Two months before Karen Parman trekked up Mt. Everest in Nepal, she posted on Facebook a picture of a primitive swinging bridge with this status line: Cancer was scary, but these suspension bridges I will have to face FREAK ME OUT!”
Karen, a member of Covenant Reformed Church (URCNA) in Pella, IA, was one of 13 cancer survivors who hiked to Mt. Everest’s base camp in April of 2011.
“God displayed Himself to me in so many incredible ways,” she says. “It was a wonderful trip.”
Dr. Richard Deming, Medical Director of Mercy Cancer Center in Des Moines, IA, organized the trip and recruited survivors to participate in it. A highlight of the trek was its meaningful “Relay for Life” commemoration at 17,600 feet above sea level, the highest elevation at which a celebration has ever been held.
Fear of primitive swinging bridges wasn’t the only terror Karen anticipated. The group flew from Des Moines to Chicago to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, where they had an 18 hour layover before flying to legendary Kathmandu in Nepal and on to the world’s most dangerous airstrip at Lukla.
“I was apprehensive about both the flight in and out of Lukla,” she says. “But by the time we were ready to leave Lukla, I was excited about this plane ride. There were so many times on this trek that fear almost kept me from continuing. Fear that as the altitude went up, I would get so sick that I would have to be rescued by helicopter to the tune of $40k. Fear of not being able to cross suspension bridges (What other choice was there?). Fear that I would get as sick as some of the others and I wouldn’t have the strength that they exhibited to walk with explosive bowels and excessive vomiting. Fear that I just couldn’t do it. I finally realized that I couldn’t do all those things, but that God working through me could. And He did. My verse for this trip became 2 Timothy 1:7, ‘For God did not give us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and self-discipline.’”
Eleven years before the Mt. Everest trek, Karen experienced a sudden rush of terror when she learned she had cancer. She recalls “a defining moment” in her faith when she cried out to God.
“You said everything is for my good, and I don’t get how cancer is for my good,” she wept with a towel stuffed in her mouth to stifle her sobs. “But I’ll trust you on this. I’ll just wait for my faith to catch up with my feelings.”
When Karen’s faith eventually caught up to her feelings, she could look back at her cancer as “a terrible blessing.”
“I call it my terrible blessing,” she says. “Cancer is a gift and you’re going to treat each day as a gift. That’s why they call it the present.”
Karen was always an active person, raising and riding horses, but she began to run as part of her recovery regimen. Her running partner lived next door to a homeschooling family that Karen couldn’t help noticing.
“Four kids star-stepped in age, all with the most beautiful heads of auburn hair,” she writes in her journal. “The thing I remember about the Woods was how they were always together. Always playing without the usual sibling bickering and Mitzi, their mom, was never far away. In conversation, they were polite, articulate, and kind. As homeschooled children, they did not fit preconceived ideas. These kids were not maladjusted or socially awkward. When I began my three-year stint with homeschooling, they were the models I wanted to emulate.”
Karen relates that the Wood family once went with her family on a home school field trip, but that they lost contact after the Woods and Karen’s running partner both moved out of town. That is until Karen learned that the oldest Wood son, Blake, had been diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma.
“He was 14 at the time,” she writes, “and put me to shame for remembering how unfair I thought it was to receive a cancer diagnosis at the young age of 38.”
As Karen prepared to leave for her Mt. Everest trek, Blake weighed on her mind. She printed a card in his honor to take to base camp with a plan to send him a note and picture after her return, but somehow that just didn’t seem like enough.
“As God will do, He kept urging me to make more of an effort,” she continues, “so armed with a meal and a blank prayer flag, I visited Blake and his brother and sisters and mother, Mitzi. The story of my preparation is just as much about preparing to take Blake along in spirit.”
She describes how hard it was to see the former dynamo of boyish exuberance with a thin face and thinning hair, reclining with an elevated leg due to bed sores and hooked up to a beeping pain pump.
