The Mountain

The Mountain

Seven years ago, Pete and I almost slid off the side of a mountain in Peru.

We were hiking up from the depths of Colca Canyon via a series of continuous switchbacks for 3,000 metres. It had started to rain about a third of the way up – a steady and relentless patter that increased in force the higher we climbed. Despite our rain-proof gear, we were soaked through to the skin, but that ended up being the least of our worries.

With about a quarter of the climb left to go, a group of three individuals just behind us let out a distressing scream. We turned to see a rush of water descend over the edge of the path above them, narrowly missing their heads. The path we shared was only a few feet wide – had they been caught in the overflow, they very easily could have been swept over the side.

Pete and I could hear another rush of water. A mountain guide peeked back around the corner and yelled at us to get to the wall. We threw ourselves against the smooth rock face, turned to look at each other in panic, and held hands as the whoosh got closer.

Instead of coming over our heads, the flowing water consumed the path at our feet. For the rest of our way up the mountain, we hurried but carefully placed our steps on steadier ground around the edges. We were ever-wary of the fact that a misplaced foot could mean a tumble over the mountain’s edge. There were no more pauses to sip from our canteens, no more stops to catch our breath as the altitude rose.

When the top was in sight, I felt like I had been punched in the chest. I sat on the edge, still in a downpour, and let it all out. I sobbed and hyperventilated. It was only then that I allowed myself to think about how we had just skirted death’s edge.

And I feel like I am there again, after five months of fighting cancer. I’m at the top of the mountain, looking down, crying and realizing how fucking terrifying it all was.

Our rushing mudpath in Peru.

I was probably just days away from dropping dead. Not weeks, but mere days. Maybe even hours.

When I arrived at the cancer centre in Calgary, the team started my chemotherapy without full confirmation of the strain I was battling. The mutated cells that make up acute promyelocytic leukemia quickly reproduce and crowd out the good cells – so quickly that the scariest characteristic of this type of cancer is that it can cause early and spontaneous death. As humans, our cells mutate all the time but usually cause no harm. Then there are the little buggers that mean to kill us, and replicate rapidly. With no time to waste, the doctors made some assumptions and started my chemo. If I hadn’t gone into the emergency room when I did just two days prior, I may not have even made it that far.

APL is a rare strain of leukemia that strikes only 100-150 Canadians each year. Like most cancers, getting it is just shit luck.

But I still find myself wondering why and even when. Not the anguished why me that people might expect – I know from experience that life can be a twisty motherfucker and I am definitely not immune to all possible turns. But instead I question if there is a bigger why to all of this. Is there a purpose? What am I meant to learn? I expect it will take me years to answer that question, if at all.

I am also a bit obsessed by the when. I often think about the moment it began, when that first mutated cell was born.

Did I feel it? Was there a small change in my force that I ignored?

The first hematologist I spoke to figured that I had leukaemia for maybe a month. So that first little cell may have been born when I was in a canoe in British Columbia. Or hugging my nephew near Edmonton. Or in a plane destined for our housesitting gig in Washington.

And then I think about all I did in that month while the cells replicated undiscovered. I spoke at a conference and Pete and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary. I remember the weekend before my diagnosis – we had made plans to visit a friend but I had to cancel. I could not figure the trigger, but for some reason, I had suddenly slipped into a dark place. I felt a level of despondency that I had not encountered since dealing with the death of my sister. I shut Pete out and retreated to a small space upstairs for a couple of days, trying to will myself out of it. Was it then that I subconsciously knew what was to come?

I could, quite literally, drive myself mad thinking about every moment before and during. And in these last few days I find myself reflecting even more, and getting quite emotional as I look down the mountain I just climbed. I’m surprised by the despair – shouldn’t I just be feeling joy that this is almost over? I should be focusing not just on the bad luck that befell me by the spontaneous mutation of cells, but on the good fortune that I have been so loved and supported every step of the way, and that if I am on the right side of the statistics for this type of leukemia, I can use the word cure. My life will shortly be mine to continue as I please.

Sort of.

This hardship has caused Pete and I to make some tough decisions. For the next two to three years, even though I am free from daily treatments needed at the hospital, I will still be bound by the disease. I need blood tests every month, and doctor visits every couple of months for new prescriptions that I will need filled for the next two to three years.

