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Keep On Climbing

By Brandon Riches

Climbing has been an increasingly important part of my life since I started back in 2012. It’s crazy how the life path I was on has been completely diverted by my passion (obsession?) for climbing. Back then, I was in university working on my bachelor’s degree in engineering, and I was not athletic or interested in sports in any real capacity. All I had on my mind was the typical life path; you get a degree, you get a job, you get a car, etc… Thanks to a “well why not” moment where a friend and I went to check out the university’s climbing gym, my life was changed forever. Six years later, my fiancé Cassandra and I were converting a van into a camper and planning our life of climbing adventure. I thought everything was going swimmingly, but there was a major speedbump in the road ahead. In March 2018, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. I discovered the abnormality myself, and aside from a little freak-out in the moment, I didn’t do anything about it. It was two weeks until Cassandra convinced me to go to the doctor. After the doctor saw me, it was a whirlwind week of diagnosis, imaging, bloodwork, and finally surgery to remove the misbehaving testicle through a small cut in my lower abdomen in a surgery called inguinal orchiectomy. They told me it would be 6 weeks until I could lift anything over 10 pounds, but as I’ve learned for myself, that recovery period was a little bit of an exaggeration. I was back climbing again in 10 days, and Cassandra I were married on April 7th as we had planned. I figured that was it. A quick little diversion and on we go. As it turns out, it wasn’t so simple. My bloodwork still had signs of cancer, even though CT scans weren’t showing anything, so this meant chemotherapy. Chemo was scheduled to start on May 28th, so I gave my notice at my job for my last day to be May 25th. I figured that life was not something to be squandered doing something that I didn’t necessarily feel a passion for, especially given this wake-up call. I climbed as much as I could outside during the weeks leading up to chemo, and very nearly succeeded on my 2018 summer goal the day before I started chemo. I think chemo was easier for me than it is for most people, because I didn’t vomit, I had a decent appetite, and I wasn’t hospitalized for any reason. However, it still sucked, a lot. I received a cocktail of chemo drugs that were pretty standard for a testicular cancer patient. For me, chemotherapy was over three rounds, each round being 3 weeks long. I got the drugs intravenously on the first 3 days of the round, and then recovered for the rest of the 3 weeks. I spent about 1.5 weeks after getting the drugs each round laying flat on my back, unable to really walk more than a few blocks without feeling exhausted. I was constantly nauseous and the prescribed anti-nausea drugs made my vision blurry, so I couldn’t read or watch anything. Even my hearing started to get messed up. After the 10 days of sickness, I would start to feel better and head to the gym to see if I could still climb. Likely, climbing is the reason that I was able to stay relatively healthy through chemo. It gave me something to look forward to, and a reason to do as much physical activity as I could. Climbing has also taught me resilience and given me a little bit of that “fighting” ability to keep pushing through, which I am so glad that I could draw on through this. After the first round of chemo I managed to regain a relatively decent level of climbing fitness; I even made several good attempts on my summer project. After the second and third rounds, the accumulated effects were starting to take their toll and I was feeling quite weak. For me, this decline in physical ability was the hardest and most frustrating part about chemotherapy. Chemotherapy ended on July 12th, and I hoped that would be the end of it. My wife and I had many great adventures and climbed as much as possible through July and most of August. Unfortunately, CT scans now showed that some of the lymph nodes in the back part of my abdomen were enlarged and probably cancerous. Seriously? Next up in the series of Totally Fun Life Events was another surgery. August 22nd . It was the retroperitoneal lymph node dissection surgery, which was a good deal more invasion than my first surgery, and even had a hospital stay afterwards for recovery. This was very tough on me mentally, as all the resources, forums, and case studies online were pointing towards a very long recovery post-surgery, on the order of 3 months or longer, and even some not so pleasant permanent effects. At this point, I started to have worries about this ever reaching a conclusion. Would I ever get past this? My main comment about the surgery and hospital stay is that hospital food really does suck. I was extremely glad to be out of there, even if I was barely mobile and stapled back together. My souvenir from surgery is a 10 inch long scar from my sternum down past my belly button towards my groin. Being that I’m writing this only 7 weeks post-surgery, I can still feel the internal sutures in my abdomen. Luckily for me and my psychological state, I seem to heal quickly, and was able to start climbing about 6 weeks post-surgery. My climbing fitness is coming back, and I feel so grateful for that. You never feel happier about being healthy until after you’ve been sick. From here, I’m onto the cancer surveillance program, which is essentially an anxiety inducing schedule of scans and blood tests for the next 5 years and beyond. Mostly though, this experience has given me a new perspective on being in the here and now, as you never know what life is going to throw at you. You’ve only got one shot at life, so for mine I’m definitely going to keep climbing.

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