“This is a hard thing for anyone who knew the Blake before cancer to imagine; a boy who was always outside playing, exploring or hiking.”
Karen sat with the family as they discussed what it’s like to walk a cancer road.
“Children a year ago, these kids see the bigger picture in a way that some adults never do. It’s a blessing, but learned at what cost?” she reflects. “Mitzi is resolute and strong beyond anything I think I would be capable of. She tells me of all the blessings they have received; how she can see God’s hand at work in Blake’s care and the testimony that Blake has had with his doctors. Their doctor prays over Blake, emails daily to see how his day has gone, referring to him as ‘Good Blake.’ He has impacted the hospital staff. The Woods see the choice of the staff assigned to Blake’s care as God-appointed and because of that, they have a great deal of trust and peace in their judgment.”
Karen explains that Blake had gone from a diagnosis with a hopeful cure rate, to an unexpected recurrence, to being part of promising clinical trials that closed due to lack of funding, and other emotional ups and downs during his cancer treatments. At the time of Karen’s visit, he was recovering from Cryoablation surgery and undergoing additional chemotherapy.
“As I finalize my preparations for leaving for base camp,” Karen writes, “I am now taking with me not only Blake’s story, but Blake in my thoughts and prayers. I will be trekking for Blake and as I ascend, I will continue to pray that God will heal this wonderful young man. That years from now, he will make that trek and find his prayer flag filled with the wishes of his family and friends still flying at base camp, and he will rejoice like I plan on doing that God brought him through his trial for a time such as this.”
As departure time approached and Karen increasingly faced the fear of the unknown, she recorded her emotions in her journal.
“In the middle of the night, I sometimes question my decision,” she writes. “I wake up with my heart beating a little faster than it should and I wonder, ‘What have I got myself into?’”
Recognizing that unfounded fears always visit her in the middle of the night, she snuggles closer to Matt, her husband of 26 years and prays for daughters Meghan, sleeping in the next room, and Allyson, in her first year at Iowa State University.
As Karen’s eyes adjust to the faint moonlight, she sees the shape of her suitcase “standing like a sentinel waiting to be called into duty.” She mentally goes through a checklist of what she’s packed and repacked during the last two weeks. She wonders how to keep her passport safe.
“I have a fear that I will get to the airport and not be able to locate it,” she writes. But then she begins to envision the mountains of Nepal. “The anticipation of seeing the glory of the mountains and learning about the Nepali culture far outweigh the stark fear I have of crossing the suspension bridges and landing in Lukla or even of being cold. I believe by the time we are ready to take off from Lukla, I will have outgrown the fear and become stronger in mind, confidence and body. I begin to feel excitement for this trip overtake the momentary panic that woke me at 3:00 in the morning.”
She realizes how much she’s come to appreciate and admire the other members of the team during their training sessions. She imagines their camaraderie on the trek and envisions herself during the experience.
“I think about rising early and worshipping God, my father, who also is the creator of the majesty that surrounds me,” she writes. “I imagine sitting in awe and gratitude as the sun paints spectacular hues of colors on the surrounding peaks and feeling its warmth reach me. I imagine how overcome with emotion I will be as I praise Him for allowing me to have cancer so I could experience this and so much more than I could ever hope or imagine.”
As Karen’s heart beats faster, not from fear, but in sheer excitement, she answers her earlier question (What have I got myself into?): “A grand adventure.”
“It is a trip of a lifetime. I know I will learn more about myself in these three weeks than I would in three years in my comfortable and safe home…as I drift off to sleep I think, ‘In Nepal, it’s 3:00 in the afternoon. I’m already there.’”
The most overwhelming impression that tops Karen’s list from the trek: cold.
“Yes, the cold was at the top of that list,” she says. “You went to bed cold, woke up cold, spent at least part of the day cold.”
Second on the list: fatigue.
“On the way up, every day was physically challenging,” she adds. “Sometimes we just ground up and up and up. As the air got thinner, this became more of a challenge, and you just wanted to stop, but where would you stay? There was no choice but to move one foot in front of the other and pray for the strength to make it.”
