She has survived breast cancer. Twice. She has undergone a lumpectomy, a mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. Yet the hardest thing Christina Radke has ever done, she said, is climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
“Like battling cancer, I didn’t know what to expect,” Radke said. “As I climbed, I was told to embrace my pain, and I thought, ‘Why am I suffering?’ But once I actually embraced the pain, I felt stronger and knew I could reach the top of the mountain.”
At 19,341 feet high, Mount Kilimanjaro — located in Tanzania, a country in East Africa — is the world’s highest free-standing mountain. While parts of Radke’s climb included green foliage and mild temperatures, others were rocky, steep, and with temperatures below freezing.
Radke was among 40 cancer survivors and caregivers to make the journey in January with the nonprofit Above + Beyond Cancer. The public charity, based in Des Moines, Iowa, aims “to elevate the lives of those affected by cancer and to create a healthier world.” The group provides weekly cancer survivorship programs in Iowa and the opportunity to go on an annual trip.
The group’s founder, Dr. Richard Deming, has been an oncologist for 35 years. From his experience, cancer survivors are especially prepared for such challenges.
“As cancer patients go through their cancer journey, they develop an understanding of the inherent strength that they already possess but may not have realized,” Deming said. “As a result of their cancer journey, they gain confidence in their own abilities and are better able to face challenges in the future. The second thing that I’ve noticed is that cancer patients come through their cancer journey with a greater sense of compassion and generosity. They know that they have received the help of others along the way, and now they want to reach out to ‘pay it forward’ by reaching out to others in need.”
Radke, an operational risk consultant for Wells Fargo, wasn’t the only team member on the trip. It turns out that Mary McGough, an administrative assistant for Wells Fargo and two-time cancer survivor, was also a part of the group.
McGough was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2010; three years later, doctors found cancer in her appendix. Like Radke, McGough marks climbing Mount Kilimanjaro among her greatest, and most difficult, accomplishments.
“The most rewarding thing was I made it through each day, even with aches and pains,” McGough said of the six-day journey. “You just keep going. It’s amazing what your body does when you don’t think you can do it.”
“It’s amazing what your body does when you don’t think you can do it.”
Giving back in Africa
The nonprofit’s annual trips build on Deming’s observations, allowing participants to give back to others and overcome physical challenges with their new sense of strength.
Prior to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the group spent several days at Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, visiting patients, painting the walls, and donating blankets, toiletries, and other much-needed items.
“It was very overwhelming to think about the care we take for granted,” Radke said. “They have six to eight beds in one room with 20 patients. They were so grateful we were there, and I was so grateful for the experience.”
On the night before they left for the climb, Above + Beyond Cancer hosted a dinner to raise awareness about a project to provide patients and their caregivers a place to stay while receiving treatment away from home. The nonprofit also donated $10,000 — raised partially through fundraising efforts by climb participants — for the hospital to build the Kenyatta Hope Hostel.
“When we visited the hospital, we saw a family that couldn’t leave to go home every day, so they slept there,” McGough said. “The nurses said families sometimes sleep under beds or outside. The need for this place is real, and we saw that.”
One step at a time
The group felt nervous and excited the night before the climb, Radke said. During the climb, they would face obstacles like altitude sickness, steep terrains, freezing temperatures, and wind gusts of up to 40 miles an hour.
“When we started, I don’t think people knew how hard it would be, but no one complained,” McGough said.
On the fifth day of the climb, participants hung more than 800 prayer flags dedicated to family, friends, and members of the community who could not join the group because they were still battling or had lost their battles with cancer.
“Tears streamed down our faces as we came together in a group embrace,” Deming said. “The power of this moment was palpable. Flying overhead were 800 reasons for our being together on the mountain.”
Deming climbed the final stretch on the sixth day with Radke, who is also a patient of his.
“It was cold, all of our water froze, and Christina fell down several times,” Deming said. “I remember hugging her and saying how proud I was of her and how she inspired me. Even though she was in pain, I saw Christina’s strength as she kept finding a reason to take one more step. It was the same for Mary. She found the strength to take one more step, and she made it to the top.”
McGough said the synergy of the group helped them all make it to the mountaintop just after sunrise on Jan. 12.
“We all made it to the top,” McGough said. “Dr. Deming said, ‘It’s not in spite of our cancer that we did this. It’s because of our cancer.’”
The participants still keep in touch; many of them also participate in the nonprofit’s weekly workout classes. “All of those people feel like family to me,” Radke said. “When we see each other, it’s not ‘hello.’ It’s a hug.”
Even though Radke never desired to climb a mountain, she now encourages others to conquer difficult challenges. It may be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, but it will also be among the most invigorating, she said.
“The most rewarding thing you can do is push yourself to accomplish things like this and live in the moment,” Radke said. “Don’t wait or put things off.”