We can turn to nature for solace at any time—to be held, energized, and reminded that, even when we’re in the throes of cancer, the natural world has the power to amaze and replenish us.
As soon as I was able after breast cancer and treatment, I turned to the mountains and forests. Climbing all 48 mountains over 4000 feet in New Hampshire taught me to love the natural world that surrounded me: the wildflowers, the trees, the lichen, the mosses and ferns, the birds, streams, toads, and stones. Being in the wild healed me both from the loss of my best friend to ovarian cancer and from the physical, mental, and emotional trauma of breast cancer.
This experience inspired me to share my journey in the recently released memoir, 48 PEAKS, Hiking and Healing in the White Mountains.
By writing 48 PEAKS, I was also able to marry two great passions: writing and hiking. Each endeavor fed the other. My hikes provided material for my book and filled up the creative well inside me, no matter how difficult the climb. Writing the book, which I decided to do just before my 11th mountain, gave me a place to describe my ventures and to discover all that the 48-mountain journey meant to me.
Here’s an excerpt from my book, adapted to stand on its own for this essay:
When my breast surgeon called with the pathology results, I leaned back against the kitchen wall, wishing I could close my eyes, wishing I could breathe. After she told me we’d found the tumor early but I had invasive lobular carcinoma, I slid down the wall to sit on the floor.
I visited various doctors, then decided to have a partial radical mastectomy followed by chemo (CA) and five years of Tamoxifen. I struggled with the idea of losing my breast, having seen my mother go through the same loss. In Massachusetts, where I live, there is a yoga center called Kripalu set amidst the woods and hills of the Berkshire Mountains. I’d been there before with friends but this time I went alone to a weekend workshop called “Healing Through Grief,” hoping it would help me process my diagnosis and prepare for the mastectomy that would happen as soon as I returned home.
Truthfully, I don’t remember much of the workshop. What I do recall is a yoga class where, without knowing anything about me or my situation, the instructor focused on three poses: one for courage, one for strength, and one for surrender. I immediately understood the value of the first two and knew that I would need them in abundance as I walked the cancer road. But surrender? That just made me angry. Surrender to what? Cancer? To some nebulous higher power who had allowed me to contract cancer? Never.
Feeling disgruntled, after the class I plunged into the woods on a small mountain behind Kripalu. After a time, the few people I saw left and I had the woods to myself. Spring mud sucked at my boots. The day was cold, and moist. Lime-colored ferns sprang from the ground. Trees had begun to unfurl neon-bright baby leaves. The forest was coming to life again and all I could feel was my fear: fear of more surgery, fear of losing my breast, fear of dying, fear of abandoning my husband and ten-year-old daughter. I didn’t feel courageous or strong or willing to yield to the current realities of my life. I felt angry and terrified and couldn’t imagine how I’d survive amputation and all that my treatment plan entailed.
I wanted my mother. Though forty-nine years old, I longed for her to comfort and take care of me, to tell me what to do and how to be. What would she have counseled? How might she have supported me were she still alive? Surely, she would assure me I hadn’t done anything bad enough to deserve this cancer.
I began to cry, not just the usual tears that came so easily these days, but loud, shoulder-heaving sobs. I embraced a young tree, pressed my face into its smooth bark, and wept. When I began to shiver but couldn’t stop sobbing, I left the tree and lurched onto the nearest trail, my sight blurred. I’d have to trust my feet to find their way.
Four miles later, I felt cleansed. Gradually, I’d run out of tears and my face had dried. I’d hiked my way into calm, and beyond that—at last—into surrender. I had cancer. I needed to get healed, whatever it took, if I wanted to be there for my daughter.
Some deep animal part of me was also aware that I was still breathing, still alive and, in this moment, moving through a beautiful woods that embodied all the hopes of spring. Having shared my sorrow and fear with the trees and the mountain, I felt lighter and, though exhausted, filled up with the remarkable life that continued on all around me. Ready.
Cheryl Suchors holds degrees from Harvard Business School and Smith College. Her memoir, 48 PEAKS, Hiking and Healing in the White Mountains, was published by She Writes Press in September.
Kirkus Reviews called 48 PEAKS “An inspiring yet relatable true story with exciting scenes and plenty of heart.” BookBub included it as one of “10 Life Changing Memoirs To Pick Up This Fall.” The Culturalist listed it as one of the “Top Ten Travel and Adventure Memoirs That Will Leave You Inspired”, and PopSugar chose the book as one of “7 New Nonfiction Books for People Who Don’t Like Nonfiction.”
Cheryl’s work has appeared in literary journals, magazines and an anthology. She lives with her husband in Cambridge, Massachusetts and wishes their grown daughter lived nearby. She hikes every chance she gets, most recently in Canada, California, and Poland.
Cheryl will be in Austin January 13-14th at Book Woman and Cancer Rehab & Integrative Medicine.
Cancer Rehab & Integrative Medicine will host a book reading, inspirational talk, and author meet and greet.
When: Monday January 14th 6:00-7:30 pm
Where: Cancer Rehab and Integrative Medicine
4130 Spicewood Springs Rd. Ste 100
Austin, TX 78759