That simple message on my phone mail at work was the last thing I expected to hear.
Every year I went in for a routine well-woman exam, and every year I was sent the little postcard saying my results were normal. The phone call was bad news. At the time I received the message I was thirty-two, and my work as a systems analyst for a large St. Louis corporation had me in charge of a major project with a team of six people, all of us sharing too small a space and working long hours. To say I found the job stressful would be putting it mildly.
When I originally took the job I had looked forward to the challenge and prestige of the position but had eventually discovered that dealing with personality clashes and demanding customers weren’t the kind of stimuli I wanted. The only thing that kept me going during the week was the thought that on the weekend my husband Martin and I could escape to the lake where we were learning to windsurf. Even when the wind didn’t blow the lake was still a wonderful escape. There was a core group of dedicated windsurfers of varying abilities who hung out and camped most weekends, providing support for each other, sharing campfires and swapping windsurfing stories and tips on gear.
Such was their enthusiasm and inspiration that Martin and I had recently decided that we wanted to concentrate on improving our windsurfing skills, and the hit-or-miss chance that the summer winds might coincide with our weekend camping trips did not give us enough time on the water. Martin would complete his university degree later in the year and we were beginning to make plans to take a year off and travel the U.S. and Baja, Mexico, pursuing windsurfing opportunities. After getting our fill of travel we intended to settle somewhere we could spend more time on the water. Friends who had introduced me to windsurfing had recently finished their own one year sojourn and had settled in the Columbia River Gorge area. We visited them there, learned to waterstart (finally!), and were enchanted by the beautiful northwest and the people we met. They all seemed to put fun before work . . . so contrary to our own life.
After receiving that unexpected phone message at work, four long months of tests eventually led to my being diagnosed with cervical cancer. I desperately read the literature given me by the doctor, and was informed that cervical cancer progresses slowly and is easy to treat . .
After receiving that unexpected phone message at work, four long months of tests eventually led to my being diagnosed with cervical cancer. I desperately read the literature given me by the doctor, and was informed that cervical cancer progresses slowly and is easy to treat . . . usually. However, the surgeon I consulted informed me that not only did I have cancer, but it was an aggressive strain and I needed a radical hysterectomy as soon as possible.
Martin and I were already well into our plans to leave town, and this news blindsided us. When I explained to my doctor that I was planning on quitting my job in three months to travel for a year, he gave me a dubious look and said I might want to consider postponing the trip for a few years, as health insurance would be difficult for me to obtain after being diagnosed with cancer. A few years! The thought of having to remain in my stressful job, after I’d already begun counting the weeks until I could quit, was unbearable.
Somewhere amid the preparations for surgery, the unplanned six-week absence from work and the soul searching such events bring about, I decided that part of my plan to get well would have to include taking the trip as planned, no matter what the doctor had said. It was obvious that my life had to change. The cancer was material proof that I was on the wrong path, that I needed to deconstruct the pieces of my existence and rebuild them until it contained all the good things—Martin, my love of windsurfing, my sense of adventure—and none of the bad things—the tension, the pressure and the drudgery that my work week had become. I realized that the problem was not so much the job—plenty of people would thrive in that environment—but my approach to it. I needed a new start.
The surgery and subsequent recovery period were difficult. While I was convalescing at home, Martin and I put our house on the market and began finalizing the details of our trip. I investigated insurance alternatives and discovered the COBRA law that allows employees to pay for continuing insurance coverage after they leave. I consulted my doctor for the names of colleagues along our travel path whom I could visit for my three-monthly check-ups. Some people may travel from one tourist site to the next, mine was a road map highlighted by oncology stops. I returned to work, my energy low, and worried that I would be unable to windsurf—would the trip be wasted for me?
Finally, the day came for Martin and me to hit the road in our truck and travel trailer with both of our housecats reluctantly in tow. My mother gave us a small turtle as a good luck symbol for our trip . . . free of encumbrances and carrying our home with us. I tearfully waved goodbye to her and to our friends, and with that, we left town. The farther we got down the road, the bigger the smiles became on our faces. So free and happy was I at that point that I can hardly remember the intervening details between departing from St. Louis and arriving at our campsite in Baja.
I was still stiff and sore from the surgery when we arrived in Mexico, but I decided that I had to get on the water, to let my old life, my old worries, and my cancer fall away from me. From the moment I began windsurfing, all the pain disappeared. Over the next three months, I regained my strength, learned to sail in the footstraps, and, finally, made my very first jibe. We made many friends at the campground, all of them as encouraging and supportive as our friends at the lake.
Our year of travel, from Baja, to California, all over the southwestern United States, to our ultimate arrival in the Gorge, where we decided to make our new home, was the beginning of my new life. The journey had helped us leave all thoughts of cancer behind.
Sixteen short months after that first surgery, the cancer returned. This time, it was not simply a matter of surgery. A few cancer cells had eluded the surgeon and were growing into a tumor that required special treatment in Seattle, a four-hour drive away. That spring Martin and I spent many rain-soaked weeks in Seattle while I underwent hospitalization, chemotherapy, twice daily radiation, and finally more surgery. I sought reassurance from the doctors that I would be able to return to windsurfing once the treatment was completed and summer returned. The doctors, however, were worried about my left leg. The effects of the radiation on my sciatic nerve might render my leg useless for anything but moderate walking. Luckily, as the weeks of recovery progressed my leg showed no signs of the weakness and pain I’d been warned to expect. I survived the treatment and long recovery period with the support of my husband, family, and friends. I firmly believe that my new found happiness and our outdoor lifestyle were integral to my recovery with less pain and anguish, and with a more positive outlook, than I experienced during the first treatment in St. Louis. Less than three months after my surgery, I was once again on the water.
Four years later I am thirty-eight years old and remain cancer free. Windsurfing helped me make the decision to take a risk and leave my old life behind, and in doing so I finally escaped the mindset that a high paying job and expensive possessions define a fulfilling life. True happiness comes when you learn to listen to your body and your heart, to follow your dreams, and to savor the wind in your hair.
Kristen Olson is a watercolor artist who lives by the Columbia River Gorge with her husband and two cats. She is sponsored by Chinook, Da Kine, NoLimitz, and Okespor.