by Claire Nixon
When Patricia Wu was a child in Taiwan, her parents immigrated to the United States so she would have better educational opportunities. She started first grade in California and went on to graduate from the University of California, Berkeley. At 21, she began teaching English to seventh graders. Later, she earned a doctorate in education and became a school administrator in Los Angeles, CA.
At age 30, Patricia found a lump in her breast and was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). She underwent a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction and began a tamoxifen regimen. “It was simple. Surgery, reconstruction, and move on with my life. At least that’s what I thought.”
Two years later, there was a pain in her hip that wouldn’t go away. “I learned that the breast cancer had come back and was in my bones,” she says. “It was frightening and shocking. After my first line of treatment failed, I learned that breast cancer was now in my lungs. It was even more frightening. It is also the reality of a metastatic breast cancer [MBC] diagnosis. Living with MBC is praying and hoping that each line of treatment will control the tumors for as long as possible.”
After she’d started to recover from several months of grueling chemotherapy, an opportunity arose with First Descents, a Colorado organization offering free outdoor adventure trips to people living with cancer. She had the opportunity to try ice climbing about 10 months after her MBC diagnosis.
On her Facebook page, Patricia reflected on her First Descents experience in a post. “It’s like MTV Real World: Cancer Edition. What happens when you take 12 people with cancer, put them together in a house, and they have one task to accomplish: ice climbing? We spent a week in the Colorado mountains surrounded by beautiful sights and amazing people -- people that quickly morphed from strangers to kindred spirits. It was one of the most emotionally intense and unforgettable five days of my life, and that says something coming from someone living with stage IV cancer.”
Patricia talked with me about her ice climbing experience.
Patricia Wu: It was a time when I focused on emotions. I gave myself the space and time to really process what my metastatic diagnosis meant. I also went five days with basically no technology. You can’t check your cell phone while you’re ice climbing -- those don’t work in the mountains. I took a lot of time to think.
I think the majority of my day-to-day experiences are like as everyone else’s -- cancer or no cancer. There’s just a level of urgency and intensity in my life that you probably don’t have if you’re not dealing with some sort of trauma. In my case, that trauma is a terminal illness. During this trip, there was a different level of intensity. I checked out of the world and had the bandwidth to dig deeper into myself and figure out what had happened to me in the last year. I got to know people’s stories and learn where there were similarities and where things were different.
There are a few things that I will always keep in my heart from that trip.
The first is my definition of fearlessness as moving forward in the face of fear. I faced physical fears of heights, altitude sickness, and falling, yet I continued to ascend. I don’t think [fearlessness] is an absence of fear. It’s not that I’m not afraid to die; it’s not that I don’t think I will die from cancer. I will just continue to move forward. That’s my personal definition and my personal kind of mantra and way about life. All right, this is scary. Acknowledge and move on. That was one of the things I was able to articulate coming out of that experience.
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On Facebook, Patricia wrote, “I learned that I am vulnerable. To be vulnerable is to be human. And to be human is to feel the full emotional spectrum -- joy, pain, elation, and love. I remembered that a life without pain is a life without joy. I understand that I am vulnerable to cancer cells in my body and side effects from treatment. However, I am grateful for those that carry me when I am weak (physically and emotionally) and have confidence that those hands and hearts will never be more than a phone call away.” Keep reading for more of Patricia’s story.