Climb On: Finding a New Identity After Cancer

By: Sue "Tsunami" Andryk

Weight? 260 pounds.

For the first time in my life I fudged my weight by rounding up. After all, if I’m going to fill out a liability release form for rock climbing I should be 100% sure that the ropes are going to hold my weight when I fall.

In retrospect, I was being totally ridiculous.

Rock climbing terrified me. I considered myself too fat and out of shape to pull myself up a rock face meant more for mountain goats with cloven hooves than humans my weight. Add to that neuropathy from chemotherapy which meant limited feeling in my toes, feet that cramped on a regular basis, and weak hands. Oh, and a fear of heights. But, despite my self doubts, I wanted to challenge myself and get outside of my comfort zone so I signed up for a week of rock climbing in Colorado with First Descents.  

Before I had cancer I wasn’t one to live inside my comfort zone. I was a digital nomad traveling around the world while working from anywhere on my computer, and I valued freedom over security. I was “Out Living It” exploring new cultures and picturesque terrains before I ever heard of the First Descents tagline.

Then my doctor called and said, “You have leukemia and need to come to the ER to start treatment immediately.”

Just like that my life was transformed from “Out Living It” to being quarantined in a hospital room for my own protection. As the months of chemo wore on, the person who was always on the go exploring the world started to fade away being replaced by the new identity of cancer patient. And, eventually, cancer survivor.

Although I survived cancer, in many ways I feel like I lost my life the day I was diagnosed. There is no going back to the life I had before cancer. It doesn’t fit anymore. And building a new life while still healing and dealing with lingering fatigue has been harder than I imagined.

My life was starting to feel stagnant living in the land of better but not well, neither sick nor healthy. I felt stuck. So what better way to shake things up than to give rock climbing a go.

Walking up to the rock wall I doubted my ability to climb it, giving in to my insecurities and fears. Minutes later I was roped in, and  just like that I was transformed from someone who was terrified to go rock climbing to someone that thought rock climbing was fun. I’m a climber!

As I climbed higher the route became more difficult and I was stuck.   I tried a few handholds and footholds but couldn’t make any progress up the wall. Metaphorically, I was at the same place as on my climb back up from being knocked down by cancer — stuck, exhausted and seemingly out of moves within my ability.

My climbing buddy encouraged me onward suggesting to not look for such big steps, to just try moving my foot a couple inches and maybe a new path of holds would appear. So I moved my foot a couple inches and — Presto! — a new pathway appeared allowing me to climb to the top. Fist bumps all around!

Since returning home from my First Descents climbing trip I’ve taken what I learned on the wall and incorporated many small changes in my life.  Every day I try to take at least one small step forward in rebuilding my life after cancer. The route or the size of steps doesn’t really matter as all paths lead to the top.  

The first step to actually go rock climbing felt like a big step as it was outside my comfort zone, but looking back everything I was worried about was unfounded. It wasn’t easy climbing overweight and with numb toes, but it was totally doable. Getting my confidence back has been priceless and continues to propel me forward in all aspects of my life.

I challenge you to get outside your comfort zone and do something that scares you.  Or if you’re not feeling up to those big scary steps right now, just take a small new step every day in the direction you want to go. See ya at the top.

Climb on.

About Tsunami:
I was diagnosed with leukemia (APL) in 2015.  Before I had cancer I was a digital nomad traveling around the world working on my iPhone app business from anywhere but I live in Santa Cruz now.  I originally got involved with FD through Tribs doing a bike ride to Point Reyes with the San Francisco Trib and backpacking in Sequoia National Park with the LA Trib.  I did my week long with the 40+ group rock climbing in Estes Park, Colorado.  I’m looking forward to getting back to more international travel down the road with FDX.
Follow her incredible stories here:

3 thoughts on “Climb On: Finding a New Identity After Cancer”

  1. Tsunami – I am so blessed to have met you and know you and climb with you!! I too felt so out of shape, overweight, and not at all likely to climb with the best of them. But seeing you getting it done on the mountain gave me a little boost of confidence to at least tackle the easier routes and challenge myself to do something I would not ever have had the chance to do. I hope we have a chance to meet up again some day and go “OUT LIVE IT” together!! Stay cool my friend :).

    1. Ginger! Was so much fun climbing with you and so proud of you for getting back up there after hurting your ankle! Totally should do an FD reunion someday! Rock on!

  2. Hi Tsunami ! Robo Rob here! I had the good fortune a few years ago to be with the first group of over 40 yr. olds to go with FD. Six men 60 and over. All survivors from around the country. FD partnered with our treatment facility and took us to Phoenix, then up into the mountains to spend a couple days in 800 foot deep Jack’s Canyon, apparently a climbers paradise with 100 ft – several hundred foot cliffs.
    They had us all on the wall for two days.
    Life changing! I’m thinking of Kili next. I know a guy ! Lol Stay strong and never doubt yourself. Only two things that can stop us is ourseleves and death. Nothing else. I had non Hodgkins lymphoma 16 years ago. Keep inspiring others !

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