Breast cancer recovery journey inspires Mt. Rainier ascent

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — The first time, Beth Bowers climbed Mount Rainier because it was there.

The second time, she climbed the Washington State icon because she was still here.

An avid runner, cyclist and hiker, the 59-year-old Oxford woman decided to attempt the Mount Rainier climb as she was struggling with her long term recovery from breast cancer treatment.

"I attacked climbing Mount Rainier a lot like I (approached) cancer," said Bower, a respiratory therapy instructor at Itawamba Community College-Tupelo. "One foot in front of the other and you're there."

The support from her colleagues, her church and friends helped get through cancer treatment and cheered her on during her preparation for the climb this summer.

"I feel really blessed that I had the ability to do it," Bowers said of her second Rainier climb. "It made me think I can do just about anything."

In 1992, the Florida native was living in the Seattle area and working as a respiratory therapist at a Kirkland, Washington hospital.

"I was 32 and crazy," Bowers said. "I decided what the heck."

She connected with guide through a friend and made arrangements to climb with him.

"In 1992, not a lot of women were climbing then," Bowers said, and she didn't want to risk getting left behind because she was slower.

To ascend Mount Rainier, climbers work their way up to Camp Muir at 10,000 feet elevation.

For the second part of the journey, climbers, tethered to each other by ropes, leave Camp Muir at midnight so they make the summit early to mid-morning. The timing for the summer climbs works to reduce the risk of getting caught in an avalanche, Bowers said. During the day, the snow softens in the sunshine and is more likely to come tumbling down.

"We had great weather until the top of the mountain," Bowers said.

At one point she nearly turned back, but she sat and refueled with a granola bar and decided to go on.

"I had told too many people (that she was climbing Mount Rainier); it was pure tenacity," Bowers said.

By 7:30 a.m., she was standing on the summit.

"It was really cool," Bowers said. "But it was really, really hard."

Bowers had always been diligent in keeping up with annual mammograms. Her late mother was a breast cancer survivor. But it wasn't a screening mammogram that found her cancer.

Bowers, who moved to Northeast Mississippi to help care for family members in 2010, was working as a respiratory therapist in the North Mississippi Medical Center Neonatal Intensive Care. She was leaning over an isolette when she felt a pain on the left side of her breast.

"I thought I'd better get it checked out," Bowers said.

She went through a diagnostic mammogram and an ultrasound. Breast specialist and radiologist Dr. Susan Shamburger told her, "I think we can clear up the left side with antibiotics, now let's talk about the right side," Bowers remembered.

She was diagnosed in November 2013 with Stage 1 breast cancer, three days shy of her 54th birthday. She opted for a lumpectomy surgery in December, followed by radiation. She had some hiccups following the surgery, which removed three lymph nodes on the right side.

The six weeks of radiation treatment proved draining. She would start her 12-hour shift at 7 a.m. have radiation at 8:30 a.m. and then return to work. She funneled all of her remaining energy and focus into caring for the NICU babies.

"It really knocked the wind out of my sails," Bowers said. "Just to feel normal was the hardest part."

Because her breast cancer was estrogen-driven, her oncologist recommended Tamoxifen, a selective estrogen receptor modulator. It typically is taken over several years to reduce the risk of recurrence. But Bowers had trouble tolerating the side effects.

"I felt like my ankles were going to break," she said.

After trying a different drug in the same class with the same side effects, she discontinued the treatment in consultation with her oncologist. It increased her risk that the cancer could return, but for Bowers, being able to cycle, run and hike were critical for her long term quality of life.

"I decided I wanted quality over quantity," Bowers said. "I didn't want to be sitting on the side line."

When she hit her five year anniversary as a survivor in 2018, she had regained much of her strength and stamina, but she didn't feel she had gotten back to her pre-cancer fitness levels. On a long drive for Texas, she decided she needed an epic goal: she would climb Mount Rainier again.

Bowers connected with Adam Holt at Elev8 Fitness in Tupelo and told him she wanted to be ready to challenge the 14,000- foot mountain before her 60th birthday in November. She would have to shoulder a 40-pound pack on her 130-pound frame.

"He said, 'Now that's a goal,'" she said.

For her first trip, she trained by cycling and running up and down high school stadium stairs. She knew it wouldn't cut the mustard for her second trip.

"It was nothing like what I did (for her 2019) trip," Bowers said. "I knew I had to be prepared; I was older and beaten up by cancer. I knew I had to put more into it."

For 10 months, she and three women pushed themselves in intensely, cheering each other on. They focused on interval training and strength training. She ran trails in the woods to strengthen her ankles.

"Everything had a purpose," Bowers said.

A friend with University of Mississippi connections joined her in running the stairs at Vaught Hemingway stadium twice a week.

After the months of hard training, she headed to Seattle, ready to take on Rainier.

The first part of the climb went very well. Her climbing group, with eight other climbers and three guides, was wonderful and fit together like long lost friends.

They were feeling strong when they reached Camp Muir at 10,000 feet at 3 p.m. However, the weather was shifting quickly, as it often does on Mount Rainier. Winds were howling at 75 miles an hour.

"Seventy-five mile an hour winds can blow you off the mountain," Bowers said.

Along with the wind, it was raining at 10,000 feet and snowing at 11,000 feet.

"You can handle the snow, but not rain then snow," Bowers said. "You'll get hypothermia."

At 6 p.m., they were told to try to sleep.

"I couldn't sleep it was so windy," Bowers said.

At 2:15 a.m., the weather was still dangerous and they had lost their window to make it to the summit safely.

"It was extremely disappointing," Bowers said. "But we had to stay safe."

At 8 a.m. when they started down the mountain from Camp Muir, the winds were still 75 miles an hour.

"All you could see was snow," Bowers said. "We got down as fast as we could."

Despite her disappointment, the interrupted climb has helped her see her journey more clearly.

"Not making it to the top made me stop and realize how many people had helped me," Bowers said.

Because Bowers just started a two-year master's degree program, another attempt at reaching the Mount Rainier summit will have to wait awhile, but she hasn't given up.

"My plan is to do it again," Bowers said.

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Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, http://djournal.com