This guest blog post by Tania Hecht
The summer before I was diagnosed with cancer, I was in the mountains teaching backpacking and wilderness skills to children, many of them from disadvantaged backgrounds. At 16, I had spent the last ten summers exploring the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California, and I found purpose and solace on backpacking trips. That August, I had summited one of the highest peaks in the area, a harrowing scramble up the side of a mountain covered in loose rocks. When I reached the top, sweaty and shaky, I was rewarded with some of the most beautiful views I’d ever seen of Sonora Pass. Fewer than six months later, on a bright February day, I was diagnosed with leukemia. My parents, both in medicine, had misdiagnosed me with anemia a few weeks before. When iron supplements failed to remedy my flagging energy and easy bruising, my father grimly consulted his textbooks and brought me to my pediatrician. That afternoon, as we waited anxiously for my lab results, I sat on the porch and soaked in the sunshine and the trees, just starting to bloom in the warm Bay Area weather.
That evening, my parents, sister, and I drove to Children’s Hospital Oakland, where I was admitted with Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia, a sub-type of AML. Lying in the emergency room that night, my first question to my doctors was, “Will I be able to go to the mountains this summer?” When they told me no, I secretly willed them to be wrong. I spent the next four months in treatment in the air-filtered oncology ward at Children’s Hospital. For weeks at a time, my immune system was so weak that a cold or flu could have killed me. Visitors scrubbed up before entering my hospital room. I missed the outdoors with an ache and I felt confined in the hospital. When I tried to curl up near the window in my room and stare out at the trees, my nurses gently reminded me that chemotherapy causes light-sensitivity and requested that I go back to bed.
Held captive in my room, I dreamed of the cherry blossoms I saw in bloom the day I was diagnosed, and I imagined floating to the roof of the hospital, where I could breathe fresh air. I longed to be in the Sierras, and was secretly convinced that I wouldn’t be cured until I could escape from Children’s Hospital and breathe the mountain air. Chemotherapy might fight off cancer cells, but being locked in the isolation ward was a different kind of poison. After my final round of in-patient chemotherapy, my blood counts bounced back with unexpected speed, and my oncologist gave me permission to spend a day or two in the mountains.