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Part 3 of 4 – At the Top of Half Dome

Another wonderful memory I love to share is about celebrating my victory over breast cancer with a special group of women I call “My Pink Hiker Sisters”.  Together we hiked to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite  National Park nine weeks after my double mastectomy.  This experience began with the love and support of sisterhood and ended with the completely unexpected celebration of life and sharing victory with an entirely different loving community- the community of complete strangers.

Pink Hiker Sisters 225x300 Celebrating Life and Victory in Community: Part ThreeFor several years,  before I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, making the 14 mile round trip hike to the 8,000 foot peak of Half Dome was a hike- an experience-  I normally did every September with a big group of women from Sungrove Church in Elk Grove- something I did every September for the past  4 years.

But, with going through 4 months of chemotherapy from January to May in 2010 and then having a double mastectomy in July – going on the Half Dome hike in September that year was never something I thought I would  be able to do.  It simply wasn’t on my radar.

The sweet women I hiked with began doing training hikes in the Spring  while I was going through my chemo and many of them would send me encouraging messages and cards and let me know they were praying for me.

As it grew into summer time, as I was now recovering from chemo and preparing for surgery, one of my very close friends at the time gave me a bright pink hiking shirt. She said she had bought one for herself too and that she was going to wear in on the Half Dome trip- she told me she was going to the top this year for me- in honor of me.  I was, of course, very touched.

My friend  began wearing the shirt on training hikes and soon all 22 of the women who were going on the Half Dome trip that September also wanted to wear that shirt and to climb in my honor  as well. I could picture all these women I knew wearing pink shirts together – and then there were the new women to the hike that year- women I didn’t know and I heard they had purchased a shirt too- also in support of me.  I was beyond humbled.

Then after my double mastectomy on July 12, I began the healing process from surgery and continued recovering from months of chemotherapy.  Every week I would go in to see my plastic surgeon so he could fill up my temporary expanders used to stretch the muscle and skin where my new breast implants would someday be inserted.  Every week Dr. L would give me a new directive regarding what I could and couldn’t do with my arms and how much weight I could lift.

The first week I wasn’t suppose to carry anything heavier than a hair brush.  Then it was a water bottle. By the third week it had graduated to a full dinner plate.  After four weeks I went in to see my doctor again and I asked him with a growing lack of patience what my limitations were?  He looked at the screen of the computer and said- “Well, you are four weeks out, your have healed well, I’d say you can do whatever you want.”

WHATEVER I WANT?!  From don’t unload your groceries to whatever I want?  I asked, “You mean like exercise?”  He said Yes.  I said, “Could I climb a mountain?”  He said,”Well yes, if that is normal for you, then yes, you can climb a mountain.”

I couldn’t believe it!  No more limitations.  No more don’ts. I got in my car and my mind was racing with “Whatever I want!”  Then I thought about Half Dome.

I hadn’t been training for it.

But so what?

I could start training for it.

My heart raced picturing myself – with my pink hiker sisters- spending the day in beautiful Yosemite National Park making the 5,000 foot climb to the top of Half Dome.  It was exhilarating just to think about it.

You see, the thing about cancer and going through cancer treatments is that it keeps you from looking forward and planning.  Cancer takes from you and it limits you.  It takes your energy, your hair, your breasts and, if you let it,  will take your self esteem, your dreams and your hope.

But no more!

At top training hike 225x300 Celebrating Life and Victory in Community: Part ThreeAt the top of Thunder Mountain

So with 5 weeks until the Half Dome climb to go- I began training.  I so vividly remember the first training hike I did- it was just a week after being “released” by my doctor and I felt like I was unleashed into the world.  God so amazingly and wonderfully filled me with energy and stamina and up, up, up and on and on I went with the other ladies until we made it to the top of Thunder Mountain in the Amador National Forest.  Then it was more hikes with the ladies and long 10 mile walks along the American River with my Ginger Doggie.

training hike 225x300 Celebrating Life and Victory in Community: Part ThreeAnother Trip up Thunder Mountain

Soon it was the night before we would awake at 3:30 am to begin our hike at 4 a.m. The 23 of us gathered together in one of the small lodge rooms to have our traditional last instructions, preparations, prayer and worship.  As we were all huddled into that one room we joined hands and prayed- for our safety, for our friendship, for life and healing.

I had prepared small goodie bags in advance for everyone to take along that included pieces of big chalk, pink energy beans, and pink glow sticks along with a heartfelt note from me to every “Pink Hiking Sister”.

