Episode 196: Hiking Through Cancer – Rebecca Sperry

Episode 196: Hiking Through Cancer

Interview with Rebecca Sperry

Rebecca Sperry was in the middle of a big hiking challenge when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2020: she was tracing all 1400+ miles of trails in the White Mountains. While she had to put that quest on pause during cancer treatment, it didn’t stop her from hiking. Once Rebecca got cleared by her doctor, she hiked every single week. Her reasons are multifold: exercise can help make chemotherapy more tolerable, she wanted to see what was possible (and show others that it’s possible to stay active through cancer). Most of all, hiking is a really big part of who Rebecca is. Cancer can take a lot away, but not that.

If you enjoy this episode, you might also enjoy this one on managing chronic illness featuring Lindsey Ingram.

Find the episode below, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you stream podcasts.

A full transcript is available below the photos.

Featured in this episode: Rebecca Sperry @sockedinhikes 

Hosted & Produced by Gale Straub

A production of Ravel Media

Sponsored by Danner Rumpl, & Minus33

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Rebecca Sperry

Rebecca, hiking in the White Mountains during treatment

Hiking in the White Mountains with just one round of treatment to go.

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TRANSCRIPT

Note: This transcript was lightly edited and created using a transcription service. As such it may contain spelling errors.

Gale Straub – Narration:

I’m Gale Straub and you’re listening to She Explores.

Gale Straub – Narration:

As you’ll hear, Rebecca Sperry is a data person. She’s a writer, which helps explains her belief that numbers tell a story. Earlier this year, she shared some telling statistics on her Instagram, @sockedinhikes: In the last year, Rebecca’s had 4 biopsies, a partial mastectomy, a port placement, 3 echoes, 12 rounds of chemo, 20 rounds of radiation, and 13 additional rounds of chemo. She’s also hiked over 700 miles since being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Gale & Rebecca, walking:

This used to be a farm, so these are all farm field, but they’re really good for bird watching in certain seasons. And also I have seen a lot of butterflies like that…

Gale Straub – Narration:

I met up with her back in late August for my first in-person interview in about a year and a half. I was excited and a little nervous per usual. So I figured that we could break the ice with a walk. I took her to Bellamy preserve so I could show off a trail that’s local to the Seacoast of New Hampshire, the state where we both live.

Rebecca Sperry:

I would say that New Hampshire, because it’s a pretty small state and it’s not even just New Hampshire. It’s kind of the new England area is a very tight knit community of hiking enthusiasts. We have this kind of list obsession up here where there are all these hiking lists that have been developed to kind of motivate people to get out there and see different parts of the whites.

Gale Straub – Narration:

The Wobanadenok or White Mountains, cover about ¼ of the state of New Hampshire. If you’ve ever hiked here, I don’t need to tell you about how rugged the terrain is, how it feels like you’re walking stairs two or three steps at a time the whole way up. There are a bunch of lists with self-explanatory names that New Englanders use as part motivation, part guidebook – the Terrifying 25, the 52 with a view. The most famous is the 48 4000 footers, which some folks spend a handful of years hoping to achieve and some knock them off in a summer. Rebecca’s the kind of hiker who’s most likely to do the latter, but in June of 2020 she was working on a different goal:

Rebecca Sperry:

So tracing all of the trails in the lights and that entails hiking every single trail in the white mountain guidebook. And I was using the 30th edition and it has roughly 1,420 miles of trails. Typically because of all the backtracking, it ends up being around 1800 miles of hiking. And it was more, just a personal goal that I wanted to do. It wasn’t anything to do with setting enough Katy or anything. It was just something I thought would be fun and unintentionally, if I ended up doing it, I would have set the F Katie because there hasn’t been another known female to accomplish this in a set amount of time. Usually this is something that takes people like a lifetime to do.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Rebecca’s goal was to hike all the trails in the White Mountain Guidebook within a calendar year, which would have resulted in a fastest known time or FKT of the achievement for a woman. 1800+ miles — that’s like walking from Bangor Maine to Miami, Florida. But this challenge isn’t so straightforward, it’s not like backpacking, and you don’t do it all in one trip.

