Stories of Hope
Cancer Was the Grizzly Outside Their Tent
Article date: May 24, 2002
Cancer and grizzlies both force us to consider our impermanence; both have the power to rudely rip away our complacency about tomorrow's certainty. Suddenly, living now is the only assured option.
Courage and Hope Found Across Montana's Continental Divide
When hiking the majestic peaks of Montana's Continental Divide Trail, a loving couple left behind a valley of fear. Scott Bischke and Katie Gibson chose to embrace life in the wake of Gibson's cervical cancer.
The cancer diagnosis, discovered after a routine Pap test in 1992, would redefine their notions of strength and endurance, and forever alter their sense of time and certainty.
As a partnership through the struggles of recovery, Gibson and Bischke chose to take back their lives, to be active rather than passive, and to aggressively seek the path of hope and possibility.
A big part of their life together has been sharing their love of the outdoors and being physically active.
After the diagnosis, hiking into the uncontrollable wilderness took on new meaning. It became a control for how they wished to live — simply, fully, and completely in the moment, surrounded by the healing beauty, power, and lessons of nature.
Forging a Relationship
The Big Sky country of Montana is their heart and their home. It's where Bischke grew up, and where they were married in 1988. The morning of their wedding found them dressed in tennis garb ready for a doubles tennis tournament. "The Wedding Invitational" was held among the two-dozen member wedding party, made up of family, a few friends, and even the priest.
They had met in Boulder at the University of Colorado in 1982. Both were engineering students; Gibson majored in electrical and Bischke in chemical. In 1989 they moved to Corvallis, Ore. The two worked for Hewlett-Packard Company, Bischke as an environmental engineer and Gibson as a computer project manager.
Even though Bischke had spent much of his youth outdoors fly-fishing and backpacking, together he and Gibson created a synergy. As the outdoors drew them together, their relationship blossomed a hundredfold. Being active in nature became important to them spiritually as well as physically.
Exploring wild country became their way of life. In the US and Canadian Rockies they hiked, cross-country skied, canoed, and backpacked. In the Pacific Northwest they sea-kayaked and ran marathons. They bicycled around New Zealand. Bischke's book, Two Wheels Around New Zealand, chronicled their adventures.
Battling Cancer Together
Being this healthy and active, the diagnosis of cancer (papillary adenocarcinoma) was surreal, a shock. A cone biopsy didn't remove all the cancer. In February 1993, a radical hysterectomy was performed in Portland and 30 pelvic lymph nodes removed. The lymph nodes were clear (no cancer), and Gibson was given the great news of 97% chance of survival.
That summer was spent fishing, hiking, and canoeing, and Gibson ran in the Victoria Marathon in October.
By December Gibson's thighs began to swell painfully. She had lymphedema.
In April 1994, a golf-ball-sized cyst was drained and was negative for cancer. But in September, after returning from a sea-kayaking trip, a baseball-size lesion on the left pelvic sidewall was found to be cancerous.
In October, surgery failed to remove all the cancer. A tumor had grown dangerously close to Gibson's bladder and ureter, and near her backbone. A doctor told Gibson that she'd have a one in 10 shot at living 12 to 23 months. He suggested she could choose to do nothing.
But Gibson resolved, "We clearly have the wrong doctors."
Surviving the Treatment
After researching and interviewing other doctors, they found a new team at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. In November Gibson began six weeks of radiation therapy once a day, and several rounds of chemotherapy were planned.
Gibson had never felt ill with the cancer, but she would with the treatment. Her body felt besieged: fatigue, pain, bloating, nausea, diarrhea, and hair loss.
She could only receive one round of chemotherapy, because her white blood cell count had become too low after her radiation. This was Gibson's most miserable time. "…there was nothing I could do to escape but wait it out. I was thinking more about getting out of that damn apparatus and all of the vomiting than worrying about surviving cancer," she said.
By December 1994, a post-radiation treatment CT scan report read: "No visible tumor. Essentially the CT scan of a normal, 32-year-old female."
