Before my last dose of chemotherapy, Brian and I had made plans to do so many fun things once I was done with treatment. A party! A trip! Climbing! But after my last treatment and surgery, I was more down than ever. Friends were texting me, asking to come over, but I refused to see anyone. I had spent the last 8 months trying to just stay alive that I hadn’t processed anything that had happened to me. Or maybe I just didn’t have the brain power to think about anything other than pain or nausea. Now that the pain was subsiding and the nausea wasn’t constant, I was pretty angry about all the changes I had been through. I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror or feel like myself whatsoever. I even went so far as saying “Favia is dead” and declared my birthday was now “Death day”. I promptly removed my birthday from facebook and even tried to change it to the day I felt that my soul had been completely obliterated by the cancer. I’m surprised that I didn’t go as far as calling myself a new name!!
During chemotherapy, Brian (my soulmate) and I had discussed getting married. One day after finishing treatment, Brian called me to the back room saying that our newest kitten was hurt! But to my surprise, the kitten was chewing on something (a ring) around his neck and Brian was down on one knee. Brian proposed and I was so excited to spend our lives together!
However, I was still so angry that I really wanted to hit something (or everything), but I didn’t know how to punch at all. So with stitches still in my leg and still weak from chemotherapy, I went downtown and limped into the Cleveland Boxing Club. There was a strong black guy at the front desk, and I told him as strongly as I could, “I want to learn how to box.” I didn’t want to let on how nervous I was or that I was so incredibly weak. I had never boxed before or even been near a boxing ring. Everything I knew about boxing comes from the Rocky Series (particularly Rocky IV with the Russian).
He told me I could start right away with personal training. After warming up, the session composed of mainly leg work. This was the first time I had used my legs in 8 months. After 45 minutes, I guess I looked so pathetic that he ended our session. I was disappointed that I didn’t get in the ring and hit anybody, but I was also super proud that I had survived… no…..crushed my first workout back!
After going to the boxing club regularly for a while, my sessions were lasting about double the time of my first one. My trainer told me I was doing much better. “You were really struggling when you first came here.” Although meant as a complement, this actually hurt me a bit. Evidently, he saw right through my “healthy” façade! Although I didn’t become the next Rocky, I was confident that I was ready to go back to the rock climbing gym.
By this time, it had been a year since I had squeezed my feet into rock climbing shoes. I went right when the gym opened so I could avoid anyone seeing me. I tried to warm up on a V0 like I did before, but I couldn’t do the first move. I couldn’t lift my arms up and pull myself up whatsoever. I started trying to traverse, and that went a little better. After 15 minutes, I started walking out the gym, and the worker asked, “Done already?” I sadly said, Yes, I’m already tired. But I was determined to get back to where us. I went to the rock gym nearly everyday to gain back my mobility and strength.
After about a month of traversing, I decided I was ready to try to climb vertically again. I picked a V0 that was just a jug haul up the wall. I tried it and failed. But another gym member was rooting me on so I got back on the wall and I finally finished my first problem!! After this milestone, I was able to work on my climbing technique and I began reading online how to train for climbing. I formulated spreadsheets with different workouts and kept track of my progress. I needed to get in climbing shape because Brian and I were going sport climbing in Panama for our honeymoon in three months.
Finally, our wedding day was here. I was still on antibiotics and fighting a chronic infection, but I wasn’t going to let that get me down. We had rented out the entire Rainforest at the Cleveland Zoo, so people could eat and drink among the animals. It was an absolutely wonderful day surrounded by all our friends and family. Afterwards, we flew off to the real Rainforest in Panama to hike and climb! We signed up for a climbing tour at crag in Boquete that had crazy unique rock formations. Our tour guide was an unbelievable climber. When he set up top rope for us, he just free climbed without a rope to the top, doing acrobatic tricks along the way! Now it was my turn to climb. I hadn’t touched real rock in 2 years! I started on a 5.8s and 5.9s and they went smoothly. I was feeling real bold and confident so I asked the guide to set up a top rope on a 5.11-. In retrospect, that would have been WAYYYY to hard for me to finish. The guide said, “why don’t you lead climb this 5.10 because lead climbing is how you get strong.” I reluctantly agreed despite only having done it a handful of times. I start climbing up and made my first clip with shaking hands. I kept climbing up and it took me several tries to make my second clip. The guide yells up, “You are bad at clipping.” I laughed and kept going. From this point on, I climbed clip to clip. It took me 45 minutes to finish the route, but I did it! This was the highlight of our trip!
