This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we joined our longtime partners, Boarding for Breast Cancer and Casting for Recovery, in sharing the journeys of six breast cancer survivors. Here are their stories on how they found healing in the wild.
AMALIE: RESILIENCE REQUIRED
I have lived in Whistler and Squamish, BC since I was 19. I snowboard every winter, and in the summer I ride bikes in the forest and spend afternoons on the lake. My friendships and career all revolve around the outdoors — it’s part of my identity.
I was a new mom trying to do it all when I got my diagnosis. I was thrown into an unbelievably strict schedule of blood work appointments, checkups, scans, and a cycle of weekly treatments that lasted for months. All of a sudden, my life stopped being about the outdoors and became focused on places I didn’t want to be. During treatment I didn’t have the same stamina or energy as before, but my soul craved nature. Small walks into dense forest or big hikes to the alpine felt like an escape from my schedule and the overwhelming complexity of it all. The world stopped and I could be me again, not just a cancer patient.
“The moments when I could be outside became my greatest memories of this time. I could just be: no appointments, no scary conversations, no fear of next steps.” – Amalie Gunn
KELSEY: HEALING THROUGH THE MILES
I got diagnosed the same day California shut down for COVID. At the time I was raising two little kids, adjusting to divorced life, moving to a new home on my own, and had just lost my job of 11 years. But amidst all of that stressful and exhausting noise, I knew one thing to be true: I loved the outdoors. And it became my salvation.
During my recovery after my double mastectomy and lumpectomy, I decided to focus only on doing what made me happy. So I rode my bike every day, hiked for miles and miles, went camping almost every weekend, watched the stars at night, and walked on the beach reflecting on how I could handle this tidal wave of events. There was one day in particular where everything was weighing extra heavily, so I went for a long ride. I set no distance or time limit — I just rode. As I pedaled, I reflected on everyone that I loved and everything I cherished. And after 4.5 hours and 38 miles, I returned home exhausted but stronger. The solitude of nature provided me the space to realize there’s so much more to life than its problems. I learned to let it all go.
While I’ve always had a sunny outlook on life, I know I’ve come out of this mentally stronger. Cancer made me realize how much I treasure in this life, how to recognize and move past negativity faster, and reject any kind of treatment that is less than what I deserve. But most important of all, cancer taught me that I can create my own path by doing what makes me happiest. It’s not worth the energy or time to live my life any other way.
Sitting on the other side of treatment, I’m a different person now. I went through my breast cancer journey through most of the pandemic, and there were times I was completely isolated from everyone I loved. To know that I was able to go on this journey without as much support as I would have liked has shown me my own strength — how I can hold myself up with a good pep talk and a fresh dose of the outdoors. Knowing that has given me the courage to continue on, as a stronger, more resilient version of myself.
“To me, being ‘in recovery’ means healing — healing our minds, bodies, and souls.” – Kelsey Towne
CHERRIE: ALIVE AND LIVING
I was 27 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was a single mother of a 4-year-old and working full time as a paramedic. I lost count of how many times both well-meaning nursing staff and older patients told me I was way too young. I already knew that. So in I went and had my left sided mastectomy and started a rigorous trial treatment. I fought for my life through painful, debilitating, and sometimes embarrassing side effects. But I think the worst of all was how I subconsciously pushed my daughter away — only so she wouldn’t miss me as much once I was gone. I made it through with my mother’s weekly visits and my friends that treated my house and hospital like a revolving door — they made sure there was always something to eat, a hand to hold, or an ear to listen.
Only when the trial finished could the healing begin. I navigated a possible reconstruction, finding the right prosthetic, taking in every precious moment with my daughter that I could, and returning to work. That was tough. Not just because of the exhaustion of a full-time shift and my treatment-acquired brain fog, but because we were constantly transporting patients who were in their end stages of cancer — the drawn-out, gut-wrenching, body and soul destroying parts. The projection of those scenarios on myself and my loved ones was horrifying. So I did the only things I knew to do: act with empathy and share my experience.
Just before my 50th birthday, I had my routine mammogram. There was a lump. Knowing how last time went, I postponed my hospital appointment and spent Friday night dancing, Saturday at a winery, and Sunday on a motorcycle in the hills above the city. Come Monday morning, my cup was full enough to face the music that was a second mastectomy and many more rounds of chemo. This time, I was stronger, smarter, fought just as hard, and survived again.
Around 2018, I joined the Australian band of Casting for Recovery and since then, we have developed a committee of volunteers and are organizing and raising funds for retreats for fellow cancer survivors. I haven’t gone out and changed the world or climbed Kilimanjaro, but I have made some cancer patients’ journeys a little more comfortable. My journey has been tough — and I definitely have survivor’s guilt — but I am so grateful for what I’ve come out with. I have an amazing daughter, the best dog in the world, wonderful friends, a dad that watches me like a hawk, and a grandson who shines like the sun and thinks I’m the bee’s knees. Despite it all, my life is good.