However, there was always fear the cancer would spread. Abdominal surgery in February 1995 found no new cancer and no trace of the original tumor. Since the cancer had not spread, I-125 radioactive seed implants were inserted at the site of the original tumor, which had been marked by clips left by the Portland doctor, to get rid of any remaining cancer cells.
But nine days later, Gibson had severe abdominal pains due to a bowel blockage. An operation was performed in March to cut out a part of her intestine that had collapsed, and the ends were reconnected.
During her recovery, she set positive goals for herself, like a longer walk down the hospital corridor. She sought to regain her sense of self by overseeing investments and paying bills from the hospital bed. Bischke slept by her bedside.
In April she could finally return home and begin eating by mouth again.
Recovering in Nature
In 1995 the "Summer of Recovery" was crammed with adventures to make them feel alive again, and they gladly took the risk. "Every journey we took into unknown country revitalized our souls. Our minds reopened to the possibility of life beyond cancer," said Bischke.
Just four months after surgery, they canoed and camped in northwestern British Columbia. "In a lot of ways that canoe trip symbolized our burning desire to make a break from the medical world," said Bischke. "We desperately needed the confidence to take care of ourselves again."
By September 1995 they returned to work. The company had been generous, granting a leave of absence to them both. But within a few months, they cut back their work week to four days, which gave them more time to explore nature. "It's important to integrate the things you loved before cancer into your healing time after cancer. That's what nourishes you…," explained Bischke.
On a camping trip in eastern Oregon in October 1996, Gibson told Bischke, "It's been two years today since my surgery. The doctor said I had a one in 10 chance of living until now."
Hiking the Montana Continental Divide Trail
In 1998 they spent four months planning to hike the 800-mile stretch of the Montana Continental Divide Trail (CDT) that would take three months to walk. It would be a journey that would eventually hearten them to move to Montana, work from home, and share their story to help others.
Their book, Crossing Divides: A Couple's Story of Cancer, Hope, and Hiking Montana's Continental Divide, juxtaposes their journey of cancer with the dangers of hiking the CDT.
Gibson thrived in the rigors of backpacking, despite her struggles with swollen legs, a leaky hardened bladder, damaged bowel, diarrhea, having to take pills — and blisters on her feet.
She hefted a 24-pound backpack while Bischke carried 35 pounds. Water was purified along the way and carried when not accessible. Bischke often caught fish for their dinner and provisions were re-stocked along the way. The longest daily hike was 16 miles; the highest peak climbed was nearly 10,000 feet.
Along the trail they clapped hands, sang songs, talked loudly, and carried pepper spray to ward off the black bears, grizzlies, and cubs that would pop up unexpectedly.
Close encounters would make them focus and mindful. "Cancer and grizzlies both force us to consider our impermanence; both have the power to rudely rip away our complacency about tomorrow's certainty. Suddenly, living now is the only assured option," said Bischke.
They weathered thunderstorms, lightning, hail, strong winds, and 102-degree heat.
They were never alone; the farther they hiked, the closer they felt connected to all living things. Wolves, coyotes, and owls serenaded their sleep. Moose, elk, beaver, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep graced their days, as well as occasional and memorable human beings.
Each day brought gifts filled with awe and splendor. Happy and at peace, they savored the simplicity of carrying only what was needed.
"Backpacking is a lot like life. Beyond a certain point, the more 'stuff' you carry with you, the harder it is to progress...be it the mental garbage of a poor relationship or the physical garbage of an over-consumptive lifestyle...," said Bischke.
Thriving Beyond Cancer
Through careful preparation and taking step by step, they made their journey through the wilderness, ever focusing on the task at hand while looking to the goal beyond. In their fight against cancer, they applied the same skill.
"You and only you are responsible for deciding your path," said Gibson. "...I wished for a simple set of rules to live by, but there were none. I had to find my own path, and I continue to do so today."
"I hope that you will find your own dream to hold on to and that this dream will help you get through treatment and on to living," said Gibson. "...Each of us has a hundred times more strength than we realize. May you find this strength and use it to guide you along your path to well-being."