Sherry Miller took one last deep breath, fought back tears, hugged her partner and turned to begin a long trek up a towering mountain.
She wasn’t alone last week. Over three days, nearly 40 women laughed and cried together as they slowly ascended Mount Rainier — mothers, sisters, daughters and friends joined in the mutual goals of reaching the summit, and more importantly, raising awareness about breast cancer.
Not all would reach the top, and the struggle was especially grueling for some. Miller, a breast cancer survivor, had completed her third go-round with chemotherapy just six months ago.
But there is a will among breast cancer survivors that those who have never had the disease cannot even fathom, said Jeanne Rizzo, executive director of the Breast Cancer Fund.
“They have faced something way beyond what they face on that mountain, and they take that with them,” she said.
The climb was the sixth undertaken by the nonprofit and the first at Mount Rainier. Washington state has the highest rate of breast cancer among women in the nation, according to the National Cancer Institute.
The Breast Cancer Fund’s first climb, in 1995, raised more than $1 million, as 17 breast cancer survivors and their supporters scaled Mount Aconcagua in Argentina. Since then, climbers have scaled Alaska’s Mount McKinley, Mount Fuji in Japan and Mount Shasta in California, raising about $3 million, Rizzo said.
It's 'about the journey, not the summit'
The decision to climb Mount Rainier represented a special moment for the organization, Rizzo said. The 14,411-foot peak is considered a technical, difficult climb. In order to attempt it, climbers must have a certain level of skill.
“We felt we had enough seasoned veterans who knew and understood how to train, and secondly, that we could instill in them this is still about the journey, not the summit,” Rizzo said.
At the trailhead, Bob Keeley of Chicago serenaded climbers with his trombone, as wife Chris, 65, trekked in memory of the mother she lost 20 years ago. Nearby, 25-year-old Jamie Rosen climbed for her grandmother and several family friends who have died.
Then there were the survivors themselves. Doctors on the team closely monitored several women, including Miller, a 50-year-old cabinetmaker from Reno, Nev., who beat breast cancer only to find cancer cells in her lungs and, in a later scan, two tumors in her liver.
She had already been thinking about attempting the climb. The third cancer diagnosis pushed her decision.
“If not now, maybe never,” she said. “I’m still around to try, and by doing this, I’m showing my family and my friends I’m OK.”
Miller, a rookie mountain climber, echoed that sentiment before starting up the mountain, pointing to the $13,510 she raised for the climb.
On Thursday, she advanced to 12,600 feet before halting.
“A month ago, I would have been devastated if I didn’t make it to the top. Now, I think I’ll survive it,” she said. “Cancer has touched a lot of people. It means a lot to me that I can do something for those people it’s touched.”