Gale Straub:

So if you go back to a week in June of 2020, what would a week in your life feel like? Or what might it look like?

Rebecca Sperry:

Basically hiking all the time, every day, I’m a day hiker. So I don’t, I don’t really backpack. I’ve done some backpacking trips over the years, but I mostly just do day hikes because it works out with my lifestyle and my, I have a, a husband and apartment and everything. So like going home after a hike is kind of important to me, plus it’s nice to take a shower and just relax. So I would say a day in the life would be drive north, go hiking all day, drive home, get up the next morning and do it again. That was my life in June.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Rebecca does the majority of her hiking on her own and she likes it that way.

Rebecca Sperry:

I started hiking in 2015, at least in my mind, I that’s when I kind of think of my beginning. And I went hiking because I felt like going on a hike and my husband didn’t feel like going. So I’m like, well, I’m going to go by myself. And up until that point, I had never been a solo person. I always had to be with my spouse. And so I was like, I’m going to try this. And I did. And it was like the best experience ever. I felt so empowered and so proud of myself to be a woman and to be out there by myself, hiking this mountain and I’m hooked. Like it just, I became hooked to that feeling and just feeling proud of myself and knowing that I can go do this thing and it doesn’t have anything to do with my gender. And now it’s just almost odd to go with other people. I’ve done a few hikes this year with other people and it is so weird. I’ve done thousands of miles by myself and then just shift to being with other people. It’s very strange, but I think that it’s something that everyone should at least do once because there really is. It really can make you feel super empowered and kind of proud of who you are for being able to do something like that. Not relying on anyone else, knowing it’s up to you.

Gale Straub – Narration:

You’ll notice that some of the audio is from our walk, and it’s perfectly imperfect – so I hope you’ll bear with us there.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Rebecca spent most of her career as a teacher using her time off on weekends and in the summer for hiking, but that June, she was setting off on a new adventure. She was leaving her students to get her MFA in creative writing.

Rebecca Sperry:

So 2006, I got my bachelor’s in history, never used it, um, worked in like I worked at United healthcare for awhile doing health insurance and just that kind of perfect life thing. Yeah. And then went back to school in 2011 for a master’s in education. Wow. Yeah. So I got that. I taught for seven years and I worked in education for nine years. And then in 2020, I applied to get into the MFA and writing program and I got in, which was awesome. Fun. All the classes are run through school hours, like teaching hours. So I was like, well, yeah. Um, I was able to with my husband, like financially we could afford because, um, I had to take out loans, like supplement my income, but I stopped working in 2020. And then I got that one. Like the week I started college, I started the diagnostic process.

Rebecca Sperry:

So I had to drop down to one class because it was totally not going to happen.

Gale Straub:

Oh my gosh. And it’s so overwhelming. It’s so overwhelming enough to be like, here’s this big life change I’m undergoing.

Rebecca Sperry:

Yeah. And then I was like a nightmare. I was like, when I look back, I’m like, oh my gosh. I was like delusional sitting in my classes on zoom, all remote at this point. Yeah. And I was not even able to process the classroom stuff cause I was so overwhelmed with cancer stuff. And then I was doing that. I was working on hiking, all the trails in the Whites and the heads of stop that like yeah, that cancer just put everything and throw it in the garbage.

Gale Straub:

If you missed that, Rebecca just said that cancer took everything and threw it in the garbage. Her husband found a lump in her breast that summer. Rebecca was 37 at the time, with no family history of breast cancer, which made it surprising but no less devastating when it turned out that she did indeed have cancer, and not just in one breast but both. She had to give up her quest to trace all the hiking trails, but she told me that loss was nothing compared to what she was facing. Rebecca wrote about the experience of diagnosis on the Instagram where she usually shared her hiking adventures, @sockedinhikes:

Rebecca Sperry:

Um, we all strive to change to become better versions of ourselves. And as a hiker, I have always looked to the trails to break and rebuild me. But the fact is you cannot be broken on the trails like you are broken in facing a cancer diagnosis. Um, yeah. So trying to kind of push yourself from a physical standpoint and see what you’re capable of. And especially in that thru-hiking community, I’m not a thru hiker, but I have a lot of friends who are part of that community and you put yourself out there and you’re doing a 2000 mile hike. You’re going to be physically and mentally beat down on so many levels, like so many times, and even doing the things I was doing before, getting diagnosed, pushing my body and mentally going out there and pushing my, to kind of get through these really sketchy situations.

