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Climbing Over Cancer

Sara Javers inches her way across a smooth quartzite cliff at Palisades Park.

Carefully placing her toes and hands in tiny grooves, she pulls herself step by painstaking step to the top of the rock, a radiant grin on her face.

“It feels awesome to get to the top!” she yells, pumping her fist in the air.

Having celebrated her second “cancerversary” just weeks ago, this 25-year-old woman takes the time to live life to the fullest. After close to 40 rounds of chemotherapy, she feels healthy and vibrant. But more importantly, she knows that life is too precious to hesitate to live.

“A cancer diagnosis really makes you live every day as though it could be your last,” Sara says, tucking her curly black hair into a climbing helmet. “There were so many things that I wanted to try. I just don’t wait any more.”

Unexpected disease

Sara was just 23 years old when she was diagnosed with cancer of the appendix, a very rare form of cancer that usually strikes people decades older. By the time the cancer was discovered, it had spread to the surrounding organs and doctors told her she was at an advanced stage and should expect to live only a few more months.

Instead, Sara underwent several surgeries, two of which included a heated chemotherapy treatment called interperitoneal heated chemotherapy. She followed it with an aggressive program including three types of chemotherapy and additional rounds of antibody treatments. Her treatments took her to Omaha and Sanford Cancer Center.

“Those days were long,” said Sara, who works as a Sanford Child Life Specialist. “I learned that it was okay to ask for help.”

Finding a support system

She leaned on family and friends for the support she needed and spent some time with a counselor who helped guide her through the depression that came with the disease and treatment. And most of the time she was able to keep working with children, taking joy in a job that she loves.

“Somewhere I read a saying, ‘I’m not dying from cancer. I’m living with it,’” Sara said. “That is how I live my life.”

A year ago, Sara got a chance to try mountain climbing for the first time with a group called First Descents, a group that provides outdoor adventure experiences for young adult cancer survivors. Sara had always wanted to try climbing, but hadn’t had the nerve to do it.

A new passion

On her first day in the Rocky Mountains, she strapped herself into the climbing harness and gave it a try. At first she could only move a foot or so before falling back down to the ground. Eventually she got brave enough to stand up properly on her legs. And then she was hooked.

“I fell in love with it in just a week,” Sara said. “I knew this was something I needed to, just had to do.”

Since her diagnosis she celebrates each year, her “cancerversary.” Life with cancer has given her the push to try new things. She started her own part-time photography business and took a trip with a nephew to Europe.

Sara rode a 73-mile leg of the Tour De Kota this summer to celebrate the last leg of her cancer treatment and raise money for First Descents. The bike ride was also a chance to raise awareness of the challenges of cancer treatments for young adults. Most cancer treatments are developed with children and the elderly in mind.

“Those of us who are young adults are just a whole different spectrum of cancer,” Sara said. “We just haven’t studied the treatments enough to know what to do with people in their 20s.”

Her last chemotherapy treatment was in February and she hopes a checkup later this month will show that her body is cancer free. While she worries that the disease could return, she won’t let that slow her down.

“I try to use that fear as a motivating force to keep me going and not put things off,” she says.

As a climbing instructor guides her, Sara makes a slow descent down the crevasse of a quartzite cliff stopping just feet above the place where the rock rises from the river. Every muscle strains as she stretches her arms and legs to pull herself back to the top of the cliff.

Once again, she makes it to the top, her face glistening with sweat and a smile that just doesn’t stop. Pulling herself over the rock, she gives her instructor a high five.

“I’ve found a new passion,” Sara says. “How could I pass up something like this?”

Posted Date: September 2011