“I don’t know that you ever recover from cancer but I am alive and I am living.” – Cherrie Ninness
RACHAEL: HOPE IN TRAUMA
Three years ago, I watched my best friend be diagnosed with and taken over by stage 4 colon cancer. Not long after she passed, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I caught it early enough that there was no need for chemo or radiation, and I got to keep my hair. To the casual observer — and those close to me – I didn’t appear sick. But I was. I lost pieces of myself, physically and mentally, with surgery after surgery to remove the cancer. Even with the love and support of my friends and family, it was incredibly difficult to wrap my head around that trauma.
It wasn’t until I got connected with Casting for Recovery that I was able to escape the isolated space that cancer left me in. When my guide — my good friend Katie — took me out into the water, she held my arm and guided my line cast after cast. I sweated as I fought the current, slipped on rocks, swatted at a constant barrage of insects, and endlessly threw my line out — reeling in nothing but frustration. Katie could tell I was struggling and gently reminded me to let the river flow through me. One of cancer’s life lessons struck home: the unknown is scary and can make you feel out of control. But if you have someone leading you in with kindness, patience, and trust, you’ll be okay.
A year after my initial diagnosis, my daughter and I celebrated by taking the trip we had planned for the previous summer. We traveled across Europe, taking in the greenest, most breathtaking scenery we could find. And I ended every day with my list of “gratefuls.” Some days, I’d simply be grateful for getting to feed some birds and squirrels that morning. Others, it was my ability to breathe or that my body was healed and strong. Every day I was grateful for my daughter. My cancer journey was not as bad as others, but it changed me and taught me countless lessons about trust, patience, self-love, and the precious gift of time.
“I learned at a very young age that you either become a victim or a thriver. Time and time again, I have chosen to always be the latter.” – Rachael Laya Hoffman
REBECCA: THE NEXT BIG ADVENTURE
Cancer treatment is hard on the body. My route was surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and hormone therapy for five to ten years after. It’s hard on the soul as well, leaving you to wonder if you made the right treatment decisions, to worry about recurrence, and to be devastated at how much time was lost while sick. Framing my cancer recovery as a big adventure has helped with those anxieties.
Before cancer I was a hiking guide, a professional cross-country ski instructor and coach, and owned a ski shop. During chemotherapy, that all came to a screeching halt and, as a result, my body longed for sunshine and fresh air. I remember laying on my living room floor and crawling from spot to spot so I could lay in the afternoon rays as they moved around my house. On other days, I’d simply sit in a lawn chair on my patio. At the time, that’s all I had the strength to do.
The healing power of nature was nothing new to me. I’m an Army Veteran and after each deployment to Iraq, I’d come home and find myself on trails processing those experiences. As a new Mom I found myself on the mountain with my baby figuring out my new identity. After cancer, it was the same thing. I found myself moving slowly through the forest, often solo, stopping to think about how grateful I was to be there in that moment. I had no agenda and nothing to prove — I was just there to feel better. Time and time again, that little bit of sun, glimpse of greenery, or hike into the hills was my medicine.
“Being outside and connecting with a community of women who could relate to what I’d been through wasn’t just life changing. It was life-giving. It was the start of my recovery journey.” – Rebecca Walsh
CASSIE: RUNNING THE GAUNTLET
Being from Colorado, the wilderness is in my bones. And over the years, running in nature became my therapy. I would spend hours on trails solo and self-reflecting or with others delving deeper into our friendships. When I heard the words “You have cancer,” I had just finished a 100 mile race in New Zealand. I was only 32, vegetarian, and the strongest I had ever been. But cancer didn’t care. Thankfully, finishing that race reminded me I could do anything, including getting past this speedbump.
Cancer patients spend a lot of time trapped in hospitals or clinics which is pretty boring if you ask me. So during treatment, I would drag my chemo drip bag outside to the patio of the infusion center and sit with the bees and plants. I didn’t care how hot it was — it beat being in a gray, depressing room. And even if I wasn’t pounding out miles on trail, being present in that outdoor space was one of the best medicines I could give myself.
I’ve since been diagnosed with breast cancer again and have two survival stories. I’m still processing the hell I’ve been through. My body may look healthy again, but my insides took a beating and are still coming back to life. That being said, I know this journey has given me so much. While I’m still a “yes person,” I now have much more of a backbone. I don’t wait for a tragedy to tell my loved ones how much they mean to me. And I went back to school so I can now work in breast cancer care to help my fellow fighters. Cancer, weirdly enough, has upgraded me to a better, truer version of myself.
“The weekend back out in nature with Boarding For Breast Cancer reminded me that I was still inside this body of mine and she deserved to be let out.” – Cassie Cilli
Each survivor's photo was taken by a loved on who supported them through their treatments and recovery.