I was diagnosed with stage III non-Hodgkins lymphoma in November 2008, at age 57 after a career of amateur athletics in Aspen and the Rocky Mountains. Up till then, I’d biked thousands of miles both here and in Europe, heli-skied in Canada and Alaska, been a ski mountaineer for 35 years, and worked on ski patrol at Aspen Highlands and Snowbird, Utah. I’m a strong, healthy guy, so “unexpected” is a weak word for the feelings I felt after finding out about my illness.
Two weeks after my diagnosis, I jumped right into aggressive chemo therapy (minimum six treatments, perhaps more). This meant a “round” of infusions every 21 days. I hoped to pound this disease down far enough (it’s said there’s currently no cure) to make a cycling trip my wife and I had already bought for the following June of 2009. No one could tell me if I’d be O.K. to go, and there was a good probability that wouldn’t be my biggest problem!
I’d been building my hill climbing strength for 25 years, to one day ride in good style across northern Italian Alps and the Dolomites, where some of the steepest roads anywhere reside. Now, I was likely going to arrive there as weak as I had ever been, if I could even make it at all. Best case, I’d finish treatments in April and have 60 days to get better. I didn’t know how weak I’d be by then. Bottom line was I had to stay as strong as I could all winter, even during treatment, or I wasn’t getting up the Stelvio and the Gavia! So, uphill that winter had to be part of the program.
There were some tough days and nights that winter of ’08 – ’09. I reeled from the chemicals being pumped into me every three weeks. Damn! Prime powder skiing season. I’d just about start feeling better day 12 or 14 of the 3 week chemo cycle, and then they’d hammer me again. I was keeping on track as best I could.
My skinning uphill times for a 1,500 vert, hard pack climb, went from the low 30’s to on one occasion, a slogging 50+ minutes! I felt that my head was going to explode from the chemo and believe me, I had NO energy or power. Throwing up was not an option, as I had already been through the anti-nausea regime during my chemo infusion, at $350 for the 4 pills they’d give me!
These infusions took place over two days, which made it less likely I’d have a reaction to the chemicals they were giving me. The second day was usually worse than the first. So, after the first day of chemo, I knew I had somewhat of a “hall pass” before they hit me with the really bad shit, on day two. One time I decided I was going to ski the 2 feet of fresh in Highland Bowl that afternoon, right after I finished the morning treatment.
I was a little light headed, but struggled up the ridge from Loge to Highland Peak in a blizzard, complete with 15 mile an hour cross winds and low visibility. Wearing the balaclava came in handy, but I still had major frozen right side of my face problems, and iced up goggles on the left. I began to understand this may not have been such a good idea — perhaps my judgment was just a little impaired?
Reaching the top of Highland Bowl mid-afternoon on a powder day usually means skiing chop from the morning’s crowd getting their first tracks. However, when the weather conditions are just “bad” enough, the patrol often opens the G zones/north woods later than “usual.” It’s possible to still get first tracks at 2 – 2:30 in the afternoon (don’t tell anyone). This was one of those days.
Climbing. One foot in front of the other. Breath. Can’t see. Wind howling. Top out on Highland Peak and click in. Turn left, then fall line ski down the G-8 rope, for some solid reference in the white out and blowing snow. Maybe the hike today WAS worth it! Down through Tortilla Flats, the storm softened bumps in the willows, and out the traverse to Deep Steeple. Up and over the top, on my way home. Today, one lap was enough.
The cancer infusion nurses would remind me to drink a lot of water the day of a Tx, which would flush the drugs as soon as possible, once they’d done their job. I figured pounding up the ridge to the bowl would result in a serious thumping of my heart as well. That would really move the chemicals out of my system!
Well, that may have been sound reasoning at the time, and I did feel good that night; probably not least from the sense of defiance I earned, considering my situation. It didn’t hurt taking charge in a situation where I was otherwise pretty much powerless. I attempted to be extraordinary. But, I paid for my impertinence the next day — I don’t think I was ever sicker from an infusion of chemo therapy. Maybe being that sick was a good thing, and perhaps it was just the effect of cancer dying off, or so they told me.
Know what though? I went because I could. Something for everyone to think about, in good or bad health.
(Guest blogger Peter Kelley is a longtime Aspen resident and committed backcountry skier who Lou hung out with quite a bit during what we Aspen orginalists call the “days of wine and roses.” Please check out Peter’s photos at peterykelley.com, and his real estate business at real-estate-aspen.com)