For Patti McCarthy, hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada, was the ideal way to keep her sanity and perspective during a recent battle with breast cancer.
“It was something that gave me peace of mind. I felt like I was defeating cancer when I was out there,” said McCarthy, 53, a nurse and longtime Encinitas resident.
Hiking might not be for everyone, she concedes, but those fighting the disease can improve their quality of life by doing things they care about. “Find a passion so you’re not just focusing on cancer all the time,” she said.
McCarthy put down her thoughts and observations in a self-published book, called “Hiking Cancer,” which she co-wrote with her husband and hiking partner, Lynn Shapiro, 54. The book came out in October, and was drawn from blog and journal entries written by the couple, as well as essays by McCarthy on such topics as losing her hair and capacity to taste food during chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and also information about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
McCarthy received her diagnosis during a phone call from her doctor in October 2012. She recalled that he never used the word “cancer,” but instead told her she had a carcinoma, a term she was familiar with from her job.
“I don’t think I heard anything he said after that,” she said. “It really threw me for a loop.”
The couple had already hiked some sections of the Pacific Crest Trail at the time of her diagnosis, and McCarthy was determined to continue their quest to eventually trek over every portion of the 2,650-mile trail, even during her cancer treatment.
That decision caused friends, family and even Shapiro to worry.
Although Shapiro was concerned about the hikes during McCarthy’s illness, he said he knew how important it was to his wife, and, “I felt confident whatever trouble we got into, I could get us out of it.”
During treatment, the couple hiked a total of 256 miles on the trail, and since McCarthy’s treatment ended in 2013 and she was declared in remission from cancer, they have brought their total to 750 miles. In hindsight, Shapiro said, the decision to keep hiking during treatment was the right one.
“The strength Patti got from the hikes … proved to be an important part of her recovery,” he said.
Maintaining a sense of humor was also important. Thanks to her radiation treatments and diagnostic X-rays, McCarthy earned the nickname “Glow in the Dark” among the Pacific Crest Trail hiking community. One hiker and blogger they met even organized a nighttime hike in McCarthy’s honor in which about 20 participants carried glow sticks along the trail.
“That simple act did a lot for me,” she said. “It put me on Cloud 9.”
One lesson she learned, said McCarthy, is that cancer patients don’t have to stay upbeat and positive all the time, as many people urge them to do. Instead, she said, there were days when she needed to cry or indulge in an angry rant.
“I thought, the only thing I’m positive about is that cancer sucks,” she said.
“Also, I learned that support comes in the most unusual places, where you don’t expect it, so you need to be open to that.”
Among the support she did count on was that of her husband, and the couple’s three children, who are all in their 20s.
The couple said that people who have read the book have said it resembles a love story because of how the experience brought them together.
When he was a child, Shapiro said, his mother had breast cancer, and he tried to model his own behavior after that of his father, who was very supportive during his mother’s illness.
“He was always there for my mom,” Shapiro said. So when his wife became ill, he said, “I stayed with her. I didn’t shy away from the process.”
McCarthy is back to working as a nurse part-time, visiting patients in their homes to help them stay healthy and out of the hospital. The couple are planning their next Pacific Crest Trail hike for August or September.
As for her ordeal with cancer, she said, “I think what got me through is my stubbornness. I tried really hard each day to not let cancer get the best of me.”
Find the couple’s hiking and cancer blog at McShapPCTjournal.wordpress.com. To purchase a signed copy of “Hiking Cancer,” email them at email@example.com.