Twice to the Summit

It was a hard climb for Megan Andersen to survive breast cancer; then came her ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro

Megan Andersen held a banner she brought to the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro last month to commemorate five years of being breast cancer free as her husband Nels held their certificates for reaching the summit. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
MITCH MAERSCH
Ozaukee Press staff

Megan Andersen climbed a figurative mountain. Then she climbed a real mountain.

Both came as surprises and will remain forever connected in her life.

In 2014, Andersen, of Port Washington, was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive form that is difficult to treat and, she said, a decade ago would have been a death sentence. She had no family history of the disease.

Fast forward to nearly a year later. Andersen’s daughter gave her trekking poles and a book about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest free-standing mountain in the world.

Andersen had to get healthy before attempting such a feat. It was a trying task.

She had surgery in March 2014 followed by six months of chemotherapy.

The day after treatments ended, she took photos of the sunrise at the lakefront.

“Our family always celebrated the little victories. The ‘new day’ is what our family called it,” she said.

After a four-week break, she underwent six weeks of radiation treatment. She had reconstruction surgery in August 2015, but got a sepsis infection and shingles.

“So the rest of 2015 was just trying to stay healthy,” she said.

A “pretty quiet” 2016 had Andersen getting her strength back and going through regular tests. She worked up enough energy to walk more than a block.

In 2017, she and her husband Nels put down a deposit for a 2019 trek up Mount Kilimanjaro.

The date was intentional. It would coincide with the five-year milestone of no recurrences of breast cancer, which would mean the risk of getting it again returned to the status of the general public, Andersen said.

Plenty of training and testing was still required. Her chemotherapy was known to be hard on hearts, so she had a cardiologist, and saw a pulmonologist because the cancer could have spread to her lungs.

Megan worked with a personal trainer and hiked often on the Ice Age Trail. She hiked four to seven miles on a trail near her home. She peaked on a nine-mile trek near Mauthe Lake.

And then she was ready for the 10-day, 55-mile journey up and down Mount Kilimanjaro.

Megan and Nels were accompanied on the trek by nearly 50 people, including other climbers, a cook, guides, porters and medical personnel.

The climb up Kilimanjaro, a volcano in Tanzania, basically entailed hiking uphill and camping at night. It doesn’t require the technical skill of Mount Everest, but climbers travel near craters and there are long stretches through desolate landscape, Megan said.

“It is not to be taken lightly,” she said.

“A lot of this climb is mental,” Nels said. “You are alone with your thoughts with nothing in front of you.”

Megan does not have experience in camping, but she said she felt prepared after training for so long.

“We turned down a lot of social encounters because we knew we had to be on a trail both days of the weekend,” she said.

After spending two days at lower elevations of 4,000 feet, the group moved up to 11,499 feet. Oxygen levels and pulses were taken every day. The Andersens were the only climbers in their crew to get by without medication for altitude sickness.

The Andersens took the longest route up the mountain, which required switchback mountain climbing, going back and forth from 10 to 100 yards.

The boring parts of the climb at times tested the Andersens as they hiked over or around boulders, but neither had a thought to turn back. Megan got sick once — not altitude sickness — but battled through it, determined to walk the next seven hours.

“Turning around was never in my mind,” she said.

The couple had a deal. If Megan had to go back down, Nels would join her. If Nels had to go, Megan would keep going.

“My only reason was to make sure she got to the summit,” he said.

When it became difficult, Megan said she thought of the porters.

“If this young kid can do this repeatedly for a living, I could do this for 10 days,” she said.

Porters went ahead and set up camp so it was ready when the climbers arrived. They gave high fives and sang each time, celebrating the day’s accomplishment.

Tea and snacks were given at 4 p.m. each day. Food was always high in carbohydrates. The Andersens said they think they were overfed, but Nels said people lose their appetites as they climb higher.

“It was not that uncomfortable camping, even though it was cold and windy,” Megan said.

Everyone wore lamps at night to keep animals such as jackals and cape buffalo away.

Climbers were required to travel with everything and leave nothing behind. Nels said he did fine carrying his 16-pound pack.

On summit day, the seventh day of the trek, the group climbed 3,500 feet on a steeper grade than the rest of the trip, going a total of four miles in seven hours.

“You can feel every step,” Nels said. “Your lungs don’t feel like they’re getting full.”

After a night of camping above the clouds, the Andersens left at 5 a.m. and reached the summit around midday.

They reached the peak of 19,341 feet.

“It was pretty emotional,” Megan said.

“We both kept saying, ‘Can you believe we made it?’ Nels never had a doubt. I did.”

Everyone broke out into song, and the Andersens held a celebratory banner.

For Nels, reaching the summit was a relief. “Great, I don’t have to climb anymore,” he said.

But they had to come back down. It took three days and was almost as difficult.

“When you’re going down, you’re basically skiing,” Nels said, adding climbers were constantly told to “trust their boots” to maintain their center of gravity.

For Megan, the journey meant more than climbing a mountain. She had reached that five-year, cancer-free milestone.

“I could close that chapter of my life,” she said. “Not that I don’t think about it still, but we weren’t on pins and needles anymore.

She hopes to be an inspiration to others.

“They can do something just as challenging. They have to work at it, have the right mindset and a good support network,” she said.

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