Back in Cleveland, I hit the gym hard again and made sure not to miss a workout! That taste of real rock made me hungry to get back to bouldering at Coopers Rock in West Virginia. During this time I also learned how to set in the gym. For a few months, I was a somewhat regular setter at the Cleveland Rock Gym. Setting was much harder, physically and mentally, than I thought. I give props to all the setters in the world!
After taking 2.5 years of leave from medical school, I decided to start back. It was scary going back when I didn’t know anyone. I continued to climb, but with my long hours at school, it was hard to make it to the gym. So Brian and I built a home wall/roof in our attic so I could train regularly despite not being able to go to the gym as frequently. School was mentally taxing and making up balanced workouts was very hard for me. I bought a TrainingBeta membership and they sent me 3 bouldering workouts a week. This made it so I didn’t have to worry about how I was going to get stronger, I just had to follow their instructions. Currently, I am on week 107 of training!! After following their training for about six months, I went back to Coopers and finished my main obsession, helicopter (V5). This was evidence that discipline and training works!!!
Despite battling multiple illnesses during medical school, I was able to graduate and start my career in Albuquerque, NM. I was super excited to finally start working and live somewhere that had accessible outdoor climbing. I was feeling good and ready to be the best pathologist (and climber) I could be. I was climbing stronger than ever, and before leaving Ohio, I finished all my projects at Cooper’s Rock.
During this time, while I was working on feeling physically better, I was also working on feeling mentally better. The surgical scars were weighing heavy on my mind. Some people see them as evidence of conquered battles, but for me, they were just reminders of a horrible time. The scars made it so I couldn’t move on or pretend that cancer never happened to me. I talked to a plastic surgeon about removing the scars, but laser therapy didn’t help and actual surgery would require me to not move for weeks. As much as I didn’t want the scars, I couldn’t bear to be stuck in bed for weeks again! So I decided that tattoos were the answer! I didn’t have any tattoos, but I had always been a fan. I interviewed several local artists, and eventually, I found the best artist for me and made an appointment for the next week. When the time came, I was so nervous and shaking on his table, afraid that it was going to hurt. Once he started and I saw the awesome work, he was doing, I knew I had made the right decision. Five hours later, I had my first tattoo and I looooved it!! It went so well that I made another appointment for a month later to get my second tattoo to cover two scars on my chest. I love this tattoo even more!
This month, February 2018, marks five years of being in remission. I finally feel as if I am moving past the cancer chapter of my life and ready to see what life has in store for me next!
5 thoughts on “Climbing with Cancer: The Recovery”
Your story is amazing Favia! It gives me hope and inspiration with my husband’s cancer diagnosis. Thank you !
Thank you for your thoughtful writings. I’m a 26 year survivor of Hodgkins. I had chemo and radiation. My main tumor was in my chest. I got diagnosed at 26. I’m 52, so I was excited for my last bday because I doubled my life span since cancer diagnose. Best to you! Congrats on ANW tonight. I was cheering you on. I’ll keep cheering you on as you continue on through life’s journey.
Saw you on American Ninja Warrior, so googled you and found your page. Very inspiring story. You looked very “ripped” on TV… you have put in a lot of time, work and effort to come back the way you have. Congratulations on your accomplishments… You go girl!!!
Thanks to the excellent guide
Wow. What an amazing story. U r a inspiration. Thank u for sharing your streangth and vulnerability. It is truly touching. And mad props to ur husband!
Keep climbing….rock on!!