The following story was written by Calgary climber Éléonore Lebeuf-Taylor who recently battled breast cancer.
This isn’t your typical climber profile column. No onsighting 5.14s or new routes in the Canadian Rockies. Rather, this is a story that celebrates small successes and what drew us all to climbing in the first place – the joy of overcoming physical and mental challenges and the drive that gets us there.
There are two big Cs in my life: climbing and cancer. I started climbing in the spring of 2015 and was hooked, I soon bought gear and a pass to my local gym. However, a few months later and shortly after my 23rd birthday, my life was turned upside down when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Four months after moving to a new city for graduate school, I had to move back in with my parents in Calgary, with an uncertain future. My life, and my climbing dreams, went on hold while I started a year of aggressive treatment that involved surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
I went from being an active climber and runner to not being able to complete a set of 10 sit-ups. For several months, while I was dealing with the physical exhaustion from getting poison of chemotherapy drugs pumped into me several times a month, I also had to come to grips with seeing my friends get on with their life and grow into strong climbers while I was just fighting to sometimes get out of bed.
I felt like I was grinding my gears and I was frustrated by my weakness, but the motivation to regain my strength kept building. When I reached a less aggressive treatment phase, I started going back to the gym. Although I was only climbing easy routes on toprope, I felt like my battle with cancer was giving me wings. I felt that while fighting the disease, and winning, making it to the top of a route seemed like an achievable goal. The benefits of climbing were psychological and physical, the climbing gym helped me deal with the sense of isolation that many young adult cancer patients live with. Everyone in the chemo ward was at least three or four decades older than me, so hanging out at the climbing gym with people from my own generation helped me regain a sense of normalcy. To top it all off, giving those 5.8s and 5.9s my all helped me deal with the side-effects of chemotherapy, increasing my energy and reducing nausea and pain.
Climbing was helping me to stay healthy and keep in touch with who I was outside of my cancer. Pushing myself to finish a problem, in spite of everything that was happening to me, made me feel like a superhuman. I even had a weight advantage over my heavier, hairier partners by being a bald superhuman with only one and a half breasts. By the end of my treatment, I was showing up to my radiation therapy appointments in the morning with my backpack full of climbing gear, ready for an afternoon at the crag. Who cares if I could only climb 5.7. As I worked on a route, I could reconnect with my body. It started a feedback loop: the more I climbed, the better I felt and the more I wanted to climb. The friends I made on my journey to regain my strength were special. I was both physically and emotionally vulnerable, and having the undying support of my climbing partners meant the world to me.
I finished treatment two years ago, but the reality of being a cancer survivor is always with me. Sometimes, it can be hard to stay optimistic, but getting on the wall is one of the best ways to deal with the anxiety because it gives me something to focus on. And, while mindfulness is the trendy thing these days, I can never concentrate long enough to meditate, but climbing does it for me. When faced with a hard climb, I have this motivation: I’ve crushed cancer. I had to use my strength again last year after I took a bad fall on a chossy Bow Valley multipitch. It left me with an airlift experience, a damaged ankle and a small concussion. I went back to the gym a few weeks later wearing one climbing shoe and one brace. People started recognising me as the one-legged climber. My footwork improved, even though I developed some creative knee-use beta.
What most people didn’t know, including my belay partners, was the injuries were not even close to the unluckiest thing to happen to me. Surviving cancer doesn’t come up in most gym conversations, so most of my partners have no idea until I tell them. The disease and everything I’ve experienced and still face every day, fades into the background of climbing, even after I’ve disclosed it. As climbers, we engage in a potentially high-consequence activity, which means that we’re more familiar than most with the fragility of life. For me, though, the threat comes from inside my body. I don’t know whether or when cancer will come back. When I’m climbing, I regain a sense of control over my body and my life that’s missing from my daily experience as a cancer survivor.
Being a cancer survivor is like onsighting a never-ending multipitch: I have no idea what’s coming up next, but I know the only way up is to push myself and to trust my partners to hold be there. A lot of people, both within and outside my climbing circle, have told me that I’m strong, resilient and inspiring. For me, though, there’s simply no other way. There was a time when I didn’t know whether I’d have the chance to climb again. So, no matter how minor some of the victories may seem, I’ll celebrate every single one. I’ll keep pushing myself to climb better and stronger and, above all, celebrate being able to climb some rocks.