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We Choose To Climb

Becky Pope's Epic Battle with Ovarian Cancer Continues

by Shana Ross on 08/25/12

Friends, Fans and Supporters:

On September 8, 2012, the women of Project Kilimanjaro will celebrate one year that we departed for Africa to prepare for our climb to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The memory of our adventure is still fresh 12 months later, as though we had just descended. The project was an epic event for each of us. One that we will never forget. We remember the good times as well as the bad, because it is in the bad, hard hours on the mountain that we learned so much about ourselves and each other. We are bonded for life.

 From the depths of my soul, I wish I could report that Becky Pope, the inspiration for the climb, has won her battle with ovarian cancer. Oh how I wish. But she hasn't.

 One week after our return, Becky underwent major surgery to have lesions removed from her liver. The surgeons took about four inches of her liver and suspicious lymph nodes near her aorta. Becky's incision started just below her sternum and ended just above her pubic bone. Split stem to stern -- literally.

 Nurses were stunned when the evening of the surgery, Becky was able to get out of bed and sit in a chair. But that's our Becky. The days following surgery, nurses asked for her autograph and for details about the trip. All who came in contact with her were amazed at her strength and spirit.

 More chemo followed. In February, a PET scan showed no evidence of disease. We cried, cheered, whooped, celebrated. In May, we participated in the MD Anderson Sprint For Life Ovarian Cancer Walk. "Kiss Off Cancer" was the theme. Becky, Pam, Chris Kainer and I did our best KISS drag and in full costume and make-up walked three miles in Houston heat. No big deal after Kili. The rest of the team looked stunning in their white t-shirts painted with big red lips. We won best team spirit. Becky was beaming.

 Her first post-chemo follow-up was scheduled for June, a few weeks after the walk. Becky was nervous as the date approached, but confident that all would be well. But, the news wasn't good. Her CA-125 was elevated and so another PET scan would have to be ordered. We waited for the results.

The day the call came, Becky was at my studio answering phones to give me a hand and keep her mind occupied. I saw her take a call on her cell. I saw her eyes turn red. She put her phone down, covered her face with her hands and put her head on the desk and began sobbing. I rushed to her, grabbed her and held her. There was no need to ask what was wrong. There was no need for words at all. I knew. I felt sick. My heart broke for my friend.

We stayed that way for what seemed like a very long time. Finally she raised her head and halting told me that the cancer was all over her liver. Multiple lesions were evident with a large tumor visible that seemed to be about 7 cm. I've heard the phrase, "It felt as though all the air had been sucked out of the room," used to describe startling news. But I had never really had an experience that made me truly understand the meaning. Now, I understand the words completely. This could not be happening.

Becky had walked the 4 blocks from her house to the studio. I asked her what time her partner Pam would be home from work. She said she was already home. I helped her gather her things and told her I would walk her home. I let her talk and vent on the way. I knew she needed to see Pam. I just wanted to make sure she got home alright and then I would leave her to tell Pam and let them begin the grieving process before having to gear up again for another fight.

As we rounded the corner to walk the final block to her house, I saw Pam mowing the front lawn. I knew the minute she saw Becky, she would know that something was terribly wrong. That's when I realized that I was going to be present for the moment Pam found out.

In the last moments of our walk, I had the oddest experience. It's almost as if I became a third-party observer of the final moments of our trip and this weird countdown started going through my head. 'In 2 minutes, Pam's world will be turned upside down once again. In 1 minute, Becky has to look her partner of 19 years in the face and tell her that the results are bad -- very bad. In 30 seconds, life as these two wonderful people know it, will again take another unexpected, gut-wrenching turn.' And then we were there. Pam looked up, turned the mower off and said with a bright smile, "Well hey. What are you two up to?" And then she saw Becky's face.

It's a scene that we've all watched play out in movies. Oh how I wish this had been a movie. How I wish someone had shouted "CUT" and in that moment everything would have been okay. I hugged Pam and said, "If you need anything...". I couldn't finish the sentence. It sounded so trite. There were no words for the moment. I told her I loved her and turned to begin my walk back to my studio.

When I was sure I was out of sight, I stopped walking and bent over with my hands on my knees. I felt physically ill and needed a moment to make sure I wasn't going to throw-up right there on the sidewalk. Instead, I just began to cry. My mind raced -- I don't want my friend to die. I don't want her to have to go through another treatment. I don't want her to feel broken in body or spirit. I don't know what to do, how to help. But I do know that I and the rest of the Kili clan will gather around her and lift her up however we need to. We'll all once again be tested. But after Kili, we are all stronger then we were before.

Becky is now in a clinical trial at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She's been hospitalized twice with blood clots in her legs. These have been painful episodes. For the first time my friend has looked me in the eyes and said I'm scared. Well, who the hell wouldn't be. But on a visit with her in the hospital she looked at me and said with a little chuckle, "You know, I thought this was preparing me for Kili. I had no idea that Kili was actually preparing me for this."

And so the lessons of Mama Kili continue. She pushed us beyond places we thought we could go. She especially pushed Becky. But when her body felt as though there was not one more step forward left in it, her mind said 'climb'. And she did. And that is exactly what she's doing at this very moment. She's climbing.

The only way through, is to go over. Choose to climb. I love you Becky.

Why We Choose to Climb - The Back Story

by Shana Ross on 07/06/11

The Project is Born

In September 2011, a group of amazing women, all having faced or facing serious challenges in their lives, will band together to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. The one tie that binds each of these women to the other is her drive and determination to not let adversity, illness, injury, obesity and life-altering events stand in the way of living life to its fullest.

