Parallel Journey: Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and Cancer Survivorship
By Chasse Bailey-Dorton, MD
From my personal experience, the similarity between climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and the experience of cancer survivorship is overwhelming.
When you first hear the word “cancer," the immediate thoughts that run through your mind include “I can’t do this," “fear,” “overwhelmed," and “scared,” which are recurrent thoughts during different stages of the route to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Even the thought of death sneaks into your mind as you assess some of the perilous portions of the Kilimanjaro climb, which is certainly a big part of the cancer experience.
The first phase of preparing to climb Kilimanjaro is the gathering or your needed gear list. The first phase of cancer diagnosis has a similar stage: gathering CT/MRI scans results, lab results, physical exam and biopsy/pathology results. Once you have all your information and equipment you are ready to select your route and proceed with the journey.
On the Kilimanjaro climb, you only take one short slow step at a time with all your attention on where you will place your foot for the next step. Your attention cannot waiver to even enjoy the surrounding scenery for fear of a misstep. If you look ahead (i.e., worry about what comes next) the path seems daunting and unachievable but with your head down and focused on each moment, you make the day’s journey one small step at a time. Our African guides continuously reminded us to “pole, pole” which is Swahili means "slowly, gently, softly, quietly; be calm, take it quietly."
On the Kili climb, you have guides, which advise you and lead you on the correct path at the correct speed. In survivorship, our guides are our physicians and navigators. Near the summit it was so cold that at times I needed my guide to help me with the simple task of putting my gloves back onto my hands. In cancer, you often have to ask for assistance with the simple tasks of life.
On the Kili climb, you have porters, whose job is to carry all your needed equipment (tents, food, equipment, luggage, etc.). In survivorship, we have many resources to help us carry the load such as oncology nurses and the LiveStrong Foundation.
On the Kili climb, we have our teammates who help encourage, motivate and inspire us each day. In survivorship, we have our friends and other survivors who play this role.
Finally, we have our tent-mates on the climb and in survivorship we have our family who are there with us day and night, minute by minute, even when we are weak, tired and dirty – they are there to share our lives and experience.
While climbing Kilimanjaro, your body and mind has to continually adjust to smaller amounts of available oxygen as you reach higher altitude, which often leads to fatigue and shortness of breath. The journey through cancer survivorship often leaves you feeling the exact same way!
So while both “mountains” seem insurmountable, by taking small slow steps with the help of guides, porters, teammates and tent-mates – if you “pole, pole” – then you will indeed reach the summit of whatever mountain you are facing! So thank you LiveStrong and SurvivorSummit for teaching me another valuable lesson regarding life and cancer survivorship! “Pole, Pole ya’ll!”