my strength improving and I realized just how weak I had been. Just simple things like carrying groceries into the house was easier, to being able to lift and scoot myself off of Nora’s loft bed after snuggling with her before bed. I hadn’t realized how hard that was for me until I noticed it being easier! I also noticed I was the one to help my mom carry heavy things rather than her being the one who had to help me!
So Why Hiking?
At the end of October 2018, we realized my blood work wasn’t trending in a good direction. My CEA tumor marker was increasing pretty rapidly again. Below a value of 3 is normal. It was 3 at the beginning of August, after my chemo treatments, and by the end of October it was up to 22. I was trying to give some of the holistic treatments I had started, with my holistic doctor in Carmel, a chance to work on their own but we realized then that I needed to pull in another medication. I was disappointed because I would have loved to have had those holistic treatments be enough.
When I received the phone call about my blood work results that day at the end of October, Brandon was out of town for a work conference. I called him to tell him the news and as soon as I heard his voice I broke into tears. I really was doing ok with the news. It wasn’t a complete shock based on the fact the previous month’s results were starting to creep up. I reassured him that I was ok, it was just hearing his voice that put me over the edge. He told me he was getting on the next flight to come home. I told him that was absolutely not necessary. Nothing was going to happen in the next 24 hours until his originally planned return flight.
He called me a little bit later and said the evening flight home was full and that a flight left in 2 hours but he would be pushing it to make it. I told him, really, he didn’t need to come home. It didn’t sound like it was meant to be and he should just stay and finish the conference.
He called me again a couple hours later and said that he just got out of a session and heard an awesome speaker that was uplifting and really helped get his head in the right place. I told him, “See?! You were supposed to stay!” The woman that spoke, Robyn, had started an organization called Project Athena. He was SO excited to tell me all about it!
” The Project Athena Foundation is a 501c3 non-profit foundation dedicated to helping survivors of medical or other traumatic setbacks achieve their adventurous dreams.”
“It’s not about trying to get back to what you were,” explains Project Athena Founder and World Champion Adventure Racer, Robyn Benincasa. “It’s about trying to be the best of what you’re capable of today, this minute. The most gratifying thing is the moment when you see someone realize they’re going to make it, when you see the fear disappear and they realize how awesome they truly are!”
How perfect?! Robyn’s message was all about overcoming obstacles. That life is going to through challenges your way but it’s all about how you choose to overcome them! Exactly! Brandon had brought home some information about the program and I did a little browsing on their website. You fill out an application and tell them your story. You choose your top 3 adventures. They include a few different Grand Canyon hiking adventures, a Key West hiking adventure with camping on the beach and a couple west coast, San Diego area, hiking adventures. Project Athena provides the coaching, gear and support through your training to get you ready for your adventure. The idea is to come up with a goal SO big that it would be almost crazy to achieve it and then watch you reach your goal. I LOVED that idea! I had already been thinking of trying to do something like that with the thought of getting back into shape. I had thought about maybe going for a marathon. Even though the furthest I have ever ran is 4 miles. What if I set a crazy athletic goal and then I actually achieve it?! Then … the thought of my body healing from stage 4 breast cancer doesn’t seem so crazy after all! If my body can do something crazy like run a marathon… then it can do something crazy like heal stage 4 cancer.
So when I read about Project Athena I thought how perfect this was! Let’s face it, I didn’t want to run a marathon but to go hiking in the Grand Canyon or in the Keys or along the Pacific Coast?? Yeah, I’ll do that!! These weren’t just going to be easy hikes. These hikes could be upwards of 50 miles. So they were going to be some pretty tough goals. With Project Athena providing coaching along the way, I was up for the challenge. So I sat down one afternoon and filled out an application. I knew we were going to the Grand Canyon for Spring Break so I chose the Pacific Coast hikes and the Keys as my top 3 choices. But, after seeing the Grand Canyon last month, I was really wishing I had picked one of those hikes! I may still have my chance.
I received a voicemail from someone from Project Athena right before Christmas. We played phone tag a few times and never connected. The holidays came and went and in February I realized I hadn’t heard from Project Athena again. I sent a text to the woman who called me and never got a response. I didn’t want to be a bother so I just let it go and thought it just wasn’t meant to be. When we returned from the Grand Canyon I was really wondering what was going on with my Project Athena application. I decided one day to just call the woman that had reached out to me in December. I did get to talk to her and she informed me that they have 10 days to make contact with an applicant before they have to move on to another applicant. I had missed my window back in December. Ugh! She did say that I could fill out another application and could try to get a spot on one of the 2020 adventures. I told her I would reapply and thanked her for her time. As soon as she said 2020 I thought, “Ah! How will I feel in 2020?” I have a hard time making too many plans for the future because I know my situation, treatment, etc. can all change very suddenly. However, I then just tell myself, “Well, that’s just motivation to keep doing well until then and beyond!” It gives me something to work towards. To tell my body, “Nope… we have things to do… we’re going to have to figure this out!” So, I filled out another application and we’ll see what happens! I still believe God has a plan and for whatever reason I wasn’t supposed to go in 2019. Maybe I needed these little camping trips before I ventured out and did something bigger.
