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Climbing life’s biggest mountain

At 65, Gertrude Abela never entertained the idea of scaling a mountain, but she tells Ariadne Massa surmounting the obstacles to reach the summit was the most exhilarating way of proving there is life beyond breast cancer.

The call came in January. The voice was persuasive and the message was clear – Ms Abela had to join breast cancer survivors in the Cordéé de Solidarité, a 4,164-metre climb to the top of theBreithorn mountain in the Swiss Alps.

I felt prepared... because I had no idea what I was going in for. I thought, oh well, it’s just a walk in the snow

Bettina Borisch, president of the European Breast Cancer coalition Europa Donna, was rounding up representatives from all its forums to attempt the second “rope of solidarity” climb on September 17.

“I tried to persuade her that we don’t have mountains in Malta and that the island is flat. I never committed myself, simply saying now we’ll see, but Bettina wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Ms Abela said.

The Cordéé de Solidarité symbolises what links individuals to others; that solidarity, whether in a climb or in dealing with cancer, was vital in reaching the top.

It was created to represent the union of women who suffered the same cancer, to trek the mountain and reach the top, the same way they battled their illness.

In her message, Prof. Borisch said: “The climbers are connected together by a rope, to help each other attain the objective. What an excellent symbol to use when we face a serious illness, the outcome of which is unknown and the pathway of which is difficult.”

The unknown is why Ms Abela took the plunge and last month joined 100 participants from 19 nations to show her commitment to battle this dreaded illness, ahead of Breast Awareness Month this month.

Ms Abela, president of the Breast Care Support Group Europa Donna (Malta), started walking for an hour every day equipped with her “iPod thing”, making sure she fit in a trek up the Iklin hill.

“That’s the steepest I could find close to home. Where do you want me to go? I know, I’m mad,” she chortles.

Trying to locate mountaineering gear in the middle of August was not easy, and though the trek up Breithorn is not considered to be a demanding one, Ms Abela had never set foot in the alps.

Ms Abela, accompanied by her husband Tony and group member Catherine Vella – another breast cancer survivor who was planning on scaling the mountain – reached Zarmatt two days before the actual climb. They had no idea that it was advisable to go there a few days before to get acclimatised to the high altitude.

“I felt prepared... because I had no idea what I was going in for. I thought, oh well, it’s just a walk in the snow,” she said with a giggle.

On the day, Ms Abela and Ms Vella left the hotel at 6.30 a.m. after a quick cup of tea. Ms Abela’s husband stayed behind, as he could not attempt the climb due to heart problems.

Wearing her trekking boots and a quilted jacket, Ms Abela stuffed her haversack with cereal bars, a chocolate, water, gloves, a scarf, hat, and crampons – steel spikes that attach to their shoes to improve traction in the snow.

Unfortunately, a quarter of the way up the four-hour trek, Ms Vella started feeling dizzy and had to be airlifted.

“I was torn between wanting to accompany her back and my burning desire to get to the top, now that I had come all this way. I really wanted to go. Catherine insisted I proceed,” Ms Abela said.

“When Catherine left, I was so determined I didn’t think I could possibly be next to drop out. The higher we went, the more breathless I was getting. At one point the guide, told me, ‘I don’t know why you didn’t stay behind because you’re holding people back’.

“He made me really angry, which made me even more determined. I think he did it on purpose. I insisted I was going to do it and there was no turning back.”

Sometimes, as she was walking through the narrow icy ledges in the silent world of snow, tied to the guide with a group of five and trudging up the steep slope, she would look up and wonder how she was ever going to reach the summit. Her legs never gave way; it was just her breath that threatened to give up.

Getting to the top was one of the most exhilarating moments for Ms Abela. “I kept repeating, ‘I did it’. I did it for Anita my friend, Doris and all the people I know who have breast cancer,” she said, her eyes welling up with an overwhelming sense of happiness that she succeeded, and sadness for all those battling the traumatic journey of breast cancer. The first thing she did when she scaled the mountain was send her husband a text message to share the moment with him.

“It was an incredible experience witnessing the solidarity between survivors,” she said.

She is the first Maltese woman to take part in this climb and succeed in making it to the top. Ms Abela is also the second oldest participant in the Cordéé de Solidarité, although the other woman had the advantage of having lived in the Swiss Alps.

Her husband is clearly proud of his wife’s achievements, and as Ms Abela recounts her adventure, he gets up to find the certificate she was presented with for succeeding to reach the top.

After the climb, the 100 participants signed the Zermatt Declaration, stating: “Together, we won a victory over ourselves by climbing a 4,000-metre peak, to prove to the world, that there is a full life to be lived after breast cancer.

Together, with our symbolic rope all the way up this mountain, we have demonstrated that solidarity is essential in completing this physical challenge. Solidarity is equally essential for overcoming the experience of breast cancer in real life.”