Rebecca Sperry:

It’s not going to make you get to that level of what you’d be facing when you’re facing your own mortality. So when you get a diagnosis like cancer, it’s like another level of, of like mental and I think more mental than anything fortitude, you have to face this terrible, terrible thing that is so scary. You can’t even really like, imagine it’s happening to you. And I think a lot of people who go out and do these like really long endurance sport type things, they’re out there because they want to push themselves mentally and physically to that level of like almost not Nirvana, but you know, you really want to see what your mind is capable of. And you’re not going to do that on the trails. Like you would facing something like cancer. I think because it’s just so real and raw and literally life or death, not that you’d ever want to get cancer because it’s not fun at all. It’s horrible. Um, but it’s, it’s made me have to like, become so much stronger of a person mentally that I never could have ever reached this level of, of mental fortitude on trail because it’s just not possible.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Another element of this that Rebecca and talked about? Unlike pursuing feats in the mountains, getting cancer isn’t a choice. It’s not a life threatening activity you opt into. For Rebecca, everything that happened next was a choice, and deeply personal choices at that.

Rebecca Sperry:

Yeah. That cancer just put everything and throw it in the garbage. But I was able to still do a billion things while going through treatment. So yeah.

Gale Straub:

It feels like you picked all that stuff out of the garbage, like one by one.

Rebecca Sperry:

I stayed in one class. So if they will take one class and last semester I took two classes and then I just kept hiking even though, and I actually, I didn’t realize it, it wasn’t intentional, but like the other, probably a couple of weeks ago, I was just looking at my calendar and I’m like, I’ve hiked every week, since last October when I was cleared. Whoa. So almost 52 weeks straight. And my goal is to hike. Now my goal is to hike for all 52 weeks straight since I started chemo. Wow. Yeah.

Gale Straub:

So what’s your, I feel like this is now really getting into interview territory, but like, um, what’s your definition of a hike?

Rebecca Sperry:

Like, um, hiking for me means an act like this would be, I would consider this a hike. Yeah. Although when I was hiking through treatment, it was like, I have to go to the Belknap’s or I have to go do something. That’s like a mountain of some sort. I, um, I set this goal that I would hike every week of chemo. I had 12 weeks straight of like official chemo where you lose your hair and all that. Um, so every week of that, and my goal was to hike one mountain per week, and then to do five days of exercise during like on top of that, which was like, it wasn’t always fun. Yeah. It was. I think because mentally I was almost like, um, what’s it called? Like dissociated at that point, from the reality of what I was going through. So I could do these things because I wasn’t quite mentally aware of how I was in this really serious thing. I don’t know, maybe that was the case, but I pushed my body to go do all these things and like I was able to do it. So that was pretty cool. It was like kind of data for me almost like, let’s see what I can do even though I’m in treatment.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Rebecca hiked once a week after getting the, all clear from her doctor who actually recommended moving her body as one of the best antidotes to the harsh side effects of chemo. I asked her about her definition of a hike because it’s different for everyone getting her body up and over mountains is a big part of her life. What makes Rebecca, Rebecca we’ll hear more about what hiking through cancer means to her and what it might mean for others after the break.

Gale Straub – Narration:

We’re back on the trail with Rebecca.

