I met our newest HtW ambassador, Marie, back at our first Hike Fest (stay tuned for announcement details for the second one!). I was at the Hike the World booth and we both got to chatting about how hiking had a profound impact on both of our lives. She is sweet, charming and very passionate about the benefits of hitting the trails.
Months later, she commented on one of our "New Year. New Hikes." Facebook posts about hiking in New Jersey and it was such a thoughtful comment that we reached out to her immediately to see if she wanted to share her inspiring story with our community. I spent over an hour on the phone with her, learning more about her and how she refuses to be defined by cancer. She concentrates on living, being active and finding herself in the midst of chaos.
I'll admit it; the last line of Marie's essay made me cry. We know her story will bring those living with cancer some hope and solace that the hateful disease doesn't have to take over your life.
Hiking has always been my “thing”. I’ve been an outdoorsy kid all my life – camping vacations with my family, playing in the woods with my brother and neighborhood kids. My brother started my love of hiking when I was a freshman in high school. He would take me to Ramapo reservation or Long Pond Ironworks for a quick dip to cool off after a long day at school. My love of hiking and being in nature grew with every hike I took. The last hike I went on as my “old self” was at Stairway to Heaven, two days before my surgery.
On February 19, 2019, I was diagnosed with stage 2 grade 3 invasive ductal carcinoma. I had gone for a baseline mammogram because I turned 40 a few months prior. The tech had found something suspicious, but I was calm as a cucumber when they told me they wanted me to come back the next day because I’ve had this lump for over 4 years. As I laid on the table I was seeing the doctors' mouths moving, but after I heard “cancer” I just kind of went numb. The next few weeks were a blur, as I went from test to test, meeting to meeting.
Less than 2 months later I had a double mastectomy and a stacked DIEP flap. A DIEP flap is an option for reconstruction using your body’s own fat, tissue and blood vessels. A stacked flap is when more tissue is needed and taken from other areas of your body. My surgery was 19 hours long and I was in the intensive care unit of Memorial Sloan Kettering in NYC for a week. The entire week was a blur, but I do know the weather was getting better, sun was staying out longer, and the birds had started chirping. Spring was here, and I was unable to sit up or shower by myself, let alone hike.
April 23 I was back in the “woods”. My husband actually pulled me off the couch and drove to Rifle Camp Park in Woodland Park. We walked less than a quarter-mile, but I was in the woods, getting my shoes muddy, hearing birds chirping and feeling the wind on my face.
Two weeks later I started aggressive chemotherapy which made walking almost impossible for me. Not only was the nausea unbearable, the joint and bone pain were awful. I couldn’t walk 20 feet. I couldn’t walk 5 feet.
My husband had to carry me to bed and the bathroom. The side effects lasted about a week, which left me one good week to feel like “me” again before another infusion. I built up strength by walking up and down my street when I was able. Getting outside not only made the side effects not as severe, it had amazing benefits for my mental health. Cancer and its treatment have a way of making your entire being feel lousy if you let it. I was so tired of being lousy. My soul was lousy and I had to change my outlook in order to get through this. Two months after my surgery I hiked three miles at Ramapo Reservation. I felt amazing. I would hike every “non-chemo” week I could. Radiation started 3 weeks after chemo was done. It was every day for five weeks. Going home after radiation was depressing. I would sit on my couch feeling bad for myself; in the dumps; lousy – again.
A few treatments in, I brought my hiking boots and stopped at Ramapo after radiation. I was only going to hike to the waterfall and back, but I kept going, and going. I was there for hours, taking breaks, drinking lots of water and taking in every single breath of fresh air like it was magical. I hiked 6 miles that day. I hiked 7 the next day. This was it. Hiking was getting me through this. I was getting stronger and my mindset was splendid. Hiking was changing my life. Hiking was saving my life.
I’m now almost a year out from my diagnosis, and still receiving treatment every month for the next ten years. People have a misconception of the cancer being “gone” when chemotherapy and radiation are over. Many don’t understand that the cancer is never really gone. It lives in your mind, you feel it in your bones, it creeps up on you when you are sad, has the ability to suck the joy from your days – if you allow it. Everyone has their own way for dealing with the devil inside them. I opt for outside. I opt to show cancer I am stronger than it by every extra mile I hike, by every new trail I explore. By doing what I love most, I win.
Eager for more of Marie's hiking adventures? She will be providing us with updates as she spreads her love of the outdoors. Marie her on IG @reremac. Interested in becoming an ambassador for Hike the World? Click here for more information.