One woman’s tale of conquering cancer and Kilimanjaro
Breast cancer survivor Bree Sandlin’s inner strength and inner voice helped her overcome two of the toughest challenges she’s ever faced.
“Keep going. Put one foot ahead of the other,” the mother of two told herself as she battled aggressive, Stage III triple negative breast cancer in 2012. “I have a great team supporting me.”
Two years later, the 39-year-old cancer survivor whispered similar encouraging words as she and husband Stephen scaled Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, the world’s tallest freestanding mountain.
“I’m learning from this every day,” Bree told herself during the challenging eight-day climb. “My life will be better for this experience.”
Always active and adventurous, the Sandlins participated in Survivor Summit, sponsored by the LIVESTRONG Foundation. Each year, the program teams cancer survivors and caregivers with seasoned guides who navigate the mountain as they raise pledge funds to benefit cancer patients. For the Sandlins, the trip was a way to honor the more than 32 million people affected by cancer worldwide.
Averaging about five miles a day, it took the climbers six days to reach Kilimanjaro’s 19,000-foot summit. Their descent took another two.
It was a climb that mirrored Bree’s arduous year of treatment in many ways.
“The analogy of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and the cancer journey is remarkable,” says Bree. “Every day we climbed I was reminded that it was really hard and something you couldn’t do alone.
You tell yourself to keep going and not give up. You also remind yourself that this climb is nothing compared to chemotherapy.”
With the terrain, altitude and conditions, Stephen says the trek was “the equivalent of doing 14 miles per day and climbing six mountains over eight days.” The climbers worked their way through a rain forest and warm temperatures at the base, but as they advanced, the trees thinned out and the climate became windy and cold. Only 20% of Kilimanjaro climbers make it to the summit.
Most are content to walk the rim instead of going the full distance to the peak.
At 15,500 feet, Bree was hit with altitude sickness, and the ensuing nausea and headache almost prevented her from continuing. The physicians on the trip gave her a steroid that kept her going.
That experience reminded her that a great team is invaluable and the importance of leaning on others.
Once she was back on her feet, Bree and Stephen were determined to reach the summit with their team.
On the last day of their ascent, the group woke early and climbed until lunchtime. They then rested for about nine hours in camp. At 10 p.m., they climbed in the dark almost straight up until they reached the top of Kilimanjaro at 8 the next morning.
When they arrived at the summit, the temperature was zero degrees, the wind was wailing at 40 miles per hour and the sun was rising.
The group had an hour at the top of the mountain to savor the view, reflect on their accomplishments, think about the people for whom they climbed and how the experience will influence the rest of their lives.
For Bree, it was about the beauty of the moment and the people who helped get her there, especially Stephen. They both thought about their 8-year-old twin sons, Beck and Elliott, back home in Katy, Texas, with supportive family members, who also were vital during Bree’s treatment.
“After I completely lost it, I thought about how cancer teaches us the beauty of the world and how the Kilimanjaro experience reinvented that lesson,” she says. “Oh, and I told everyone in the group that I loved them at least four times. It was glorious up there.”
Back home in Katy, Bree and Stephen say they both think about the trip every day.
“It wasn’t just about making it to the summit,” says Stephen. “It was about personal growth, and proving that you have the strength to do something like this. I was so excited and proud to share this with Bree, and we certainly brought home many lessons to our boys, family members and community.”