Cancer Survivor Climbs Mount Kilimanjaro, One Step at a Time

May 01, 2017 6:00 AM

Diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, a mother of two found that setting a big goal — climbing Africa’s tallest mountain — helped her get through day-to-day treatment.

As Kelly Luck started her final ascent to the top of Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, she watched the feet in front of her and counted.

One, two. One, two.

It was the fifth day of a grueling five-day trek to the summit of the tallest mountain in Africa, and she started the day with a plan to count every step.

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“I got so overwhelmed,” remembers Luck. “I’m like, ‘It’s going to be so many steps. Nope! All I can handle is two at a time. So, it’s just that one, two.’

“It’s that motion and getting yourself some momentum that’s really important and knowing that you’re working toward something so amazing.”

Luck’s Kilimanjaro adventure came almost two years to the day after she entered her local emergency room looking for an antibiotic prescription for a sinus infection and instead left with a cancer diagnosis.

That same focus — taking one step at a time toward a bigger goal — has continued to pull her through.

Unexpected hurdles

In March 2015, Luck, a healthy and active mother of two young boys, was feeling a little under the weather. After noticing some swelling in her lymph nodes, she made a trip to the emergency room.

SEE ALSO: 5 Things I Wish I Knew at the Time of My Stage 4 Cancer Diagnosis

“When I got there, they felt my lymph nodes and sent me right over to do a CT scan,” says Luck. “Then this poor, young doctor had to come in and say: ‘OK, I think you need to call your husband. It looks like you have cancer.’”

A biopsy led to a diagnosis of metastatic cancer, which then led to a diagnosis of thyroid cancer. But the thyroid cancer was determined to be secondary, and doctors could not locate the primary source of the cancer cells. The process was confusing and frustrating.

Luck, meanwhile, worried that her cancer was growing.

“That was when I decided I needed to get to U-M,” says Luck, a resident of Fenton, Michigan — about 40 miles north of Ann Arbor.

Two months after Luck learned she had stage 4 cancer, her new treatment team at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center found the source of her cancer cells: a previously undetected lump in her breast. 

At the same time, she found her source of hope in Anne Schott, M.D., a medical oncologist in the Breast Care Center.

“For the first two months (before going to U-M), I was told I was going to be on a ‘we’ll-help-you-live-longer plan,’” says Luck. “That was really devastating. I have little kids. How do you even think about the future? But Dr. Schott told me: ‘We're going to treat you with curative intent.’ I had just been waiting to hear those words for so long.

“She gave me hope that I got to the right person at the right time and that I was in the right place for treatment.”

Climbing higher mountains

A few years before her diagnosis, Luck heard about a Kilimanjaro trip offered by a women’s travel company and added it to her bucket list.

“Then I got diagnosed and thought there was no way I could make that happen,” says Luck. “But then I was in the middle of chemo, sitting with my sister. I looked at her and said: ‘Let’s just do it. Let’s set a goal. If I can get a couple of clean scans, I’m going to summit Kilimanjaro. We’re going to go.”

Having that goal, Luck says, helped her get through treatment. Chemo, radiation and a double mastectomy put her body — and her psyche — through the wringer.

“Having a dual diagnosis and to have one of them a stage 4 diagnosis at initial diagnosis is pretty rare and pretty dire,” she says. “And the type of cancer I have is pretty aggressive, so yeah. It was really hard. But I’ve tried to stay positive. I told myself that if you go down that black hole, you’re never going to come back. So stay up.”

Luck pushed through, using yoga and meditation to stay centered. She got her first clean scans in November 2015. Another came in May. And when the results of her third clean scan came in December 2016, she decided she was ready to tackle the mountain.

In early March, it was time to go. The trip involved 20 hours of flight time, followed by a five-day trek up the mountain through five temperate zones and a two-day trip back down. 

Despite her adrenaline and excitement, the excursion wasn’t easy.

“Day one, you start through the rainforest, and it was like 115 degrees and so hot and sweaty,” says Luck. “That first day I just hated myself. What am I doing? Why am I not on Bora Bora? I spent money to do this?”

Though she describes some of the hike as “brutal,” Luck says the effort paid off more than she ever dreamed. They made the final overnight trek from their camp to the summit on a clear, crisp night. Shooting stars filled the sky like fireworks. And then the sun rose over the endless horizon and she forgot all the stress and pain. It was all beauty.

“It was a very spiritual journey for me,” says Luck. “It’s a very quiet journey, those seven days. One, because you can’t breathe in the high altitude.”

She laughs.

“But two, it’s really a lot to take in,” she continues. “You really have to keep pushing yourself. There’s so many times you’re just exhausted and you don’t know how your brain and your legs are communicating, but you find a way to dig in. As I walked, I thought a lot about my journey. It was really good for me to process all of the things that maybe I had pushed away and hadn’t really thought about.”

Finding a purpose

When Luck got back down the mountain, she broadcast an emotional live video on social media, detailing her life-changing Kilimanjaro experience. By the time she got home, she discovered just how much that video had resonated — not just with her intended audience of close friends but also with people affected by cancer across the country.

SEE ALSO: Beating Colon Cancer with Trust, Treatment and Community

Suddenly, Luck felt that she had a purpose.

“I was the first person out of all my friends to be diagnosed with cancer,” says Luck. “I didn’t know anybody who had breast cancer like this before. So I was kind of on my own when I was diagnosed. I know I might have been the first, but I won’t be the last.

“This was an aha moment for me. OK, I’m here to help other people get through it.”

Her advice: Never underestimate the importance of setting goals.

Not everyone has the time or resources to set a goal as big as a trek up the tallest mountain on the African continent, of course, but Luck firmly believes that it’s important for anyone with cancer to have something they can work toward in the future.

“You need to get through what you’re battling today, but it’s important to have something that can be a feat for you; something you can be proud of and can learn from,” she says. “You’re going to get over that hump. I think that’s really helped my attitude and really helped me want to get through things.”

She’s already started training for her next goal: a 10-mile race in August called The Crim.

In the meantime, there are the visits every three weeks to the U-M cancer center for infusion, visits with Schott every three months, and scans every six months.

Luck, a Michigan State University graduate and loyal Spartan, is now happy to share allegiance with U-M.

“The treatment I’ve received from my team here has been top-notch,” she says. “When Dr. Schott said those words to me and really went for it … I don’t know any other doctor who would have done that for me. She gave me a whole different chance for my life.”

Luck says she feels stronger than ever — and not just in a physical sense.

“I feel at peace, I think, with how things have turned out, with whatever my future is going to be,” she says. “I think this trip gave that to me.”