Another impression: silence.
“The lack of sounds was memorable,” she says. “Nepal is a peaceful place. There are no roads, so no car noises. There is little electricity, so hardly ever the noise of a radio. No TV, no honking horns, no electrical tools. Just the tinkling of a yak bell, barking dogs, and the occasional peaceful sounds of Nepali music.”
Upward Trek-The Climb
A few significant events also stand out in Karen’s memory of the trek. The most difficult climb was on Day Two, hiking to Namche Bazar.
“We were told it would be a hard climb, but what reference did I have?” she says. “We climbed and climbed and climbed some more. At one point the leaders of our group stopped at a particularly wide bend in the trail with a gorgeous view of the valley that we were climbing out of and waited for the rest of us. At that wide point in the trail, we had an impromptu celebration. Someone had brought a portable speaker, someone plugged in their iPod and as more of us congregated, we danced, sang and cheered each other on. The bond we were developing was apparent.”
“After the celebration, on we went and soon I was completely spent,” she continues. “Two of my teammates realized that I was struggling and stayed with me for support and encouragement. Margo matched my pace and offered me water even though I was slowing her down. Scott walked behind me offering quiet encouragement and telling me that I was doing great. What he didn’t know was that the compassion in his voice made me cry because he cared so much. It was such a picture of showing our vulnerability and accepting the care and help of others.”
Upward Trek-The Hymn
Day Three began with another uphill grind, but once the group reached the top of a huge ridge, the land leveled into a wide expanse of inhabited land. Karen describes the area as immaculately kept farms bordered by stone fences, punctuated with stupas (mound-like structures typically containing Buddhist relics and used for Buddhist worship), and surrounded with spectacular mountain vistas.
“Coming into the village of Khumjung, I was walking with five other cancer sisters,” she says. “We put our arms around each other and walked into the village as one. This place elicited similar responses from other team members because as other members of our group came into town they spontaneously broke into ‘Amazing Grace.’ It gave me goosebumps. I immediately thought of Psalm 19:1, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands.’ And our souls surrounded with His majesty had to do the same.”
Upward Trek-The Headache
After the difficult Day Two climb to Namche, Karen began experiencing excruciating effects of the altitude.
“Two days later, I came in Tengboche with my first screaming migraine,” she says. “Thankfully, our two doctors reassured me that I wasn’t blowing a blood vessel in my head and sent me to bed. After sleeping for a few hours, I decided to try to go down for some dinner, I must have looked particularly horrid but it’s not like there are any mirrors (which is probably a good thing). Anyway, I sat for a while with the group. Scott, my quiet encourager and fellow headache sufferer, sat next to me and at some point quieting began massaging my head. When I left that room, I was ambushed by two other members of our team, who took me into their room to pray over me. Their care and compassion were again enough to make me cry…. I cried a lot on this trip. At that point, it didn’t matter if we had theological differences. They were brothers in Christ, who earnestly were praying for me.”
Base camp at night
During the trek to base camp, trekkers lived in superlatives. They viewed the most incredible beauty of creation. They pushed their bodies to physical limits and beyond. They rode emotional roller coasters steeper than the mountains they climbed. After nine exhausting days, 13 cancer survivors and 14 supporters reached the base camp of Mt. Everest, located at an elevation of 17,600 feet.
Snow sifted from the gray sky as hikers shuffled in one by one. Base camp, the goal of the trek, consisted only of some yellow and blue tents on a glacier, hunkered against a fierce wind. Karen describes it as a “particularly dreary place during the day.”
“When I got to base camp,” she adds, “I thought to myself: this is like the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ story. Everyone is scared to say, ‘You know, this place is pretty bleak.’”
But at night, Karen saw the camp transformed.
