Hiking & Trails

For Idaho cancer survivors, hiking mountains is a way to find themselves — and a cure

After her breast cancer diagnosis in August 2015, Diane Hughes felt like everything in her life had changed. Even after finishing treatments the next spring and receiving a clean bill of health, she just felt different.

“For three years I just felt like ... I’m never going to be the same person,” Hughes said in a phone interview. “I used to run five miles and now I can’t finish one. You’re sitting at home just waiting for (cancer) to come back.”

Instead the 44-year-old tried to throw herself back into routine. But it wasn’t until the spring of 2018 when she found something that started to make her feel like herself again. She attended a fundraiser dinner for Expedition Inspiration, an Idaho-based nonprofit that funds breast cancer research through hikes and climbs.

At the dinner, Hughes realized that she knew several of the attendees and board members (including her oncologist). She felt connected to the organization right away. But it was talk of the annual Climb for a Cure — to the summit of Idaho’s highest peak that year — that really caught her interest.

“I nudged my husband and was like, ‘Could I climb Mount Borah?’” Hughes said. “Because I am not that person.”

Eleven of the 12 people who climbed the Grand Teton with Expedition Inspiration pose together with a flag from the nonprofit, which raises funds for breast cancer research. Katie Anchestegui

Climbing to cure breast cancer

Quickly Hughes learned that she is the kind of person who climbs Mount Borah. She was part of the 2018 group that summited the 12,667-foot peak, and she joined the Expedition Inspiration board of directors, where she serves as secretary.

Hughes knew she wanted to join in the 2019 hike. After being one of few cancer survivors to take part in the Borah hike, she wanted more survivors to take part in the trek. This year, Expedition Inspiration took on the Grand Teton, the highest peak in the Grand Teton National Park, at 13,776 feet.

“The analogy of breast cancer and climbing mountains ... it’s one step at a time,” said Hailey Malepeai, executive director of Expedition Inspiration. “You have a support system but it’s you who has to slog up the mountain.”

Tonya Hylton holds a tribute flag during the Expedition Inspiration hike on the Grand Teton in July 2019. Tribute flags are used often in mountaineering, and the Idaho nonprofit has adopted them as a way to tribute breast cancer survivors or lost loved ones. Tonya Hylton

After months of training hikes and rock climbing practice, a group of 12 Expedition Inspiration hikers, nine of them breast cancer survivors, started climbing the Grand Teton on July 25. The hikers enlisted the help of Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, who led the trek and set up a high camp about 8 hours into the hike. The next day, Hughes and two other cancer survivors, along with Malepeai and a photographer, made it safely to the summit.

Cancer recovery and hiking

The climbs help fund cancer research and Expedition Inspiration’s yearly research symposium, where scientists and physicians share unpublished work. Malepeai said participants workshop their ongoing research, form collaborations and get insight from other professionals while there’s still time to implement that feedback in their work — something that’s uncommon in medical research.

“Usually research is so proprietary and people are so protective of their work,” Malepeai said. “It’s unbelievable what has come out of (the symposiums).”

But perhaps the biggest benefit of the events is for the cancer survivors who participate. Grace Routh, a 39-year-old from Boise, said the hike showed her how to find power in her cancer recovery.

“It’s helpful for physical recovery to have something to shoot for and be around women who are trying to recover in a big way,” said Routh.

Malepeai said research shows being outdoors is beneficial in and of itself. In addition, the exercise can have mental health benefits. Routh said she felt more confident as she started training for the Grand Teton hike.

“Something I wanted to prove to myself is it’s possible to go through something really hard and come out better and stronger for it,” Routh said.

Hughes also said hiking and climbing has helped her become a stronger person. She still doesn’t feel like the person she was before her breast cancer diagnosis, but she does feel more like herself.

“(My husband) would always say to me before cancer, ‘You only do things you know you can do,’” Hughes said. “Now, that Borah thing opened my whole world.

“Looking back, (my cancer diagnosis) is the best thing to ever happen to me. I lived a very cautious life, and now I’m climbing the Grand Teton? Like, what the hell?”

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