From One End of Life to Another

Hiking with Cancer Wellness House

Why not begin at the end? At about 2 p.m. on a recent Saturday Linda Rodier and her daughter, Danielle, reached the summit of 11.031-foot Deseret Peak together, ending a grueling five-hour climb.

For most, summiting the Tooele County icon an hour's drive west of Salt Lake City is difficult enough, but Linda is just months out of chemotherapy treatment and had never before climbed a mountain so high. On the way up the mountain, she said after the climb, she encountered not just the highs and lows of a rough day out-of-doors, but also metaphorical peaks and valleys one could easily associate with a battle against cancer.

Rodier, 47, was diagnosed with breast cancer in November, 1999. From then until June, 2000 she underwent first radiation and then daily chemotherapy and at the end of it, she said, was drained, sick and had lost all of her hair.

It physically drains a person, she said. You are just totally wiped out. It just pretty much messes you up and only now am I starting to feel strong and well again. It is exciting to be able to do these hikes.

Exciting, she said, not in the fact that she got to stand atop the world but also because it was part of a symbol of defeating cancer.

Rodier was in a sort of post-cancer limbo last summer when a friend invited her to Survivors at the Summit, a day at Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort put together by the Cancer Wellness House, a Salt Lake City cancer resource center. Participants rode Snowbird's tram to the summit of Hidden Peak, 10,998 feet, and flew tribute flags that had also flown atop Kings Peak, Utah's highest, in memory of cancer survivors. That experience moved her and she set the goal of climbing to the summit of Kings this summer.

It is that hike to Kings Peak, and the training hikes which lead up to it, like the one to Deseret Peak, for which the Cancer Wellness House is probably best known. The hike begins early in the morning in the Henry's Fork foothills of the Uinta Mountains and follows a stream into a high country dotted with lakes and ponds. Hikers camp in an alpine basin, then wake early the next morning to climb the switchbacks up to the peak.

I set my goal and said, Next year I will do that, she said. It was just a really emotionally moving experience there for me. There were so many other people like myself who were overcoming the challenge and making changes. I said I would do it this year, but last year there was no way I could have done it.

The climb, said Tika Beard, the founder of the Cancer Wellness House, is symbolic of the challenges people face and overcome with a cancer experience. The symbolism of climbing the mountain is as important as the beauty of hike, and to climb a peak, or to try to climb one, is to face the obstacles in one's life, she said.

It is the challenge of the human spirit, said Beard. That is our slogan - Celebrating the triumph of the human spirit over the challenge of the human body.

Beard got the idea for the climb when a group of friends and breast cancer survivors climbed Argentina's Aconcagua, 22,835 feet, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere. Beard took their example and sought to localize it for use both by survivors. Tthe tribute flags flown on the summit of Kings meant something greater than just a memory or a symbol, and the hikes turned into an annual pilgrimage for cancer survivors.

We fly the flags at Kings Peak and Hidden Peak then return them to the purchaser, said Beard. It is magnificent.

But the way Beard designed the Cancer Wellness House allows anyone who has been effected by cancer to participate in the free programs. The programs include weekly meetings, social hours and time with clinical staff to write and work on recovery plans. Other programs include children's workshops and teen groups, weekly yoga, meditation, massages, Qigong and Tai Chi classes for living well with cancer, educational workshops and lectures by healthcare professionals, and bereavement programs.

The Cancer Wellness House employs six touchstones, said Beard, who has been at the helm since 1997, including: advocacy, camaraderie, education, emotional support, physical well-being and spirituality, and all of the organization's activities touch on at least one of those items. Beard is quick to point out that the activities are not medical treatment, exactly - that falls to the doctors.

People have all kinds of experiences which motivates them to come to the house, said Beard. Almost everyone's life has been affected by cancer in some way, maybe a friend or parent dying from it. These may not be victims but they still may want to be actively involved in their wellness and wholeness. We focus on life rather than death.

But you don't always have to get to the top to reach your summit, as Ilona Zenner, a breast cancer survivor, pointed out.

It is always an accomplishment for me, she said. Any of the hikes I do are always an accomplishment for me. I rarely make it to the top of anything, but I just have learned to appreciate the outdoors and I just really enjoy the camaraderie that develops, the friendships and the stories. I love being a part of it.

Four years ago, after overcoming breast cancer, Zenner started joining the activities at the Cancer Wellness House. One year a friend of hers took a flag up to Kings in her name. She brought the flag back along with a picture of the flag flying on the summit.

I was so touched by that - I did not know the significance of that, Zenner said. When the next year rolled around she started talking to other hikers about the Kings Peak trek.

But when I learned it was a 30-mile hike, I thought I was going to die. But I committed to doing it. I trained and I trained and I trained. I did all the training hikes.

When it came to climbing Kings Peak, she made it to Anderson Pass before turning around. The summit was close. Her friends took her tribute flags to the summit for her. Her third and fourth attempts saw her seeing the summit of Utah's tallest peak, but not standing atop it.

Is it overcoming another challenge? she asks. I guess you could say that. It puts it in perspective. Surviving cancer makes you appreciate every day, and then participating in these activities demonstrates that there is life after cancer. Cancer survivors can and do enjoy all the activities that non-cancer survivors enjoy. I believe (we) just appreciate them a bit more.