This endeavor was inspired by my long-time client Becky Pope. I first met Becky in 2006 when she and her partner Pam hired me as their fitness coach. They wanted to lose weight, learn better nutritional habits and just get in overall better shape so that they could enjoy two of their hobbies -- biking and hiking. We got to work and they both saw results and embarked on several hiking trips and trained for and participated in multi-day charitable bike rides. They worked with me for a couple of years, learned a great deal, and went out on their own to continue living healthier lives.

Diagnosis: Cancer
In early 2009, I got a phone call from Becky. She asked if I had some time to meet with her and shared with me that she'd had a major health challenge and wanted to talk with me about helping her with her recovery.

On the day of our meeting, Becky walked into my studio. My heart skipped a beat when I saw the bald head and much thinner person in front of me. The words "stage 3 ovarian cancer" hit me hard and set me back on my heels. I hugged her. We both shed a few uncharacteristic tears since we're both "tough" women who hold our emotions neatly tucked away from plain sight. She wanted to know if I could help her in her recovery. She was twelve weeks out from her hysterectomy and her doctor had okayed her to begin light exercise.

So we began. Her determination was an awesome thing to behold. She finished her chemotherapy and onward we marched. Each check-up was approached with optimism and she became stronger each month.

In late 2010, about 18 months after she had been declared cancer free, Becky's blood counts went haywire; PET scans showed "hot spots" which were confirmed with an MRI. Diagnosis -- the cancer had returned.

The holidays for Becky brought a new round of chemo treatments. She continued her work outs, missing very few days. She continued working and living a life with optimism, jumor and zest and once again, Becky has been given the "all clear" sign. Her workout are progressing and her outlook on life is phenomenal.

In February, Becky asked if I would help her train for her next adventure. I said, "Sure, what are you going to do this time?" She looked at me with this little mischievous smile she has and said, "Well, Pam and I are going to climb Mr. Kilimanjaro." I was stunned.

Kilimanjaro: The Next Adventure
Becky has just finished chemotherapy, was bald as Mr. Clean and had a boot cast on one foot because of a tendon issue. I knew that I could not let this story go untold. I had been working on a book idea for awhile and knew, the minute Becky mentioned the mountain, that I had a story that must be shared. I took a few days to think things over and then I approached Becky and told her my thoughts of the book and how if we included others with similar stories, we could craft an inspiring tale with the potential to help so many facing their own challenges -- their own Kilimanjaro. Becky, of course, was gung-ho thumbs up and responded with her usual "let's do it" approach.

My first concern was the date set for the climb -- September 2011. I asked if the trip could be postponed to have more time to pull the project together. But alas, that option wasn't available as Becky has subsequent trips planned and postponing Kilimanjaro now would mean not having the opporutnity again for three years. And Becky is determined to live every moment to its fullest. The fact that other trips were already on the book did not surprise me.

Hence, the time is now, and the time is short. But, as "they" say -- there's no time like the present. The team is assembled. We're making this happen.

In my role as a fitness coach and personal trainer, I've had the enormous privilege of helping hundreds of people transform their lives through better health over the past 13 years. But seven women, in addition to Becky, stand out. Each of these women came to me missing something in her life. A certain spark had disappeared. They were, in a compilation of their words, "sick and tired of being sick and tired, depressed, angry, disgusted, irrelevant, lost, fat and hopeless, bitter, at the end of the rope, confused, worn down." During the initial consult with me, more than one cried.

Today, five of the seven are still training with me and my trainers. The other two keep in touch, and one dropped by my studio in January to show her medal to me for fininshing her first marathon (after dropping 45 pounds and 20 percentage ponts of body fat). She took a carefully wrapped object from her purse and as she unwrapped it she said, "I just wanted to come by and show this to you because you're the reason I have it. My life has done a 180 and it's because of you and your staff that I'm a different person today." I hugged her tightly as tears welled in my eyes.

The stories are varied, all beginning with the women coming face to face with the fact that they weren't living the life they could be. They each decided to attack from the trenches instead of looking for the easy wasy out or trying to find someone or something to blame. They took hard looks at themselves and put in the work to change the image staring back.

How The Story Will Live On
My book (working title "We Choose to Climb") will chronicle the lives of each of these women and reveal how they have persevered through illness, obesity, addiction, injury, low self esteem and life changes revolving around career. It is important to me to help more people than my limited reach through my studio allows. And I didn't want to write another exercise/nutrition do's and don'ts book from the viewpoint of another expert -- there are thousands of those already. I want this story told from the viewpoint of those who are making a conscious decision to live healthier lives each day. Some days, they do exceedingly well. Other days aren't so great.

On the not so great days, though, they understand that this is for the long haul. They've stopped the diet mentality; they don't look at having a treat as having "blown it." They are making a new commitment each day to do the best they can to live healthier, happier, more vibrant lives. Their stories are inspirational, poignant, funny, revealing -- but most of all -- real. This is not a Holloywood story and there is no fairy tale ending. This is life as real as it gets.

And now, these women (average age 52) are banding together to conquer the challenge of climbing the world's tallest free-standing mountain with the message to other women and men that no matter the challenge, no matter the age, we are all capable of setting goals and reaching them. Menopause take a chill pill, arthrities take a seat, cancer take a hike, HIV get out of the way, injuries piss off, obesity be damned. We've taken charge and are ready for life's challenges.

Bring on the mountain. We Choose to Climb.

Please visit the OCNA website and learn how to recognize the warning signs of Ovarian Cancer. They are subtle and often overlooked.