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How a Heartbreaking Diagnosis Turned Into a Quest to Climb a Mountain

October 3, 2017
From the WebMD Archives

By Lesley Glenn

“Just breathe, Lesley. You can do this. One step at a time.”

3 steps.

Stop. Breathe.

3 steps.

Stop. Breathe.

I can feel my heart pounding, as I focus my eyes on the path ahead of me.

“It can’t be much further,” I encourage myself.

I am 14,000 feet above sea level, almost at the top of Mt. Whitney.


I remember the day I got the phone call.

“You have stage IV metastatic breast cancer.”

“What does that mean?”

“The cancer has spread from its original tumor. You are now considered 99.999% incurable.”

I could feel my heart pounding. My eyes began to blur.

Tears took over, as my life flashed before my eyes. Marriage. Children. Holidays. Traditions. Laughter. Home. Career.

In that moment I knew my life would never be the same again.

“Will I die?”

“Not yet.”

I tried to calm myself - “Just breathe, Lesley. You can do this. One step at a time.”

That was May of 2013 – six months after my original cancer diagnosis.

I had first been diagnosed with stage IIB invasive ductal carcinoma back in November of 2012, the day before Thanksgiving. My oncologist was positive about my treatment plan. Her words: “Just give me 8 months, and I will have you cancer free.” Yes, I thought to myself, I can give up 8 months of my life to deal with this cancer business, and then I’ll resume normal life. So, when the stage IV metastatic diagnosis came, I was in shock.

Coming to grips with this diagnosis took months. I re-evaluated everything in my life, from career, to volunteer work, to friendships, to even living with more material belongings than I needed. I took a year off from life – I dropped social media, commitments, my job. I simplified my life and became a student of myself. I asked myself, “Who is Lesley Kailani Glenn? What does she want for her life?”

During this self-evaluation time, my husband took me to Yosemite. I had recently come out of treatment, and my body was just beginning to recover and gain strength. We did a short hike up to Vernal Falls, and I was winded, having to stop every few steps to catch my breath. Near the top, we stopped and rested on a bench, where the John Muir trail began, and I watched the backpackers (men and women) coming off and entering the trail. They were carrying everything they needed on their backs to survive – they were strong, and they looked happy. At that moment, I decided that I was going to take my life back, and I was going to do it in nature, climbing mountains.

I set my sights on Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States, and gave myself 8 months to train for it.

8 months – not in treatment, but in training. The difference: I would prevail this time.

As I trained, I realized that climbing a very tall mountain and managing a cancer diagnosis, while obviously very different, are also very much alike.

Both require courage, determination, and grit.

Education, information, and knowing the right questions to ask.

Gathering the necessary tools so that they’re ready when we need them. Prioritizing. Planning.

Patience, grace, and a willingness to be humbled by something that you have absolutely no control over.

And they both require deep breaths and the mantra “one step at a time.”

With cancer, I made it a priority to understand everything I could about my disease, the type of cancer I had, the treatments available to me. I researched organizations that could offer me support, guidance, and education. I sought out support groups and mentors who had more experience than I did, who could offer me direction, a compass, to navigate this bumpy road, and who could pick me up when I had fallen down, discouraged and defeated. I wanted a map. I wanted someone to tell me exactly what I needed to do, when I needed to do it and how. I didn’t want this to be a trailblazing experience – I wanted to follow a well-worn path. But even as I was equipped and loaded with all of my tools, I soon realized that this journey was mine. Personal and individual. No one could walk this for me…. just with me.

I never could have climbed Mt. Whitney without everything I had learned from cancer. You see, the mountain didn’t prepare me for cancer. Cancer prepared me for the mountain.


I can see the summit hut emerge against a bright blue, cloudless sky.

I am almost there. Maybe another 500 feet.

Emotion fills every cell of my being.

Tears take over, as I stop to look back at how far I’ve climbed. And in that moment, I know my life will never be the same again.

“Just breathe. You can do this. One step at a time.”


For more information from Living Beyond Breast Cancer:
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Lesley Glenn was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic breast cancer in 2013, and she has not let her cancer determine her life’s path. She is an avid hiker and backpacker, she travels with her husband of 26 years, loves the arts, has 3 amazing adult children and one hiking dog named Barkley. She is the co-founder of the annual “MakeMoves.fit, Climb for a Cure” for metastatic breast cancer, that is held every year in October in Southern California. Lesley is a graduate of Living Beyond Breast Cancer’s “Hear My Voice” community outreach volunteer training program, and continues to partner with Living Beyond Breast Cancer to advocate for the metastatic community through her writing and fundraising. You can follow her blog at www.livingauthenticallylesley.com

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