Rebecca Sperry:

Like every hike I did during diagnostics during the diagnostic process is forced because I didn’t even want to like leave the house. I was terrified all the time. I didn’t want to be alone. Yeah. But then during chemo, I was like, I’m going to do this. So then I hiked every week, at least one hike. Usually it was like two, I think I did over 12 weeks. I think I ended up slumping in 28 peaks. And it was like some of them, my bags, you know, cheeks at the time, but I did three, 4,000 footers and it was really awful. Like if I did it, like, Moosilauke was one.

Gale Straub:

That’s a longer one. I know it’s more gradual, but

Rebecca Sperry:

Yeah, I think there was maybe 10 miles. Yeah. That was my longest hike through treatment. And I was like this wicked, awful conditions. Like, and I just remember it felt so hard and like the way chemo makes your brain feel you, but like really foggy, um, and your knee mech and stuff. So like had like no ability to get enough oxygen, you know, like you’re breathing heavier and yeah. Um, I think that was probably the one that was most, maybe the most proud of out of the three. And then I did Pierce and then I did Tecumseh.

Gale Straub – Narration:

All the while Rebecca shared her journey on her Instagram, @sockedinhikes. And that was intentional.

Gale Straub:

Could you tell me a little about the way that you kind of identify yourself on your social media? I noticed that you sometimes call yourself hiker girl or

Rebecca Sperry:

Or cancer girl. *laughing*

Gale Straub:

Cancer girl.

Rebecca Sperry:

Yeah. I think, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I feel comfortable using these terms for my own identifiers and it’s not intended to be like cruel or anything. I just, or me putting myself down, but I definitely have, so I was the hiker girl. That’s all I did was hike. And everyone knew me for hiking kind of. And then all of a sudden I got cancer and I had to make this strange transition and who am I like what my identity was? And it was really difficult as a person who had been identified as a hiker for so long to make that transition publicly and not feel like I’m going to lose a whole bunch of people that are my followers, because I’m no longer doing the same content. I I’m still cancer girl. Cause I’m still in treatment. So cancer girls right now, I’m in treatment.

Rebecca Sperry:

I’m the cancer girl. I’m going through cancer treatment. That’s fine that that’s who I am. And I’m fine if that’s how I’m identified as publicly, once I’m done treatment. I think I’ll probably make more of a shift towards back to where I was, where I’m more focused on hiking all the time. Hopefully. And I still continued to hike. It’s just, my mind is so focused on cancer. That that’s my primary focus. I think more so than hiking all the time where that was all I had to think about. Yeah. I’m not really sure. I just, I felt like it was an easy way to identify myself one day.

Gale Straub:

Well, it’s also kind of taking ownership of how you might perceive others identifying you because social media is so, you know, we are able to quickly put people into a box or like, feel like we have an understanding of quickly, you know, it’s like this quick like recognition. So it, I felt like it was a little bit, you taking ownership. You were like, I’m claiming this title for myself versus other people claiming it for me.

Rebecca Sperry:

I never was aware that it was a big deal that I had shared it publicly. And that was one of the first things that a lot of people had mentioned. That was so amazing is that I was so open and public and I thought in my head, so I have a panic disorder. So I have a mental health disorder that talking about that publicly. Isn’t something that is acceptable still. And you’re kind of looked at differently. Usually if you have something like that. So I’ve always kind of kept that to myself and getting cancer. I mean, what is the shame in that? I can’t see it. So I just was so open about it. And I think that people were really surprised that I was so willing to be so open about something that was a big deal that I should’ve kept maybe a secret and didn’t real, or it was supposed to be something I didn’t talk about publicly.

Rebecca Sperry:

But the thing was, is I didn’t know anyone who had cancer and I didn’t even know it looked or what it, what to do with that. So it was terrifying and I never ever wanted anyone to be in my shoes. So especially in the hiking community, because this is like my group. So I was like, well, if I’m out there, at least all the other people, if they ever get cancer, we’ll at least know what one person looks like. So they won’t ever feel like, oh my gosh, I have no clue how to navigate this. Also with hiking, I, I didn’t know what you were, what you’re capable of doing while in treatment. And so I almost did like a study on my, myself, I guess like a research project to see what you could do while you’re in cancer treatment physically in terms of hiking. And I kind of wish I don’t want to ever go through cancer treatment again, but I wish I had the opposite study to show what you, what treatment would be like if I did nothing. Oh, compare, um, obviously I don’t have that information, but it is interesting for me, I’m a data person. So I love to look at data and I like, think about, okay, well statistically, what was I capable of doing? And how did that benefit me to have that data out there?