At a Christmas gathering for Brandon’s side of the family, one of his aunts, Teri, was talking about heading out and doing more of the Appalachian Trail with her sister and brother in the spring when the weather turned better. She had shared with me some stories of their other hiking trips and I told her that going on a trip like that sounded so cool! She told me of a book she had read called “SouthBound” written by the Barefoot Sisters. Two sisters who had thru hiked the entire Appalachian Trail mostly barefoot! She said that if I had an interest in attempting part of the trail I should read the book. The next day, without my knowing, Brandon sent Teri a message and asked if he could swing by and pick up the book because he was going to be out their way. He brings home the book and sets it in front of me and says “Here, I think you should go hiking with Teri. I think it would be a cool experience for you!” I looked at him like, “What?! I’m not sure that’s a good idea. I was just saying it sounded cool, not that I thought I could actually do it!” He said, “I think you should.” So, with Brandon’s encouragement, I started the book.
It was eye opening. I had no idea of the details and logistics of hiking that far and that long. What you all needed to pack … how you went to the bathroom! … how stinky you would get. Very eyeopening. BUT… it didn’t scare me away. I liked reading about how the girls thought they couldn’t go anymore, ran low on water at times, or met a crazy blizzard in the middle of winter! They encountered obstacle after obstacle and ALWAYS overcame! Many times they thought about leaving the trail but ALWAYS came back. I wondered as I read the book if I could do it. Would I give up? Would I have left the trail? Would I have been able to push through?
Teri sent me a message a couple weeks later and said that she had talked to her sister and brother and they would be ok if I wanted to tag along for their next trip. I thought, “Ok, so I guess I might do this?!” I told Tucker, my trainer, at our next session that he was going to have to help me get into shape for hiking! He was excited for me and said that we could absolutely work on getting me ready.
As I started to read more of the book and think about actually doing this hiking trip, I thought that I better reach out to my brother, Andy, and talk to him about hiking. Andy loves to backpack. I didn’t want to show up on this trip having NEVER been out on a single backpacking trip. I knew Teri and her siblings would be going for at least a week. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to stick with them for the entire week.
The next time I saw Andy I mentioned that I might go out on the Appalachian Trail with Teri. His eyes got REAL big and I’m pretty sure he was thinking, “Are you crazy?!” He asked me where they were going and other details and I didn’t know those details yet. He told me that if I was going on this AT trip that he might just have to invite himself along so he could just carry everything for me! Ha! Andy works out regularly and just has this natural strength. When he goes hiking he never worries about how heavy his pack will be. He knows he can carry it. So I just laughed when he said that because I was thinking of him as being my personal pack mule! I also thought it was very sweet of him to say. I realized that no matter how old we get, he will always be my protective older brother.
Once Teri had met with her siblings to discuss the details of their trip, we met up to go over their plan. Once she said they were heading out for 2 weeks in May I realized it didn’t sound like I would be going. I knew May was going to be very busy for me and even if I wanted to meet up with them for a couple days, they were going to the southern most part of the trail. A little far to head down for just a couple days. I was ok with it. After talking with Andy he asked what did I want to get out of hiking? Did I want to do part of the AT? Did I want to get in a bunch of miles? Did I just want to go and see cool stuff? I told him that I’m more of a “see cool stuff” kind of person. He said then maybe the AT isn’t for me. Most people who are on the AT are trying to complete parts or all of it. It’s more of completing a task. The AT doesn’t always have the best views. You often have to get off of the trail to see some cool stuff. So, after talking with Andy we decided that we would try for a weekend in April to head down to Red River Gorge to give this backpacking thing a try.
Andy has collected a lot of gear over the years and had extras of just about everything. That was nice so I didn’t have to buy a lot of gear just in case I went and decided backpacking wasn’t for me. I enjoyed learning about the products. I made a few trips to REI and even ventured out at 5:30 am on a Saturday morning to get in line for their member garage sale with Brandon and both of my brothers. I was laughing because it felt just like the old Black Friday days of getting up early and standing in line in the cold. Only this time with guys! We found some good deals and I purchased all my meals for our upcoming trip.
Red River Gorge
Andy has backpacked in the Gorge many, many different times with a group of friends and sometimes family. He knows the trails so well that he rarely needs to look at a map. We decided that would be a good, close place to start. Looking at our calendars we settled on the second weekend in April, weather permitting. We would head down Thursday afternoon and plan to come back Sunday afternoon. That was going to be 3 days of hiking and 3 nights of sleeping outside. I thought that would be a good little taste of the experience.
