Hiking with Cancer

By Caroline Paras, Girls Who Hike Los Angeles Ambassador

I tell myself this during every hike I do these days: “I can do this.”

But, some days are harder than others – and there are some trails and mountains I know I just can’t do right now. Why? Because I have breast cancer and I am undergoing chemotherapy treatments.

I’ve known about my cancer diagnosis since mid-September of last year. I started chemo in November and will go through this regiment every three weeks for a total of six cycles and then will have six maintenance treatments -- also on a three-week cycle.

Soon, I’ll have breast surgery – and possibly radiation treatments.

I tell you all this because I found out about my cancer diagnosis just when I am at my healthiest – and fittest.

For years, I was considered morbidly obese. But, during the past couple of years, I have been under a weight loss management program and lost a significant amount of weight. My doctor told me that my once out of control hypertension was manageable, as was my diabetes. My 30-minutes of daily exercise have progressed to a passion for hiking almost daily.

During one of my hikes last year, I met two ladies who introduced me to Girls Who Hike. I joined the group. I participated in group hikes. I was actually enjoying myself. Not only did I lose more weight by hiking, but I also started to feel really good. I made new friends who shared the same passion for hiking as I do. I now have a new tribe. I also have the honor of serving as an ambassador. 

More importantly, I am healthy.

Last July, as I always do, I had my yearly physical exam. Everything seemed fine. All I needed to do was get a mammogram. A month later, in August, I had the test done. My mammogram results were inconclusive and I was told I needed an ultrasound done. They scheduled the ultrasound for the second week of September.

Ugh. I was going to be right in the middle of my Girls Who Hike LA Fall City Slicker Challenge – 60 miles in 60 days. I only had a handful of trails left to finish the challenge. I didn’t have time for this. Still, I kept ultrasound appointment.

The morning of the ultrasound, I decided I needed to go on another hike so I could get closer to completing my challenge. I could get that trail done and still make it on time for my ultrasound that afternoon. I felt confident when I walked into the radiology center. I was sure this was going to be routine. 

Then, the radiology assistant started my ultrasound. This time it was different. She started to scan my left breast – the area that was questionable during my mammogram exam. She started to mark and measure a dark spot on my breast. And then she repeated the scan and made more marks and measures. That’s when I thought to myself, “This can’t be good.”

After the exam, the radiologist came in and told me the news: “You have a lump.” I would need to schedule a biopsy of the lump to be sure. Two weeks later, I had the biopsy done. And a few days afterward, my primary care doctor called with the results: “You have cancer.”

Really? How could that be? I just completed a hiking challenge and placed in the top 10. Losing weight and getting fit – and hiking -- was supposed to prevent things like cancer.

According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation one in eight women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women.

I can’t stress enough the importance of going in every year to get your physical and mammogram. I almost skipped my mammogram. Luckily, my doctor had her medical assistant follow-up with me to make sure I made and kept my appointment. 

When the news sunk in, my doctor talked to me about breast cancer treatment options. But, all I could think about was how was this cancer is going to affect my fitness – and my passion for hiking. I told myself I wasn’t going to let some diagnosis ruin the health and fitness gains I had made during the past year.

I asked my doctor if I could still keep hiking. She answered, “Yes.” In fact, she told me losing weight and getting fit would benefit me as I battle breast cancer. She told me women who already participate in a physical fitness program actually do better during treatments.

While sticking with a fitness program can be hard enough for healthy people, it’s even more challenging for those battling cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most adults need an average of 2.5 hours of physical activity a week. Those recommendations are the same for cancer patients. But, as I have now experienced, exercising during chemo treatments is different.

Chemotherapy treatments are cumulative – meaning the more treatments you have, the more fatigue you feel. And then there are those pesky side effects: Not only fatigue, but also hair loss, nausea, bone pain, mouth sores and diarrhea, to name a few.

After my first chemo treatment, I was out hiking three days later – a GWH event at Sandstone Peak. I told myself, “I can do this. I’m really fit now.”

But, as I climbed up to that peak, I noticed right away that I was huffing and puffing. I was tired and I was slow. My body felt different. I also had bone pain. I didn’t think I could continue up the trail. But, I was fortunate. I was surrounded by my GWH family and they encouraged me to get to the peak. With their support, I slowly made my way to the top. When I finished the trail and we were safely off the mountain, I felt exhilarated. I did it.

A few days later, I felt like my old self again. I was back on a mountain hiking – again with the support of GWH friends. Sure I was a bit slower. But they understood and encouraged me the entire hike. I finished.

Then it came time for my next treatment. Like the first, a few days after, I was symptomatic. Still, I went hiking. But this time I was a forced to stop because of bad side effects. Ugh. I gave up.
After that, I thought about not hiking at all. But, my friends tell me there's no shame in turning around after I've started a hike. It’s more important that I keep getting out on the trail. They are right. I just need to try. Still, it's a disappointment to me to not complete a hike.

My doctor tells me I have to listen to my body. If I’m tired, I need to give myself permission to rest or even take the day off of exercise. Just don’t give up trying to get out there.

These days, I try to go hike – or at least walk – several times I week. Some days are more challenging than others. And, it’s my GWH family who keeps me motivated to continue with hiking. When I don’t hike, I try to walk. When I do hike, my GWH pals keep me trekking.

On March 1, the GWHLA chapter began hosting its Spring City Slicker Challenge. There’s also another hiking challenge in my local mountains, the Conejo Open Space Challenge. I plan on participating in both. 

I know I’m going be slow. I’m most likely going to be huffing and puffing – and even struggling to the top of each summit. The side effects of having chemo treatments have taken its toll on my body. But, I figure I don’t have to place in the top 10 or even the top 20 in these challenges. This time, my participation in the challenge is not going to be a race to the finish, but a challenge to finish.

I look forward to the challenges. But, what I’ve learned along my hiking journey is this: Listen to what my body tells me, be thankful for each and every day -- and to breathe. More importantly, I am grateful every day to have my GWH family – and that’s what this group has become, my family – right there with me as I battle breast cancer.

Caroline is the Ambassador for our Los Angeles, CA chapter. You can join her local meet ups and discussions through the Los Angeles chapter by clicking here. To become a member of Girls Who Hike, click here.