I still never finish a climbing trip without planning the next one. For 20 years, climbing is what has kept me mentally and physically driven.
In January 2007, my husband, Steven, and I had just returned to Canada from a warm, sunny trip to Red Rocks when our phone rang. Two hours later we were sitting in the doctor’s office. I’d had some tests done before our trip, but statistics were with me, and I had been assured they would probably come to nothing. After what seemed like an eternity among the sniffling children and flu-stricken adults, I heard my name called. Steven wasn’t asked to join me. I thought, “Whew, the news can’t be too bad.”
I sat alone in a private room until my doctor entered. He wasn’t smiling as his hand reached out to mine. My heart began to hammer.
He took a deep breath and said softly, “You are the last person I thought I would have to say this to, Jany. You have breast cancer. I am so sorry.”
“Shit!” went through my mind. My eyes filled up with tears, and I cried, “I knew it all along!” then, “What the fuck!”
I had just turned 40, cancer didn’t run in my family and I led a really healthy life. How could I have breast cancer? In the moments that I sat there trying to listen to what the next steps were, I saw my life violently changed. I had a disease that could kill me and I sure wouldn’t be climbing for a while. I stepped out into the lobby, face red, eyes streaming. Steven saw me and began to cry.
We got home and sat down and cried for several hours. We lived a life of making friends, climbing, eating and drinking and sitting by a campfire. A deadly illness just didn’t fit in.
My emotions veered from sadness to anger to determination. All I could think was that this thing wasn’t ruining everything. I looked down at my breasts and said, “You picked the wrong bitch!”
The next day I created my Five-Minute Rule. Each day I could cry or be sad for five minutes of the day, but no more, so I didn’t wallow in misery.
We had to tell our friends, most of whom were climbers. I wasn’t sure how much they would be there for us. Often, those addicted to sports are somewhat selfish; play time is precious and sacrificing it is unthinkable. But as the news spread, we were immediately surrounded by support. The same people Steven and I trusted with our lives while climbing we could count on now.
Two months and two surgeries passed, and they didn’t get all of the cancer. The decision came to have a “bilateral mastectomy.” In layman’s terms, the breast tissue, including nipples, was completely removed. To replace the old stuff, I got new silicone bumps Steven and I called “gummy bears.” They didn’t resemble Pamela Anderson’s, but they were something. Through multiple days in the hospital, with fluid drains out my armpits, I filled my mind with thoughts of future climbing trips.
On my 41st birthday, I was back in the doctor’s office for the latest test results, hoping to hear that I had a clean bill of health. The doctor walked in and his face stripped my excitement in an instant.
He said, “I’m sorry, Jany, they found more cancer and you need chemotherapy.” Swear words flew through my brain. I would face a four-month toxic bombardment and a lengthy recovery. Nine months later and it still wasn’t over. What was harder than getting the news was calling Steven to tell him.
On September 21st, 2007, the first dose of the red-colored concoction pumped through my veins via an I.V. for four hours. Then the desire to puke never left for the entire four months. My bowels dried up and I shat rocks. Fatigue set in like I’d stayed up for a week straight. I watched all the hair on my body fall out. The muscle and bone pain were worse than a tequila hangover, an awful case of the flu and a marathon combined. Some days I couldn’t walk because my muscles didn’t work. Just when I started to feel a bit better I would have to go in for another round. After round one, I knew I needed to find a way to get through it or it would break me.
The first piece of good news in over a year and a half came when my doctor said I could climb during chemo whenever I had the energy. He advised me not to push too hard but to stay active if I could, since chemo kills good cells as well as bad, and can consume the spirit.
I devised a plan called the “Three F’s,” for Fitness, Family and Friends, the mainstays of my life. I recognized they would get me through this. So I sent out an e-mail asking all of our friends to e-mail me their workouts whenever they could. I would use these notes to lift my spirits when the crux of my day was walking to the bathroom. My friends would push me to keep motivated to climb at the gym, and in turn I would push them to do the same. They knew I wouldn’t quit and they had no excuses. We would get stronger together.
The e-mails flooded in from friends around the world. I went to the climbing gym to do what I could. I was weak but whatever I did send was met with screams of joy from our friends as if I had done a V10. They rubbed my bald head, shared words of encouragement and called me G.I. Jane. When I couldn’t climb, they asked for beta, just to keep me involved. My spirit stayed strong even if my body wasn’t. Each day I existed minute to minute but each one got me closer to the finish.
January 2008 was the end of chemo and the start of a new chapter. I still had to endure drug therapy for a year but it would be much easier than chemo. The recovery process finally began and Steven and I worked on trip plans. We talked about Bishop, and 12 of our friends could go. Spring 2008 was the plan and I was excited. I had a lot of catching up to do, but I didn’t care. I was alive.
In March I got the approval to travel. One Friday night a month before we were to go to Bishop, Steven whispered “Hueco” in my ear as I went to sleep. Though he couldn’t go, he booked me a flight the next day, and on Monday I was in El Paso, Texas.
I thought getting into physical shape would be the hard part of the trip but instead it was the mental aspect. I had to deal with insensitive comments from climbers who didn’t understand or recognize my current situation. I guess being a dirtbag climber, wearing the same clothes for weeks, reeking of sweat, and having greasy hair was OK, but somehow it wasn’t OK to be a bald female climber. I heard whispers of “Is that a guy or a girl?” and “Dude, that’s definitely a guy.” Or: “Check out Butch, I bet she’s a dyke.” Then there was the photographer who said loudly, when someone suggested he take my picture on a certain problem, “Bald chicks aren’t sexy and don’t sell.”
I know I was extra sensitive because I was bald involuntarily and still facing the permanent changes to my body that weren’t visible to the public. I was still adjusting to being a cancer survivor. So I used my five-minute rule for the comments. I thought about my amazing husband who made me feel beautiful even in my worst moments. I remembered a day I was too weak to get to the bathroom so he grabbed an office chair, wheeled me to the toilet making race-car sounds, set me on the stool, and, as I sat there crying, leaned over, kissed my bald head and told me I was beautiful and that he loved me. I thought of the climbing friends who stuck by us, and those who ran to raise money for breast-cancer research. I thought about being alive and having the opportunity to be in the sun. I remembered the real reason I climb, because it is medicine for my soul. After these thoughts, I would look at whoever made a rude comment and just mumble, “What an asshole.”
In these past two years, I have changed physically, mentally and spiritually. My recovery is still occurring, as I still have many unpleasant side effects from chemo. My tolerance for assholes is gone.
I never expected to wake up one morning, hear the word cancer and watch my world change in a matter of minutes. Cancer, however, didn’t take away my perfect life. It was and still is the perfect life for me. My life is about having as many experiences as I can. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Jany Mitges lives in Hamilton, Ontario, and is cancer free. While still recovering from chemotherapy, she is traveling the world to climb, educating women on the importance of breast health, back to sending V7s and 5.13, and sharing her love for life.