What cancer took from me - and what it gave

Mike Stuckey on the approach hike to Mount Baker, his first big mountaineering trip since prostate cancer surgery in 2006.
Mike Stuckey on the approach hike to Mount Baker, his first big mountaineering trip since prostate cancer surgery in 2006.Kelly J. Phanco
/ Source: msnbc.com

The climbing rope slithers ahead of me up the icy route, a psychedelic snake of Day-Glo green and pink tethering me to my partner, who is kicking her way up the Roman Wall, the final obstacle between us and the 10,778-foot summit of Washington’s Mount Baker. The slope falls away precipitously to our left, a big white slide into a bottomless crevasse for anyone who makes a misstep here.

Fear, my old friend, gets me in its familiar headlock and I freeze in my crampons, playing my death drop over and over in my mind until a gentle tug on the rope gets me moving again.

It’s the first time I have attempted to climb a major peak since I underwent surgery for prostate cancer a year ago — and I’m disappointed. Not with the outcome of the cancer treatment, which has resulted now in three consecutive “undetectable” PSA tests, full bladder control and drug-free boners. No, I’m disappointed in me, who I thought was done with all this ’fraidy-cat stuff.

I mean, hey, I had cancer, friggin’ prostate cancer. I had to listen to a doctor tell me I had a life-threatening illness. I had to lie awake for hours at night and try to decide what to do about it. I had to trust a team of surgeons to conk me out with drugs, strap me to a table and manipulate a robot to carve out my diseased organ. I had to live with the fear that I’d need to wear diapers and pop Viagra for the rest of my life. Yes, I’m Mike Friggin’ Stuckey and I had friggin’ prostate cancer and the yak route up a frequently climbed Cascade volcano should not scare me.

Well, to quote Woody Allen, a master of modern fantasy, if only life were like that.

Still not invincible
Like many people who have had an emotionally and physically demanding experience, I’d like to be able to sum up exactly how it changed me. Like many writers, I yearn to wrap it all up in one simple but breathtakingly true sentence. Here’s about as far as I get: “Cancer … ”

But my inability to put it into words doesn’t keep certain ideas from creeping in, such as the notion that beating cancer should somehow make me a fearless, studly mountaineer. Or vague thoughts that, having weathered this, the rest of my life will be a cakewalk.

I’m afraid it’s all part of that same grand, silly scheme that misinforms us in so many ways from the day we are born about our place in the world and our impact upon it, telling us we are more significant than we really are and that we’re in charge of things that will always be beyond our control. It's the voice that says if we prepare, practice, do everything just right, everything will be OK. When I’m not taking myself too seriously, I can get a good chuckle out of that now.

The best way that I can sum up the past year is to note that, like other valuable lessons in life, cancer taught me how physical and material experiences pale in comparison with spiritual experiences. Rather than feel like I learned many new things from having cancer, I saw the best previous lessons from my life underscored with a big red Sharpie.

Before the illness struck, the most important thing to me was time — time with my friends and loved ones, time in my garden, time in the wilderness, along remote rivers and on high, snowy peaks. After cancer, that’s still the most important thing, but it has come into crisp focus. I work harder now to get it and see more clearly its limited nature.

Beyond that, I have come to understand that, like many other profound events in life, cancer is an experience that takes and gives. It leaves its marks, even if you can’t see and describe them with precision.

Cancer stole from me an entire climbing season, days and weeks in the mountains, an untold number of summits and peak experiences. What might have been? Cancer took from me sweet spontaneous sexual arousal. It stole, for a time, confidence in my ability to do things I had always done.

But, odd as it may sound, cancer also gave. It gave me the opportunity to share my experience with millions of readers, some who know me very well, others who see me only in the halls at work and most of whom have never met me. In return, readers shared their stories with me. Cancer showed me that I am not alone, that I am loved, that we are all connected in ways that are both obvious and that we can never see.

Shifting ground
The end of my year battling cancer coincides with the start of a new climbing season. I am simply grateful to be back on the mountain again, happy that it’s such a fine, clear day on Mount Baker’s summit despite a stinging wind. My partner and I can see peaks that we have climbed together, such as the nearby Mount Shuksan, and separately, the distant Mount Rainier. In between is the enormous and enchanting Glacier Peak, which we will attempt next. We hug and snap a few photos and begin our descent.

The big idea in glacier climbing is to get back down as early in the day as you can. Noon is usually our limit, but we won’t be down to 7,000 feet and off this river of ice until at least 1 p.m. As the sun softens the snow, all kinds of potential hazards emerge, not the least of which is a heart-stopping plunge through a softened surface layer of snow and into a crevasse.

At 8,000 feet, the snow balls up in our crampons to the point that the risk of tripping outweighs the advantage that the spikes would give us in crawling out of a hole, should one of us fall in. Besides, this part of the glacier has few cracks. We remove the crampons and revel in the simple new freedom of plunging unhindered down the soft snow.

Inside of a minute, my right leg sinks nearly to the knee at the tail-end of a narrow, 50-foot-long fissure that is clearly visible just to the right of the route. At no point is it wide enough to swallow a person, but how could I possibly have missed it?

All our preparation, all our planning, all our caution — in one unguarded moment, it makes no difference. When I stop scolding myself, I find the irony as amusing as it is instructive, and chuckle softly most of the way back to camp.