As the weekend was getting closer we kept our eyes on the forecast. It looked like there was going to be some rain on Friday and Sunday looked to be a washout. We decided to push through the rain on Friday and come home Saturday evening to avoid the Sunday rain.
Our first trail we set out on was Auxier Ridge. We hiked in a couple miles on Thursday and set up camp. We were out on a ridge all by ourselves. It was a cool setting but the wind picked up pretty strong as the night settled in. We were ok with the wind considering it was going to stay pretty warm overnight.
We did inspect the trees around us with the strong winds. We didn’t need any falling on us in the middle of the night. Yikes! We followed proper protocol and hung our food and anything with a scent up in a tree to keep away from bears and other curious/hungry animals. I slept pretty good, waking up every couple hours or so. At one point in the night Andy and I both woke up suddenly to a sound. Andy peeked out of the tent and I thought for sure I heard the “reeeear” of a cat. The only cat I thought that could be around was a mountain lion!! We were both quiet for a bit and didn’t hear anything more. It took me a little while to fall back asleep because I couldn’t help but wonder what was walking around outside of our tent! Andy said the next morning when he popped up in the middle of the night to look out of the tent he was checking on our food bag. I immediately had the scene from Jurassic Park pop into my head of when you see the chain dangling that was connected to the goat! I thought what would we have done if we looked out and our food bag was torn into shreds?! Ah!!
We decided to pack up as soon as we woke up to beat the rain. Andy had a plan to hike up to Double Arches and eat our breakfast while we waited out the rain. It started raining just a little bit before we made it to the arches but it was such a cool place to watch the rain. We were on the side of a cliff, under an overhang, sitting in our chairs, watching the rain. So awesome!
After about 45 minutes the rain stopped and we headed out to finish hiking the ridge.
When we completed the Auxier Ridge loop, my Fitbit said we had hiked 7 miles that morning! We were back at the truck then and Andy asked how I was feeling. I was feeling good. He said we could head to our next campsite or we could walk in about a mile, without our packs, to check out Grey’s Arch. It was only 2:30 pm at this point and I thought it was a little early to set up camp. So, we took off to Grey’s Arch. As we started on the trail I felt so light without my pack on. I said to Andy, “So do you just want to run to the arch?!” I was kidding but felt so free!
Grey’s Arch was beautiful! Definitely glad I chose to tack on those extra 2 miles to see it.
Andy likes to go off trail to make things a little more challenging. We had gone closer to the rock overhang to check out the different colors. Rather than backtrack to the trail he asked if I thought I could handle climbing up the boulders to the arch. I told him, “Well, we shall see!” So I climbed the big boulders up. I kept thinking, “He wouldn’t put me in danger, would he? He knows I have two little girls at home, right?” After awhile I’m not so sure he was keeping me out of danger! He definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone many, many times. Nothing like overcoming some fears to make you feel stronger.
Once we got back to the truck my Fitbit said 10 miles for the day! We restocked our packs and headed onto the next trail to hike in to camp for the night. Once I put the pack back on I realized just how tired I was getting. We had to hike in about 2 miles to our campsite. I made it to the camping area but it wasn’t easy. We were camping out on Hansen’s Point which was one way in and one way out. When we started to see some campsites a guy said hello and asked us if we were with the hammocks? We were a little confused and said, “No.” He said there were about 40 hammock campers out further on the point set up with all their hammocks hanging between the trees. Andy said that he has camped on this site a few times before and never really saw anybody out there with him. I kind of started freaking out on the inside thinking we better find a spot! There was no way my legs were going to carry me any further to a different spot. We came up upon the hammockers and saw all of them tied up to different trees around the campsite. We kept walking past them through a thicker group of trees into another clearing and found an open spot!! Thank you, God!! I dropped my pack down and broke the news to Andy that I was going to be no help in setting up the site. I was done, cashed out… I checked my Fitbit and we had done 13 miles and over 29,000 steps!! I told Andy my Fitbit was going to think I gave it to someone else to wear!
After our site was set up, Andy wanted to take me on out to the end of Hansen’s point. As I was sitting at our site I was seeing the people coming back up from the point huffing and puffing. I looked at Andy and said I wasn’t so sure I was up for it. He said it wasn’t that far and there was just a little hill that the people were climbing that was getting them all out of breath. So, after I rested for a bit I walked on down to the point with him.
Hansen’s point is not all that big. It’s a bald face rock that falls off pretty steep on each side. I walked out a little bit and thought that was far enough. Andy looked back at me like, “Are you coming?” My reply was… “Oh!! We’re going ALL the way out?!” EEEK!!