As such, our carefree lifestyle of bouncing around the globe is no longer realistic nor sustainable. While I will be free to travel between tests and appointments, we will need to be here much more often than we have been for the last eight years.

So, we bought a townhouse and a vehicle. And maybe this is what causes the distress – not just the reflection on what I’ve been through, but how it is changing our future.

For many, such milestones of decorating a new house or driving a new car are a jubilant time, but for us, there is a distinctive lack of excitement. Had cancer not shown up, such settling wouldn’t even be a consideration. We are truly happiest when we are free on the road. We loved our life. This feels forced.

There are, of course, many positives that come with being here: we’re close to family and friends, our business has picked up because of our apparent stability (I’m guessing), and we can’t forget that we are surrounded with some absolutely stunning scenery. I am sure that with time, and once the sting of these new constraints abate, we will come to appreciate that more.

But in any case, our life will be different. It doesn’t mean it has to be worse. We just need some time to settle into it.

New travel plans are still coming along, albeit in shorter spurts rather than the luxuriously long months we are used to spending in one location. For someone who is often scared to fly, I can’t wait to actually be soaring above earth once again. I need to go somewhere, and soon. So does Pete, for doing double-time as my nursemaid and purveyor of all business while I recoiled for the last five months. And my Mom for never leaving our sides as well; she’ll be hitting the road with us for a trip too.

I expect that contemplating my life after cancer is just beginning. For now, I need to pull myself out of the chemo fog and revel my place atop the mountain. I’m here. I have so much to be thankful for. And a lot of life yet to live.



  1. Dalene,

    These emotions you are feeling will be never ending, come & go, & maybe at the most inappropriate times. Unfortunately this is your story, which will make you day! For Pete & you this settling down & your new home it’s just a detour in your journey. Your travels will just be closer to home, but the stories will continue for the rest of us to enjoy! All the best you guys.


  2. Wow…you bought a townhouse?! Not just renting, but actually purchased? I’m sure it was a tough decision, but if you know the best thing for the next few years is for you to be close to your doctors, then it’s probably a good choice. And if in a few years, you decide to hit the road full time again, you can either sell it or rent it out. I will all work. Really though, I’m just so damn happy for you that you’re done with chemo and doing so well!

    I know I’ve told you before, I don’t mean at all to put my health issues in the same category as your cancer, but I can relate to the overwhelm of emotions that come after the worst has past. It’s like you couldn’t let those things surface when you were actually fighting it, there was no room for that at the time. But now you don’t have to fight, and it all comes pouring out. When I was in the hospital a couple years ago for two weeks and I needed several blood transfusions because my colitis issues were so bad and difficult to get under control, sure I was a bit stressed and freaked out during all of it, but when I was released and went home…wow. I cried at random times for weeks. I was so freaked out by how much worse it could’ve been, by the fact that I actually needed three blood transfusions because my gut was so messed up, by the enormity of it all. But it passed. After a little while, my emotions realized I was ok and it was in the past, and things got back to normal. I’m sure it will be different for you, and you will have the constant reminders of blood work and doctor visits. But you’ll get there.

    As always, hugs from me and Andy!

    1. Actually bought. There are a couple more reasons (beyond this) that it just made sense. Although I still think UGH. I hope I get passed that.

      “It’s like you couldn’t let those things surface when you were actually fighting it, there was no room for that at the time.” <--- That's absolutely it. Head down, focus on the task at hand, and then lose if afterwards. And we do have so many similarities! Love to you and Andy!

  3. Well first of all, SO HAPPY you are done with chemo!

    I think that the when would really bug me too. I was actually thinking about this the other day. We saw you a week before you went to the hospital and everything was grand- but you had cancer and nobody knew. Definitely kind of a mindfuck. I’m so so so so glad you were able to get treatment so fast.

    1. Thanks Steph. 🙂

      I thought about that too – the great day hanging out with you guys and the babes. I know I felt a little off for the couple of weeks around then (tired and lower appetite), but nothing too notable. Perhaps we should have just drank more beer that day in an attempt to kill the buggers off!

  4. Wow – that IS quite a change, the townhouse and vehicle. I can relate to feeling constrained: I felt as such when my ex-husband and I owned a co-op here in NYC. We were both so glad to be rid of it, though it took a (very amicable) divorce to do so!

    Now I rent a 1BR apt., and I love the freedom of it. Though I envy your vehicle ownership – sometimes I wish I had one!