Leaving at 4 a.m the next day, after stopping for a last prayer with hands held, we began our trek up the winding, dark, narrow hillside of Lower Yosemite Falls.  I was somewhere near the back of the pack so I was blessed with the incredible view of a trail of pink lights glowing in a winding line up the mountain side.

As the day wore on our big group natually began to spread out into smaller groups hiking at different paces.  Also, as the day wore on – the day warmed up and off came jackets and sweatshirts, so now all over the mountain were small groups of women in the same hot pink shirt. Groups of people coming down and going up the mountain started asking questions, “why the pink shirts?

“We’re celebrating our friend’s victory over breast cancer… she’s here, behind us, the one in the black hat.”

Soon the mountain was abuzz with the story.

As people passed by coming down the trail they would see the pink shirts and ask, “Are you Karen?”

Complete strangers would pass by me- “Are you Karen?” or  “You must be Karen, they said you were back here- can I hug you?”  “Can I hug you for my sister whose going through cancer?”.

“Can I hug you for my mom, for my aunt who just died of breast cancer…” And it went on and on like this for hours as we headed up the trail.”
Half dome thru the trees 300x226 Celebrating Life and Victory in Community: Part ThreeBelow Quarter Dome- Spying Half Dome Through The Tress
Finally, after about 5 hours we reached the top of Quarter Dome where we would rest for a bit before the final push to the top using the cables fastened to poles drilled into the granite to help you climb the close to vertical last 200 yards to reach the very top.
Quarter Dome 225x300 Celebrating Life and Victory in Community: Part ThreeThe Steep trek up Quarter Dome
Pointing up the ropes 225x300 Celebrating Life and Victory in Community: Part ThreeThose Small Specks are people headed up the Cables

Getting to the top is always emotional and exhilarating, but this time it held more meaning that accomplishing a difficult physical goal.

For me it was a declaration of taking back my life from breast cancer and celebrating life- mine, my family’s, and my friend’s on this journey with me.

There were lots of hugs, high fives, tears, and pictures with my pink hiker sisters.  And then I took some moments to myself  where I sat on the giant granite and thanked God for all his blessings of my team of doctors, my treatments, my doctors, my renewed health, my life ahead of me.

Then with a big piece of chalk in my hand I wrote on the smooth sloping granite-
“Breast Cancer Sucks- God Still Rocks.”

God Rocks at the Top 225x300 Celebrating Life and Victory in Community: Part ThreeMy Victory Declaration- “Breast Cancer Sucks, God Still Rocks”

Then we journeyed back down the top getting to the bottom of the cables  where a huge line had formed of people waiting to use the ropes to head to the top.

As I reached the bottom and turned around I saw a group of maybe 50 people looking my way and I heard “Are you Karen?”

coming up cables 300x225 Celebrating Life and Victory in Community: Part ThreeHeading Down the Cables

I said , “Yes” and instantly there was a huge roar of voices in celebration. 

It was as if a spontaneous surprise party had formed for me at the top of Quarter Dome.  All these strangers- men and women were smiling , clapping and jumping up and down saying, “Congratulations, you did it!!”  Then, like a young child running through a “parent tunnel” after a youth soccer game, I ran down the line of cheering strangers – slapping high fives with tears streaming down my face.

“You did it, You did it” they continued to cheer and I continued to cry knowing that their congratulations were for far more than reaching the top of the mountain.

They were celebrating with me my entire journey from the valley floor where I learned I had cancer to the tip top of half dome where I got to celebrate my victory over breast cancer.  It was as if these complete strangers had experienced my entire journey with me.

Just as they had made the trek from the valley floor to the top of the mountain that same day- in sharing this experience with me, they became part of my community.

Every time I think about that experience, I am overwhelmed with the love that God showered on me that day.  He is such a creative and loving God – he didn’t just use my close friends and family to say to me,  “I’m here, I’m cheering you on, You can do this, I’m with you and I’m for you.” No, he gave me brand new people-  like the new women to the hike that year and complete strangers that I will never see again in my life-  to celebrate life and victory with me on a mountain top.  I just can hardly get over it.

We were made for community – God made us to live, to mourn, to go through trials, to struggle, and to celebrate and claim victory in community.

I was blessed to experience how God lavishes His love on the sick, the weak, the hurting through His people –through community of friends and family and through the community of complete strangers.

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