It adds: “We must ensure that the chances of surviving cancer and reintegrating into a full, active and productive life are increased. Thanks to early diagnosis and awareness, a growing number of patients survive, learn to live with breast cancer and can reintegrate into normal life.”

The declaration also stresses that more resources are needed to ensure all possible means are in place to support the reintegration of breast cancer survivors, sothey can resume full activity after cancer.

This is part of Ms Abela’s mission in Malta through increased awareness.

Three weeks since her feat, Ms Abela is still warmed by thoughts of the event and driven to help others.

“It’s such a nice feeling to have done it. With cancer you need to first undergo one treatment and then another. I overcame it. Then I faced another challenge when I decided to take on the climb, but with help and support you can always surmount obstacles,” she said.

Across the world, one in three people is diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. One in 10 women is affected by breast cancer and at increasingly younger ages. In Malta, there are some 250 new cases of women diagnosed with breast cancer.

Ms Abela developed breast cancer when she was 53. A conscientious woman who religiously kept her mammogram appointments, she stumbled on a tiny lump by chance.

She had only just done the mammogram in May, when she found the lump in August of that same year. In a way, the mammogram gave her a false sense of security, so her initial reaction was to deny anything was wrong.

She then spoke to her friend about her concerns, preferring not to share her lingering doubts with her husband so as not to worry him. Her friend accompanied her to the radiologist, who immediately recognised there was something and “it had to come out”. An ultrasound had immediately picked out the lump.

Asked what she believed was the most effective method of screening, Ms Abela believes both the ultrasound and a mammogram had their advantages and ideally both are carried out.

“It was a shock when I learnt I had breast cancer, but it never crossed my mind I was going to die. I didn’t think that. My first reaction was, ‘but I had just done my mammogram how could this happen to me’. That’s life, what can you do.”

A mother of five – Ivan, 41, Rosanne, 40, Duncan, 38, Gaby, 33, and Rebecca, 23 – and grandmother of four, everybody rallied around her to offer their support.

Ten days after discovering the lump, she was being wheeled into the operating theatre. The doctor explained he was going to do a frozen section evaluation of her breast tissue and if it emerged it was cancer he would have to remove her right breast.

“At the time, I didn’t give the mastectomy a second thought. You want to get rid of the cancer and you want your body to be clean again,” she said.

“I’m not one who’ll go in a corner and cry. I’m a fighter. I wanted to get it over and done with as quickly as possible. However, the mastectomy made me feel like I had lost a bit of myself. I put away all my nightdresses and preferred to sleep in baggy T-shirts,” she recalled.

“Even when you look in the mirror and you see half of yourself missing it’s very upsetting... and when you look down and remember you don’t have a breast. Despite everything, a mastectomy gave me peace of mind. Plus, I didn’t have a choice.”

Chemotherapy followed. She believes the fact she used to undergo the sessions in the evening helped her handle the nausea and side-effects better because she would go straight to sleep afterwards.

Somebody had advised her to eat ginger to handle the nausea so she would devour an entire packet of ginger biscuits at one go, and with a cheeky grin she blames this habit for her weight gain. When her hair started to fall out, she accepted her hairdresser’s suggestion to shave it off.

She also had a kind soul visit her at home to fit her with a temporary wig to replace her white hair. She was thrilled that it looked so natural nobody noticed, not even her doctor who actually asked how she still had hair after chemo.

I’m not one who’ll go in a corner and cry. I’m a fighter

Afterwards, she underwent radiotherapy and physiotherapy. To this day she feels so well that she often forgets she cannot carry heavy things with her right hand due to the risk of developinglymphodemia – a condition where the arm can fill with fluid and swell, especially if the lymph glands have been removed.

Three years after the operation, she opted to have a complete reconstruction of her right breast and she laughs about how lucky she was that this was done using the extra flab from her tummy.

“I got a two-in-one,” she laughed, adding how pleased she was that reconstruction surgery following breast cancer was now available on the national health service.

There was the risk her body could have rejected the new breast, but ever the optimist, Ms Abela never dwelt on this, believing everything would work out. It did.

“I live as normal a life as possible. I’m busier than I was when I was bringing up my children, with regular committee meetings, talks and receiving support phone calls at all hours,” she said, smiling with satisfaction.

Her enthusiasm and bubbly nature is infectious and she tries to imbue other women with this attitude.

“Many see cancer as a death sentence, but it’s important to fight it and do everything in your power to get better. Today with the treatment available there are many success stories; you have to believe you will be one of them. True, you never feel free. It can come back, but then again you can cross the road and you’re run over by a car and killed.”

On Saturday the Breast Care Support Group is organising a symbolic Silhouette Walk to raise awareness. It starts from Phoenicia Hotel, Floriana, at 5 p.m. and ends at St George’s Square, Valletta. A registration form can be downloaded from www.europadonnamalta.org.mt.

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