Gale Straub:

When Rebecca was diagnosed with breast cancer, she didn’t know of any other avid hikers who were also going through treatment. So she wanted to model what was possible – but also stressed that just because she chose to hike weekly, it doesn’t mean that there’s a right way or a wrong way to move through cancer. Chemo is a progressive treatment, so each week Rebecca felt worse. Sometimes there were only a handful of hours in a week where she felt relatively okay. She understands that not everyone would want to spend that time hiking. But there are those that might want to be active, which is why she’s started a community Instagram account called “Active Thru Cancer.” There Rebecca shares photos and stories of people living and moving with cancer in their own words. As a writer, words are really important to Rebecca. There are a few common ones that she hears in relation to her breast cancer that she wouldn’t use for herself:

Rebecca Sperry:

It’s hard for me to see myself as being brave or being inspiring or being strong because I’m literally just doing what anyone would do to not die. Like it’s literally, that’s what you, you have a choice. You can say, no, I won’t get treatment and you’ll die. That’s your choice. Like eventually you will die. So it’s kind of, it’s weird to be called brave or strong when I’m not doing anything other than trying to not die, which is literally what anyone would do. I think so. And I think the other thing is, is it’s not necessarily the people feel, I mean, I’m sure I’m inspiring them because I’m putting myself out there and doing something that they haven’t had to deal with. So that is inspiring. And it’s, I love that I’m able to do that for people. But I think that I just see myself as being like anyone else. So it was weird to be considered brave or strong. And I think a lot of people say those things because they just don’t know how else to say thank you for putting your story out there almost. So I try to imagine in my head how that’s kind of what they’re coming from is just wanting to be thankful.

Gale Straub – Narration:

As you heard Rebecca, didn’t give up on her MFA. When she started cancer treatment last year, she’s a fairly prolific writer. It’s her best tool for sorting out her own life challenges. And also for reaching out to others.

Rebecca Sperry:

I am going to be finishing my MFA in 2023. And my hope is to write at least three books by the end of this. So by next summer, I’ll have hopefully three done. I know that sounds like a lot. I have one that I have finished it’s in the first draft. So obviously it’s still not even close to done, but my goal was this past summer to write a book on my first part of cancer treatment, sort of it’s like, um, a memoir and it’s about hiking through treatment. And my hope is to become an author, I guess. I, and I’ve really kind of gone back and forth, like what is the point of this degree? And I’ve done. I am kind of involved in freelancing as well, but I definitely feel more drawn towards wanting to be an author and publishing books versus doing freelance as a full-time job, I guess, because I just, I love the idea of publishing books.

Rebecca Sperry:

I’ve always wanted to be seeing my name in print, I guess, on the cover of a book. So that’s kind of my goal, I guess, ultimately. Yeah. Yeah. And this first book that you wrote is about the first part of your cancer treatment. Yeah, so the, the original goal was to just do one memoir and write about the last basically a year of my life. And as I was going through this summer and writing the first draft in that, starting from, it starts a little bit before I got diagnosed, but starting from August of 2020, I got to a point in the writing process where I just realized this book will be way too long. If I do a year in a book. And for me, it was like, I can’t fathom the idea of continuing to write one book for that long. Almost I needed to have a carrot needed to come along sooner in the process for me to continue going.

Rebecca Sperry:

So that’s kind of, that was the main driving force. I wanted to break it up into three books because to me that was easier to bite off and pieces like that. So the first book is right now, it’s about 67,000 words, which is about 230 pages. It still has a lot of work that needs to be done to it, but my goal, and I’m not sure if this is even a reasonable goal is to get it hopefully published by the end of this year or maybe a little bit later than that. But yeah, I love, I love getting it out. I just, I need to get it out of me and my master’s thesis is going to be something totally unrelated to cancer. And to get to that point where I’m able to process that piece of work, I have to get through this piece.