    I can’t wait to read about your next adventures, and though quieter – for now – adventures they will be. And your mom joining you – what fun!

    So glad the long slog of chemo, etc. is over for you. Celebrate with abandon!

    1. Can’t live in Alberta without wheels! Although I have to say I feel better about the car than the townhouse – mostly because it can still take me somewhere new!

      Thanks Wynne!

  5. Thanks for sharing, Dalene. I’m so glad you’re done with chemo and that you’ll be able to travel at least a bit in the coming years and I’m so sorry this has forced you to settle when you weren’t ready to.

  6. You won’t believe how quickly the time will go..Before you know it you will be 3… 5…10 years clear of cancer and on the road again! In the meantime think of your new home as a great investment for your future and look after yourselves!

      1. The fear can always rear it’s ugly head, even for me… 17 years out. But it does lessen and get easier. You’re not alone! ; )

  7. The questions you pose are profound. The feelings and emotions you express are real and “universal”. Please consider continuing to record privately (and publicly) these questions and emotions and at some point in the future write all of this in a book. It doesn’t matter if you find the answers since the process is the journey and answers are not the real purpose. Whether it is cancer, death of a loved one, a divorce, a devastating accident, everyone faces the mountain that you faced. You write beautifully, truthfully and compassionately and others need to know your story.

  8. It’s been 3 years since I’m cancer free. I’m still filled with anxiety when I think about how close to death I was & every time I have to get blood work done it comes back to my mind. Our lives are changed forever. We walk a new path with new chapters to write. I praise God for my healing. Glad you’re well.

  9. As always, you’ve tackled a complicated set of emotions with grace and honesty. While I have no idea of the emotions involved in overcoming cancer, I can certainly relate to the mixed emotions you’re having about your future. I still struggle with being back in Canada every day. On the one hand, I am SO excited to see more of our amazing country. But on the other hand, I feel physical pain some days because I miss our European life so much. I think the mix of emotions you feel is perfectly normal. You and Pete have made some serious, life-altering choices, but not ones you were necessarily ready to make right now. That doesn’t mean your new future won’t be amazing. But it also doesn’t mean you shouldn’t allow yourself to mourn the life you left behind. I have no doubt you will learn, grow, evolve, and come out of this even stronger than before. Just give yourself time. Huge hugs from NB. xx

    1. Thank you Alison, I know that we definitely have that lust for yonder all over the both of us. I’m coming to get that hug for real this summer!

      1. Keep us posted about your NB travels and hopefully we’ll be in the same place at the same time. Otherwise there’s always a bed for you guys in our motorhome in Quebec this summer… it just may come with a kitty or two. 🙂

  10. I’ve asked why about all the bad things that have ever happened to me. The only answer that makes sense consistently is “to help someone else in the same situation.” You’re already doing that, I’m sure, just by sharing what you’ve been through. Your honesty is both raw and rare – just the sort of stuff people who are yet to face cancer will come across one day after a tear-stained google search. You are awesome & I am so thankful you are still here!

  11. Thank you for sharing this. I went through something similar last year (a different kind of cancer, equally rare) and it has absolutely affected my ability –and even desire– to travel. I continue to feel guilty that I’m not simply thrilled to be alive. But it’s hard. This shit changes you. But I plan to push through it and regain the person I was before. May you do the same. Best of luck and much healing to you.

  12. As always, you are an inspiration. Your strength and candor in fighting this will help many who are facing a similar prognosis in the future. I know it seems forced, but getting back to full health is the gateway to taking back the life you had. I’m so glad to see you putting a positive spin on it, although, as someone else who longs for the road but has been grounded by circumstances (nowhere near as severe), I know it’s tough.

    Congrats on kicking cancer’s ass. If anyone was going to do it, I knew you would. Hugs from Michigan.

  13. Congratulations that the chemo is over and the worst part is behind you. I guess everything in your life creates a next chapter — and yours just looks alot different than the last several years! I look forward to hearing about the re-entry adjusting to the new lifestyle – what will be different than before, what will change. So glad you are on the mend and can move on and say Fuck yeah I made it through cancer! All the best to you both!

  14. When my husband and I left the cancer clinic after his last treatment,we were both sad,in the weirdest way. After much discussion, we decided that our sadness was the security we
    felt by just being at the clinic………and now we were on our own.
    Stay strong beautiful lady,you are an inspiration?

