So many of us who are close to outdoor sports – and climbing in particular – tell people: “Climbing saved my life.” For most of us, it’s a metaphor. But what happens when it might just be true? Hopefully, none of us will ever have to answer this in the way our friend Barb Brodhagen did. Barb climbed at Boulders Climbing Gym immediately after her chemo treatments for breast cancer. Here, she explains how this was so important to her recovery. Powerful, inspiring stuff. Read on…
How can I have cancer?
I was in good physical condition when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Sure, I was nearly sixty years old. But for almost forty of those years I had exercised regularly, with running as my “go to” activity, ate a mostly healthy diet, maintained a normal weight, didn’t smoke, got enough sleep, managed most stress in my life, was married, worked jobs I liked, and didn’t have a health history that included cancer. How was it possible that I could have breast cancer? But that’s what I had, and now almost two years later, I am a breast cancer survivor.
My husband had just picked me up from work when he told me the cancer clinic had called to confirm what we already knew; I did indeed have breast cancer. I remember being very calm, not crying, just sitting in the passenger seat letting the diagnosis sink in. But right away I wanted to know what would happen next.
It didn’t take long to find out. There were doctor appointments, surgery, healing, more doctor appointments, more surgery, healing, chemo-therapy, medications, more appointments, more chemo, more appointments, daily radiation treatments, more appointments, recovery and more doctor appointments.
I had loads of questions throughout, many specific to whatever phase of the disease and its treatment I was in. But there were a couple of questions I always asked along the way, and one of them was whether I needed to alter my normal activities. And always my doctors and nurses all said to do whatever I could to keep going. I knew I would have to deal with the cancer and all that came with it, but I was determined not to let cancer prevent me from continuing my usual active lifestyle, which for me always included exercise.
My “Normal” Life
I learned how to ride a bike at age 10 when a favorite cousin helped me on a bike at the top of a barn hill. He pushed me forward and yelled, “Pedal fast!” I did, and have been biking ever since, often biking on my ‘off’ running days, or doing easy bike rides as a “bathe the muscles” in blood activity after other strenuous activity, like a long run day, a big yard work day, or hiking.
Running has been my “go to” exercise for over thirty-five years, covering over 40,000 miles. And as cliché as it sounds, every one of those runs was completed one step at a time. Some of those miles were what I called ‘junk miles’, others were exhilarating, some were done when I swear I was sleeping, and still others occurred while in intense pain. A little over 10% of the miles were part of 5, 8, 10, 15, or 20 K races, or half and full marathons.
Climbing has only been a part of my exercise routine for the last three years. A couple of women friends, and my husband, kept telling me I would like it, and finally they wore me down and I agreed to give climbing a try. My first climbing experience was in a Climbing Class for Women over 40 at Boulders Climbing Gym in Madison, and I think I was the oldest person in the class, including the instructors. I have to admit that I liked climbing from my first climb. It was little bit dangerous, it demanded the use of problem solving skills, and it was a way of strength building without doing repetitive weights.
One thing I didn’t know about women climbers and climbers in general was how supportive they are. The positive feedback they provide is quite amazing and motivating, even when a climb wasn’t completely successful or “pretty.” I always felt like I had accomplished something and always left feeling, as my climbing partner said, “Any day you can climb is a good day!”
Long-time athletes can usually “read” how their body is feeling, as a whole and in parts like knees or the back. During my cancer treatment days, there were times when I would be running at a crawl and in less than a block, my heart was pounding as hard as if I was in the midst of a speed workout. But I just kept moving forward, one step at a time. My past running experience let me know that if I kept going the run would probably get easier. It usually did. Sometimes a small rise in the road felt like the hill at mile 15 of the Syttende Mai run. I just kept moving forward and told myself that all that mattered was that I was still running.
When I participated in races over the years, it seemed like there was always a small group or a single person standing at the side of the race route shouting encouragement just when I needed it most. Like the unnamed older woman who used to sit on a chair under an umbrella somewhere on the hilly Syttende Mai Run or the countless number of non-runners who stand and cheer for complete strangers along a marathon course. Having cancer was like that.
For a couple of years my husband and I would ride our bikes to different spots along the Susan Komen Race for the Cure route to cheer people on. I remember being blown away by the “I’m running in memory of” signs many participants were wearing and the “remembrance” or “in honor of” signs along Wingra Creek. I never imagined how incredible I would feel when a large group of friends, family, and co-workers did the Race for the Cure for ME! They even wore pink bobble heads to identify My Team! It felt wonderful.
When running was too difficult, especially on the couple of days after chemo, I would get on my bike. I’d be out there with the rest of the world with few of them knowing how grateful I was just to pedal my bike. Later on in treatment, I would ride my bike the short distance to and from my daily radiation treatments. Biking made me feel more in control of what I had no control over. The medical personnel at the treatment center always complimented me for this, which made it really worthwhile
Continuing to go to Boulders Climbing Gym was a good decision too, even though I couldn’t climb as much or as well as before the treatments started. I felt a bit more in control of the cancer each time I was there. There was one time when I went climbing on the same day as a chemo treatment. Like many cancer victims I knew that the effects of chemo would prevent me from climbing for a few days after the treatment so I knew I had to take advantage of my “feeling better” days. The other climbers were terrific. They would come up and make encouraging remarks, ask how I was doing, or just give me a “thumbs up.” Lucky for me, there were times when my belayers provided the much-needed extra lift!
Besides family, friends and encouraging strangers, these three activities – running, biking, and climbing – provided the focus and physical strength to go through surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. My doctors consistently agreed with what I already knew, that going through “the cancer stuff” would be easier if I could maintain physical fitness.
So many people have loved ones, friends, and neighbors who have had serious and traumatic illnesses and took the opportunity to share those stories with me. Usually they would ask how I was doing and then start into their own story. At first I felt a bit uncomfortable, but then I realized that hearing these stories helped me gain a different perspective. And when they associated me with the experience of people they knew I felt less alone.
I am convinced that continuing to be physically active and exercising as best as I could throughout my experience with breast cancer made it more bearable. It didn’t feel like the disease had total control of my life. Rereading what I have written I feel quite self-conscious. There are so many people who have serious health issues, physical challenges, and so on, and are also athletes. Their stories might not be “posted” anywhere where others can read them, but they too get up day after day and do their exercise “thing.” And I know why.
Barb is a northern Wisconsin dairy farm girl who realized at an early age she liked adventure no matter where it occurs: On the farm, in the city, outdoors, in a gym, or in one’s imagination. As a 3rd grader that she knew she wanted to be a teacher and that is what she did, teaching elementary and middle school aged children for many years. Barb and her husband Jim have been able to travel all over the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Europe, and Singapore. Together they led professional development workshops and presentations with public school educators that often focused on democratic education and curriculum integration. Barb and Jim were able to explore many fabulous outdoor places in these locations while walking, running, biking, camping, climbing, hiking, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, swimming, canoeing, and body surfing.
Currently Barb is working for UW – Madison as a School Coach at a Wisconsin middle school, and also continues to do consulting for several schools.