Friday, December 2, 2011

Returning to Black Rocks

On the last day of my three day backpacking trip in Shenandoah National Park a couple of weeks ago, I passed through Black Rocks. It is a spectacular area, with great views, but my lunch stop there had special significance to me that went far beyond any views. It was my first time there since June 2, 2002, the day before I started chemotherapy for Hodgkin's lymphoma.

On that day, nine and a half years ago, I wanted to go for a little hike in the mountains. It was a pretty spring day, and I was dreading what was coming the next day. I knew it would be my last chance to go to the mountains for a while, and to take a short walk there. Part of me, a part I didn't want to admit, wondered if I would survive to ever go again. That type of lymphoma is very treatable, and my odds of making it five years were about 80%, but even so, there is a lot of uncertainty to experiencing cancer. As the oncologist told me, "We are both old enough to know there are no guarantees in life."

Just three days before, on May 30, I'd had surgery to implant a portocath in my chest near my right shoulder. It was tied into my subclavian vein to deliver the chemicals directly into my bloodstream. They would enter that vein, and a second or two later flow into my heart, go through my lungs, return to my heart, and from there, visit every cell in my body. The drugs would cause lots of damage on their little trip, but hopefully as part of that journey, they would also ravage every single lymphoma cell in my chest, abdomen, and wherever else they might be hiding like tiny guerrilla warriors. Because if even one such cell would survive, I'd have to go through it all again in a year or so, with even less certain results. Little did I know, or even imagine, that nine years from the day I had that port put in, my sister Ann would die from breast cancer. She was so worried about me having to go through cancer.

So on June 2, I was still a bit tired from the surgery, and my upper chest was very sore - right where a pack strap would rub. Therefore, I took just a tiny and light day pack on the short - a half mile each way - hike my wife and I made to Black Rocks from the Skyline Drive. I'd been there once before, on a long day hike up Trayfoot Mountain with a group. Now, I kept thinking about chemo the next day. I had gotten a buzz cut, my preemptive strike for my upcoming baldness. I'd seen other people - my stepmother, my father, and my sister-in-law among them - go through chemotherapy, and I knew it was really rough. I was quite worried that I might vomit on a nurse during chemo (I didn't). I knew two of the four chemo drugs were really dangerous, and I wondered if I might survive the cancer but end up dying from the cure. There was a lot to think about, besides just trying to enjoy the mountains, with the mountain laurel in bloom, that June day.Now, nearly ten years later, I was back here. I waited nearly 45 minutes for my hiking buddy, Hawkeye, to arrive. It turns out that he had had a horrible calf cramp. During that time, I explored and climbed over the rocks,and reflected a bit on my journey I had taken to get here since cancer. Three marathons. Two half-marathons. I'd never done either one pre-cancer. Lots of hikes. Healthy enough to carry a 40 pound pack for three days just now. A three-day 60 mile walk just a couple of months before to honor my sister's memory. It was good to be back at the Black Rocks as a healthy person, and that is what I intend on staying for as long as possible.

I was last at Black Rocks in 2002 as a person with cancer, wondering what the next few years would hold for me, dreading starting chemo the next day. More than nine years later, I've returned as a strong survivor.


  1. You are quite a fighter and i am so happy to have you as one of my blogger friends.
    I enjoy reading about your hikes and your love of wildlife. : )

  2. Thanks Karen. Well, when something is trying to kill you, in that case my own body, you can either give up or fight hard. I'm happy to have you as a blogger pal too. Art