    1. I totally understand that too Evelyn. When I was first let out on overnight passes from the hospital back in November I immediately started bawling. I felt so safe there! Now, I don’t feel that quite as strongly, but I get it.

      Thank you.

  15. It makes me so angry to think that you had to go through this, but I am so glad you have such a great support network and yay to kicking ass! You are my hero! Big hugs xx let me know if you want me to send some tea towels for your new house 😛

  16. As difficult as it is to “settle down” kind of, you will adapt. Remember, you’re one of the lucky ones who stands on the battlefield and is able to talk about the fight and how you survived. So happy for you and Pete. Carry on…

  17. Thank you for always telling your story in such an honest way – from the very beginning of your travels and on through this incredible and victorious battle! Looking forward to following many more journeys! Yay on the townhouse! When you don’t need it, put it on Airbnb and Larry and I will come stay in it for a few days or weeks! Haven’t been to Alberta- need to go!

  18. SOOO happy to learn you have emerged through this ordeal. (So happy that I can’t even find a new word to use!)

    I suppose the semi-settling down makes sense, and I know it’s a decision you and Pete didn’t make lightly. But it’s not simply “hanging up your passports” and going back to they way things used to be (perish the thought!). You are different people than you were 7 years ago: older, more worldly, with a totally different career than you left in 2009. Just as life circumstances drove you to seek change and adapt back then, so they will do again. This new chapter may not be what was originally planned, but I’m sure you’ll find a way to make it work for you.

    PS. And we’ve never been to Alberta, so now we have an excuse to go (and maybe the 4 of us can finally be in the same room at once! ? ).

  19. Thank you for sharing your story. You have a powerful voice as a writer. In 2015, within 3 months of each other, we lost my husband’s sister and my aunt to cancer. Both women played strong mentorship roles in our lives. We forever carry them in our hearts but still miss their presence every day.

    I am so happy that you have reached the summit of this most difficult journey. Your story is a beacon of hope. Your courage and resilience and determination to continue living the travelling life that you love is inspiring. All the best to you & Pete. Happy trails!!

  20. Dale me,
    So happy that you are well and in the road to a complete recovery. I know the settling down bit is hard, especially at first, but as you know with all things there’s always benefits and drawbacks. Enjoy those shorter trips you’re planning and keep us all in the loop. You are a very good writer…..?
    Molly Brown

  21. I am glad to hear your health is improving, look on this settled life as another journey. We too have had to return home recently and while it was not what we planned there is a certain comfort in having ‘my tribes’ around me. I am sure ypur tribes will be happy to have you around for a few years.

  22. I wasn’t aware that you were dealing with this (as someone who taps in and out of the site as opposed to a regular followerer). Positive thoughts to you and Pete. We’ve done that Colca Canyon trek by the way – I thought the last 20 mins were an injustice in life never mind a near death experience thrown in!

  23. Hey Dalene,
    So sorry to hear this. I think about death and cancer sometimes (mainly because my mom had it, then kicked it’s ass. I hate to hear about freebirds like yourselves be bound to something like this but hope for the best. I’ve been in and out of your blog over the last couple of years and can’t imagine what this does to the free spirit. Hopefully the adjustments aren’t as difficult but you’ve been through other trials. Keeping you in spirit and in our hearts.
    Kick ass moving forward,

  24. My friend – I just got around to reading this and I want you to know how amazing I think that you and Pete both are – you handled this whole situation with the kind of grace and courage that I can only hope myself to have if I’m ever in a similar place. I feel utterly certain that you will make the most of this “new life” but I totally understand how hard it must be to adjust to, even if you do have a cool yellow bicycle.

    Please know that if you are ever interested in a later summertime trip to the Philly/DC area, my house is usually unoccupied for three weeks and you and Pete would be more welcome to stay and use one of our cars.

    Sending lots of love your way.

  25. Is it weird that my favorite posts of yours are your cancer-related ones? That probably came out wrong, but I’ve always loved your more personal essays, and though I’ve not been through anything like you have, I can relate to so much of this emotion in different ways (not to mention, I know how you feel about the planting roots part—I went through a bout of panic disorder that affected my every movement and had me terrified to leave my parents’ home for a solid six months after we moved back to Tennessee and decided to buy a house…happy to say in retrospect that was the best decision we ever made!).

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