We hung out on the point for a little bit and then headed back to the campsite to get some food. I was sitting in my chair checking in with Brandon and my phone and Andy was gathering some wood to make a fire. I happened to look up and I could see a thin line of red sunlight peeking out and shining on the hills to the east. I immediately stood up and looked behind me to the west to see the most beautiful sky!! It was partially blocked by the trees and I thought how beautiful the sky must look from the point! I yelled to Andy that I was heading to the point to check it out and I took off RUNNING!! What?! After hiking 13 miles and feeling like my legs were dead, I RAN the 1/4 mile down to the point. I guess that says how much I like sunsets. By the time I reached the point the sun had gone behind the hills but the sky was gorgeous!
As I sat there on that point alone, I just took it all in. Those are the times I feel God’s love. Those are the times I feel such gratitude for being able to have the experiences that I do. I sat there and said a prayer of gratitude.
Thank you, God, for giving me another day. For allowing me to have this opportunity to share a weekend with my brother. For giving me this body that continues to fight and continues to get stronger everyday.
I sat there for a minute more and noticed Andy coming out to the point. I didn’t know if he was going to make it down but was so glad he did. It was an amazing site and led to my favorite picture of the weekend!
The next day, on Saturday, I woke up feeling pretty good. My legs weren’t sore and my only complaint was a couple blisters on my left foot. We headed back out to the point to see the sunrise. It was pretty but couldn’t compare to the sunset from the night before.
After breakfast we headed out to hike back to the truck. Andy really wanted to show me Cloud Splitter. We were definitely going to do that and then we would see how I was feeling as to whether we attempted another trail. We had to drive a little bit to get to the trail head for Cloud Splitter. We followed the trail and then you pretty much take a left turn straight up the hill. It wasn’t the easiest climb up the hill. As we neared the top there was one last big obstacle. We had to scale up a slick rock wall using a rope that was there. I looked at this wall and thought, “Seriously?! How in the hell am I going to get up there?” You’ve come so far that you really don’t want to turn around and go back down until you’ve seen the top. Andy asked if I thought I could do it. I told him, “I guess so! We shall see!” The scary part is if you lose your balance, or grip, it’s not an easy fall down. I felt strong enough but wasn’t overly confident in my upper body strength. Andy asked if he or I should go first. I told him to go first so I could see how he did it. I grabbed the rope and put one foot in front of the other pulling myself up and made it to the top! Once you got to the top you had to grab onto the tree and muscle your way over the edge. I realized then just how far I had come since the summer. I was so consumed with my nerves and fear that I didn’t take a picture on the way up. As I was making my way down I told Andy to take a picture to document my feat!
When we reached the top of Cloud Splitter there, again, wasn’t much to catch you from plunging over the edge. I was pretty nervous standing up there. Andy was trying to show me all of the different views and I couldn’t even watch him as he was talking to me and walking towards the edge. He was making me so nervous!
He then says, “Oh, well this is the picture we always take!” He starts walking closer to the edge and I just yell “STOP! I can’t handle it!” He then says, “Jessica, there’s another ledge down below.” Well, I couldn’t see that but I still didn’t want him to get so close. He tells me to close my eyes and when I open them I see this!
So then he talks me into posing for a pic. Yikes! He told me he could barely see me. I was shaking so bad I told him that was the best I could do.
After we climbed down from Cloud Splitter and made our way back to the truck. We thought about heading out to a smaller trail but ran into a traffic jam. A truck had slid off the side of the road and the tow truck was blocking the road. We decided to call it a day and headed to Miguel’s for some pizza before heading home. I finished the day at 10 miles and over 22,000 steps! A very successful weekend!
After looking back on my weekend and could considering what my body was able to do, those extra 10 pounds may still be there but I guarantee there is more muscle there than there was before. When I read Robyn’s quote from Project Athena… “It’s not about trying to get back to what you were, it’s about trying to be the best of what you’re capable of today, this minute.” It really struck a cord with me. Here I was comparing myself to the way I was before chemo or before cancer. The thing is. That’s not fair. I’m not the same person I was back then. My body has been through so much. Because of my treatments, my body has been depleted of basically all estrogen. I’m a 37 year old menopausal woman. It’s not fair to compare myself to my body before all of those changes were made. I may never lose those extra 10 pounds and I’m still working on just accepting me for where I am right now. The fact that I hiked over 23 miles in two days I think it is a pretty amazing feat considering the state my body was in just a few months ago.
So … Thank you, body, for being amazing. For staying strong through everything I have put you through. For waking up each day ready to continue to fight and reminding me we’re not done yet.
And, Andy, thank you for taking a weekend out of your busy schedule to go backpacking with me. The time we shared was very special. I’m looking forward to our next trip and I’m hoping we can add a few more people to it. You’re an awesome big brother and I love you very much! ~Jessica