The peak is an arbitrary designation, added Beard. When your life has been touched by cancer, you have a unique appreciation for the little things, you appreciate each accomplishment and every day is precious.

Rodier, a licensed clinical social worker in the Salt Lake area, had been hiking with the Cancer Wellness House all spring and summer, but the climb to Deseret Peak was the toughest so far, and the first one that required slogging through long stretches of snow.

I was not a great hiker, Rodier said after making the summit. But I kind of set this goal for myself after last fall.

It wakes a person up when they get diagnosed, said Zenner. The climb and the training is a metaphor for going through chemo. At one point you are not even sure if you can make it to the bathroom, and then to put on hiking boots and take on a formidable task, that is not an easy climb. The challenge is overcoming the cancer experience.

I think having being diagnosed with cancer puts your mortality in perspective, said Rodier. Not everyone survives cancer. But if the prognosis is good, then it is something you think about more than you ever did. You say, I am going to do things now and I don't have the luxury of putting them off, of thinking maybe some day I will do that. I better do it now.

Cancer has changed me to get me living my life better - more in the moment. I want to be living each day, improving my relationships, those kinds of things. Overcoming cancer or any kind of trauma is like climbing a mountain ... so I guess it is sort of symbolic that I am not back to normal and I never will be the normal that I once was. People say normal, but you would never use that word with (me). But I am back, I am strong again and hiking these hikes is saying, Look what I can do.

It is so - it was - I have been trying to think how I would describe it. I felt empowered, I felt exhilarated, I felt rejuvenated and it was symbolic to know that whatever I set my mind to do I can do.

The trail to Deseret Peak begins innocuously enough - in the small parking lot at Loop Campground, about 7,400 feet high, in South Willow Canyon near Grantsville. The campground is in a thick forest, meaning one gets the sense that mountains ring the canyon, but at the same time the mountains cannot actually be seen.

The trail, just a narrow single track, immediately begins a gradual climb through an aspen forest still dark and shady this Saturday morning in May, and the forest is still thick enough that it is not until the trail - now bounded by columbine, penstemmon, phlox, geraniums and lupine - breaks out of the forest to cross Dry Lake Fork of South Willow Canyon Creek that the true spectacle of the surrounding mountains becomes apparent.

This river cross is a tricky one, especially in May's high water, but Rodier crossed without getting wet. On the other side, headed up Mill Fork, the group gradually spreads out. The trail ducked back into a forest, this one a thick fir and pine sun-dappled glade, but occasionally hikers can look out to views of the rest of South Willow Canyon, the Tooele Valley, and Great Salt Lake, which spreads out toward the horizon.

By late morning the trail has left the forests behind and has begun a much steeper ascent up Mill Fork. Now, with a 10,000-foot pass in full view - the last stop before the push for the summit - the trail crosses patches of snow and thickets of thorny brush. In a level clearing five of the climbing group, including Zenner, take their packs off and say they will wait in this sunny spot for the rest of the team to return.

The summit group, about eight strong, abandons hope of finding the trail buried beneath the deep snow and winter avalanche debris and instead strikes out straight up the headwall of Mill Fork, digging toes into the firm snow, until the snow peters out and the pass is gained.

Here, at what some locals call Lunch Pass, the climbers break briefly to take snapshots and wait for everyone to catch up. Namson Hawk Oh, one of the trip's leaders, takes a picture of Linda and Danielle hugging by a trail sign.

Rodier says that her prognosis is good, and in her mind she is thinking that the cancer is gone, but of course the doctors caution that it will be a few more years before she can say that she is cured of cancer. She says she will be mad if the cancer shows up again.

It always stays in the back of one's mind ... that there is a slim possibility that there might be more cropping up. I don't know how one completely liberates oneself from that king of thinking. My attitude is that it is gone now and I am just moving forward.

By 1 p.m. the group is again in a single-file snail's pace ascent toward the summit. First, the trail passes around then across the top of a large snowy bowl, then breaks on to a windblown scree slope dotted with phlox and moss and lichens and occasionally buzzed by swallows. This scree slope gives way to the final summit pyramid, a snaking trail with exactly one tree for cover, until one more switchback, a hard turn to the northeast, and suddenly there is nothing more to climb.

At the top, Rodier hugged her daughter and did a small dance as she sang the theme song to Rocky.

For more information, contact the Cancer Wellness House at their: web site

The Huntsman Cancer Institute

While I am on the cheery subject of cancer, I might as well mention the Huntsman Cancer Institute, based in Salt Lake City, which is one of the world's pre-eminent cancer research and treatment center.

Funded by the local billionaire, industrialist, philantropist and cancer survivor Jon M. Huntsman, Sr., and his wife Karen, and based at the University of Utah, the Institute conducts research into the genetic and molecular changes that lead to cancer and uses the extensive genealogical records from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (you know, the Mormons - they're nuts about geneaology), giving Institute investigators the most comprehensive genetic database in the world.

But beyond gene research, the Institute also offers the Cancer Learning Center, the Huntsman Online Patient Education web site, and a cancer advisory program that provides individualized consultations for cancer patients, their friends and family, and the public. Also, there are patient clinics, an 18-station infuision suite for 'comfortable' chemotherapy sessions, and specialized clinics that focus on melanoma, colon cancer and breast cancer.

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