Rebecca Sperry:

So that’s kind of why I’m forcing it out of me, you know, as I’m literally living it still.

Gale Straub – Narration:

To wrap up our conversation I asked Rebecca to read another excerpt from her Instagram:

Rebecca Sperry:

Hiking has taught me again and again that I can face extreme physical pain and stand in the deepest, darkest places within my own mind and survive that I can come out to the other side. It is the trails that have been both my reprieve from the constant onslaught of cancer treatment in my place to go to remind myself that I haven’t done hard things that I can do hard things and that I can face my biggest fears and come out the other side.

Gale Straub:

So what do you think about the other side today?

Rebecca Sperry:

I’m actually really excited and I finally have reached this turning point in the process. So a lot of the time people who are in treatment, they are terrified of ending treatment. They hate treatment because it’s awful, but they don’t want it to ever end because it’s a safe place because you were doing something to stop the cancer and everyone’s watching you, you have this whole team that’s supporting you. And then all of a sudden it’s all gone and you’re out there in the world alone. It’s really scary. As I’ve, I’ve said before I am the cancer girl, like I have this sort of identity and it’s like, well, who am I when I’m done this? Like what happens next? And I finally, when I finally came to the realization that I want to trace the trails again in starting January, it was like all of a sudden I realized, okay, I’m still someone else.

Rebecca Sperry:

I’m still the other person. And I can go back to being her. And I’m very excited now to start to like have free time and not be getting treatment every three weeks and like maybe have normal blood counts. Like all of those things that I haven’t had for a year and even just school, like I actually can be a normal person and not constantly be thinking about cancer and treatment and worrying about if I’m going to die. Like you don’t really get to come up for air when you’re in treatment the whole time you’re underneath the water. And now it’s like, I can almost see the surface and I’m going to be able to breathe again soon and not be suffocating at the same time. I’m very hesitant to say in my head, you won’t get cancer again. I have the tendency to kind of prepare for the worst. So I always am thinking, well, it’ll come back. It’s just a matter of time, which is kind of an awful way to think. But at the same time, that’s just how I, I feel like I, I guess protect myself maybe from being caught off guard, but I’m really looking forward to having school and hiking be all I have to really think about again and not have to be worrying about treatment or cancer.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Rebecca recently shared quote “I wish people understood that cancer is fluid. It’s not a one and done it’s forever. Once you have it, there is no finish line because even when you cross under the threshold of that treatment center for your last round of active treatment, there are still months and years of followup appointments, scans, tests, or additional treatments that aren’t as aggressive.” She goes on to say that quote, “people want a neat and tidy bow around the box of cancer treatment, but that isn’t how it works. It’s a mess. That bow is a, not a piece of string that I will spend the rest of my life trying to untie.”

Rebecca Sperry:

I guess the only thing I would say is just that I, I hope that other people who are going through treatment know that they are capable of doing amazing things too, because I’m certainly not the only person that’s able to do these things. I just happened to be the person that people saw doing them. That would really be it, I guess. And that, I hope that if anyone does have any questions or anything there, they’re comfortable reaching out to me. Cause that’s the main reason I don’t have a private Instagram is because I want people to know that they can talk to me. Like I’m a normal person to just chat with me. If you have questions or if you have anything like you need to talk about.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Rebecca isn’t alone. One in eight, people with breasts will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. As the tape kept rolling. Rebecca and I chatted about our own individual experiences with mammograms ultrasounds and biopsies, our opinions on genetic testing. What it’s like having dense breasts. Rebecca told me that she likes to think that because she got it, seven of her friends may not sitting there. I didn’t think of her as hiker girl or cancer girl or even writer, girl. I just felt grateful to have walked in tandem with her for a morning. And that, that kind of open conversation about our breasts is possible.

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