Many of us never climb even one mountain in our lives.
Theresa Britt has climbed two.
The second mountain was the famed Mount Everest — the tallest mountain in the world. Theresa climbed to its base camp in a 10-day journey she describes as “exhausting, physically and emotionally.” But also “incredibly life-changing, and a reminder of what’s truly important in this world.”
Those words also can describe Theresa’s first mountain climb: her successful battle against breast cancer.
“Nothing can prepare you for the words you have cancer,” Theresa said. “I thought, I’m not going to see my daughter get married. I’m not going to see grandchildren. How do you tell your mom, your dad ... how do you tell your kids that Mom’s got cancer?”
Theresa had to find a way.
There were tears — from everyone. “It was hard,” said Theresa. “My kids took it really hard. My daughter, my son ... seeing my big, handsome, 6' 2" son cry was just devastating.”
But as Theresa broke the news of her illness to her children, in addition to explaining its seriousness, Theresa also explained the reasons she had to be optimistic.
“We caught the cancer early,” Theresa said. “That was a big part of it. And I had my team from Mercy Cancer Center on my side. That was a huge part of it.”
After feeling a lump in one of her breasts, Theresa had two mammograms — neither of which showed anything suspicious. But after the second mammogram, her Mercy radiologist strongly suggested an ultrasound — which revealed an area of concern.
“Let’s biopsy it right now,” she recalls her radiologist saying. And that biopsy revealed cancer in one of Theresa’s breasts. Further tests revealed cancer in the other.
After that, everything happened quickly. There were surgeries: first a double mastectomy, then reconstructive procedures. There was chemotherapy — always a difficult experience. “I felt like crap,” Theresa admits. “There were days that I only had the strength to come home, eat a little something, and go to bed.”
But there also was healing.
“I drew a lot of strength from my faith, from my family, and from my friends,” Theresa said. “My Mercy doctors ... all of them were there asking how I was every day, asking if they could do anything for me. They were all just incredible.”
Then one Mercy doctor in particular — Dr. Richard Deming, medical director of Mercy Cancer Center — asked Theresa a question that she never anticipated.
Theresa ... will you go to Nepal with me?
Dr. Deming would be taking a group of cancer survivors to the base camp of Mount Everest. It would be a spiritual journey: a celebration of the metaphorical mountain climb that every cancer patient faces, commemorated by a very real mountain climb that few people face. A rigorous, rocky expedition up the rugged Nepalese terrain to the base of the highest mountain in the world.
Theresa. Go to Nepal with me.
Even though cancer had left her body, Theresa wasn’t sure she was ready to leave for Nepal. “I was tired; I’d lost 20 pounds ... I was afraid that I wasn’t going to be strong enough. I couldn’t even start working out to strengthen for the trip because I’d just had reconstructive surgery.”
But Dr. Deming believed in Theresa — just as he’d believed in Theresa during her cancer fight. “He kept asking and asking. He promised that I could do it. He promised that he’d be with me every step of the way, just like he was with me every step of the way during my cancer treatments.”
Come to Nepal with me. Come to Nepal with me.
Theresa decided to go to Nepal.
She trained as best she could, managing to gain back 15 of the 20 pounds cancer had taken away. And then, with 13 other cancer survivors, Theresa joined Dr. Deming on the second mountain climb that would change her life.
“It was beautiful,” she said upon arriving in Nepal, the first step of her journey toward Everest’s base camp. “A faraway land of different people, different cultures, different clothes, different smells ....”
Then the climb began.
“It was exhausting,” she said of the first day’s climb toward Namche Bazaar — a terraced village accessible on foot only by summiting a seemingly endless series of earthen steps, each up to 18 inches high. “I really didn’t think I was going to make it. Physically and mentally, I was just drained. And so I had to find a way to focus on something other than myself.”
Which is what Theresa did.
“I decided to find someone else on the climb who was doing worse than I was and to help them, either physically or emotionally. That got me through that day. And every day after that.”
And every day after that got better. Each morning of the 10-day climb — and four-day descent — began with a gentle waking by Sherpas bearing hot tea. Then came a group breakfast, yoga in the crisp mountain air, and shared readings of blessings for the many hours ahead. “It was a glorious way to start the day,” Theresa said. “Hot tea, warm breakfast, yoga and blessings. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
But it did.
Theresa and every other climber brought with them “prayer flags”: multicolored cloths inscribed with personal wishes for themselves and loved ones — both those living and those passed. An ancient tradition, prayer flags are hung in the Himalayas where the mountain winds will pass over them; it is believed that the prayers will be taken by the winds to become one with the universe.
One morning, toward the end of her climb, Theresa awoke from a particularly cold and sleepless night ... and emerged from her tent to find her prayer flags — and hundreds of others — strung across the pure blue morning mountain sky.
“It was just beautiful,” said Theresa. “At that moment, all the pain and anguish and agony that I’d gone through on that trip ... it all was worth it. I saw my flags lifted up in prayer for myself and for everyone I love and have loved. I gave thanks that I made it, that I’m a part of others’ lives, and that they’re a part of mine.”
Today, back in Iowa with her family and friends, Theresa sums up her two mountain climbs with simple, heartfelt words.
“Don’t wait until you’re sick to do something. Don’t wait until something bad happens to do something good. This is a beautiful world. Live in it. And make sure that you tell the people you love that you love them.”
Every day in every way.