“We were blessed to stay at base camp during a full moon,” she explains. “It was cold, crisp and crystal clear. Because of the severe admonition to stay hydrated, four liters of water sent me outside my tent five times during the night. The moon transformed this camp into such an incredible place of beauty. The mountains surrounding us were bathed in its light and the tips looked like they were highlighted in icy blue. The stars completely blanketed this sky and water could be heard gurgling through the glacier bed. There was absolutely no other sound except for the occasional dog barking or the tinkling of a yak bell. Looking up through the Khumbu ice fall, I could see headlights of climbers bobbing up the slopes. Base camp literally transformed at night.”
Relay for Life
The next morning the hikers celebrated their accomplishment with the highest ever American Cancer Society Relay for Life. Over 300 prayer flags were strung together as a memorial to loved ones who had lost their battle to cancer or were still fighting it. The red flag Karen had carried all this way in honor of Blake Wood fluttered between a white and green flag in the colorful string. The trekkers lapped the flags in a silence broken only with soft sounds of hugging and weeping.
Downward Trek-Spring in Phakding
Of all Karen’s memories from the downward trek, the group’s stay in Phakding seems most significant. The group had lodged overnight there on the trek up, but on the return trip stayed only for lunch on their last trekking day.
“It was amazing how much the landscape had changed in the two weeks since we’d been there,” she says. “The whole world was now green and blooming.”
The remarkably pleasant weather contributed to the group’s celebration of accomplishment. Horses have always been a big part of Karen’s life, and she enjoyed the extra blessing of watching a colt about a week old explore his new surroundings.
“I sat there and praised God for His strength and for the sun and for the foal,” she says. “Pretty soon, we spy a teenage boy riding a horse into town. Right before crossing a suspension bridge, he kicks the horse into a canter and comes across that bridge towards us at full speed. I just laughed, thinking some things are the same the world over. I likened it to a teenage boy speeding a car through town in an attempt to look cool.”
Leaving the spring-like weather of Phakding was also a bittersweet moment as Karen witnessed a harbinger of change.
“When we got up to leave, we had to wait for a yak train to cross that bridge and as I was ready to step onto the bridge, a porter went by me with a 32” LCD television strapped to his back.” She adds, “That made me sad.”
Karen and the other members of the team became close to the Sherpa porters who carried supplies up the mountain with them. The porters did daily exercises with the trekkers in the morning and sang with the group at night.
“I will never forget racing the porters through a village teasing them that we would beat them to our lunch stop,” she recalls. “Here we were with light backpacks on. They were carrying a minimum of 150 lbs. and they were beating us!”
After Karen had time to process all the emotions and information from the trek, she listed six ways it impacted her.
“The first one is obviously the majesty of God’s creation and the natural desire to sing praises to Him, the Creator. Two, how God used this to help me overcome fear and press on to the goal. Three, how He showed Himself faithful to give me the strength to complete what He started. Four, how the example of vulnerability that we displayed to each other was an example of what I desire in the Christian community; to be helped when I need it and to help when others need it. It was about the group’s success, not any individual’s success. Five, how I learned to cultivate compassion through this group, but process it through a Christian perspective. Six, how I desire to use this experience to further encourage others who are battling cancer and fear. Do not fear, be of good courage and DO GOOD.”
“God is not honored when I allow fear to make decisions for me. He calls me to be obedient and He will supply my strength. He does expect me to work and while I’m working, show His love. I want to continue exercising that self-discipline of pushing the fear aside; showing His compassion and care by building into others’ lives and no matter how hard it gets, to keep putting one foot in front of the other because when I am weak, He is strong.”
“From now on, I push past the fear and claim Isaiah 41:10 in a personal way that I didn’t get before He pushed me up the mountain: So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Three months after Karen posted her Facebook status line about suspension bridges, she posted a picture of a red flag and this status: “Will you join me in praying for the Wood family today? Blake, their eldest son, died last night at the age of 15 after his courageous 14 month battle with Ewings Sarcoma. Every time I thought I couldn’t make it up that mountain I remembered this prayer flag that I carried for him. God speed Blake, I’ll see you again some day.”
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 10-14 of the August 24, 2011 issue of Christian Renewal.