Eagle River woman climbs against cancer
“Take me to a mountain.”
Going up is how Susie Smith gets right. Immediately upon discovery of cancer in her rib, fleeing up an Arctic Valley trail was like a primal “flight” instinct. Her epic “fight” response mobilized later and again led up — 19,341 feet up, to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.
“The mountains are just my place,” Smith mused. “It’s where I find peace. It’s where I go to regulate. It is what fills my soul.”
Thanks to targeted radiation therapy, she has hope in her prognosis. She has hope to overcome mountains both literal and figurative. She has hope enough to share. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is a means to foster hope in signature Susie Smith style, and thus far her climbing campaign has raised more than $10,000 to institute cancer treatment in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania.
Smith, 42, received the initial troubling report from her doctor during a dinner date with her husband Jeff last April. They had traced the source of a recurring stabbing pain in her side to a lesion that indicated cancer in her rib.
“I ran out of that place and fell on the cold sidewalk,” Smith recounted. “I said to my husband, ‘Please, take me to a mountain. I have to go up.’ So we did. We went to Arctic Valley and watched the sun set from up there. I had him take a picture of me because I thought it might be my last non-cancer sunset.”
A biopsy confirmed that malignant cells in Smith’s bone marrow were boring through her rib. She was among fewer than 450 Americans diagnosed per year with singular plasmacytoma, according to the National Institute of Health. Essentially, the condition is “singular” or “solitary” bone plasmacytoma (SBP) because the cancer is isolated in one spot, whereas if it had spread systemically, it would be classified as the more common and more deadly multiple myeloma. One doctor warned Smith that 70 percent of people with SBP develop multiple myeloma within 10 years. Another used the word “curable” in discussing her case.
“The bulk of what I’ve been told, is this is the best of the worst” cancer diagnoses, she concluded. “Whatever they call it or say it might do, if I wake up and I feel good, I’m gonna live. And I’m gonna live hard.”
Smith, a lieutenant colonel in the Alaska Air National Guard, ultimately opted to fight SBP with daily radiotherapy, in which beams of radiation directly zap the tumor. While her pilot husband was often away for work, friends brought meals and accompanied her to radiation therapy every day Monday through Friday for two months.
Amidst an influx of supportive messages, two separate friends forwarded her a link to Radiating Hope, a nonprofit co-founded by Anchorage radiation oncologist Larry Daugherty. Daugherty organizes and leads climbing expeditions up the world’s tallest mountains to raise money and improve cancer care in underserved areas.
Two messages in succession seemed like a sign, she thought. “But I was in the throes of treatment. I couldn’t even conceive of a mountain.”
Smith explained radiotherapy to her two young sons as “the power of the bright sun in a pinpoint to heal what hurts mommy.” To which her youngest sweetly suggested, “Let’s just go sit in the sun on the porch every day!”
A sweet suggestion here can be a bitter reality in Tanzania, where cancer treatment isn’t available to most of the 49 million residents. The entire nation, more than twice the size of California, is dependent on a single modern radiation machine, which was provided through Radiating Hope in 2015. According to the nonprofit, Tanzania would need more than 300 radiation machines to meet minimal cancer care standards.
Daugherty and a friend founded Radiating Hope as medical residents eager to make a difference in the world.
“We both had a background in humanitarian missions, and we wanted to do something in our own field. We looked around and found there really wasn’t anything else in the radiation oncology field,” said Daugherty, an Eagle River resident since 2014. “And we both really enjoyed climbing.”
With that shared passion and altruism in common, as Smith recovered her thoughts returned to mountaineering and to fostering hope for others stricken by cancer. In her own family, she had witnessed both the battle and the surrender. Just weeks earlier her mom transitioned to hospice care with kidney cancer. Her aunt has been combating multiple cancers for more than 20 years, and her grandma succumbed to breast cancer. Since her dad died of heart disease when she was a child, every surviving member of her family of origin now is confronting some stage of cancer.
“I realize we have little to no control over what happens to us, but we have every bit of choice with how we respond,” she said. “And there is such great power in that.”
Radiotherapy gave Smith a chance to defy cancer. Her follow-up scans revealed no trace of malignancy. Lab tests every three months will monitor her condition indefinitely, but for now and the foreseeable future, Smith is living with no evidence of cancer remaining.
“I get to live. So what do I do with that? It’s so precious,” she said, noting that summiting Kilimanjaro had long been on her bucket list. “I didn’t know if my body would be able to handle such a thing, but I just wanted to give somebody else that hope.”
After reaching out to Daugherty, Smith decided to go for it — to “Kili cancer.” She shared her campaign on Facebook.
“Why climb? Because. I. Can. Because I must!” she wrote in the fundraiser description. “… To bring hope. To pay it forward. To have a small part in making a cancer diagnosis not a death sentence for another person.”
All donations to Radiating Hope go directly toward cancer treatment in developing nations — in Smith’s case, to fund Tanzania’s first cancer care center at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. Her initial fundraising goal was $2,000. She quickly raised more than $10,000, ranking her as the top fundraiser in the group of 21 climbers.
Before she departed for Africa, her husband and sons revealed a lofty goal of their own: climbing every step of 19,341 feet at home on their treadmill. Smith also was delighted to discover her tent roommate would be a fellow Eagle River cancer survivor who lived in the same neighborhood. And Daugherty’s 12-year-old daughter Azalea, in what’s become a tween-to-teen tradition in the Daugherty family, joined them on the expedition.
“This group was just really special to me, their stories,” Daugherty said. “Not only going with three of my own patients on the climb and also my own daughter, but they were just incredible people on this trip.”
In Radiating Hope’s early years, oncology staff comprised most of the mountaineering teams. The climbs, which include Mount Everest and Denali among several others worldwide, are geared toward climbers with minimal experience and ample endurance. This Kilimanjaro contingency included a trio of therapists carrying the ashes of a spouse who had climbed Kili in his youth and recently died of metastatic cancer. Another man in their party had shed nearly 300 pounds to fulfill his dream of mountain climbing.
“Just some amazing people,” Daugherty said. “I felt like our group just gelled in a special way.”
Top of the World
In Alaska it was late on March 11 when across the world the group started their ascent up Mount Kilimanjaro. Smith used a satellite communication device to regularly update family and supporters back home.
“I am so overcome with emotion tonight. I am so small, SO very very grateful,” she wrote a few days into the climb. “Her summit is silhouetted high above us in this night sky… I have never seen anything so amazing in all my life.”
Within days they reached the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, save two climbers thwarted by altitude sickness. At the summit they posted prayer flags inscribed with names of loved ones affected by cancer.
“To be able to go on a major adventure and raise money for cancer is really cool,” said Daugherty, whose next Radiating Hope destination is Machu Picchu in Peru’s Andean mountains in June.
Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest peak Smith has conquered yet, but she said reaching the summit of Africa’s tallest mountain is only the start of getting her hopes “up.” Smith hopes for a future with her husband and sons in the Eagle River community they cherish, scored with a magnificent maze of trails and hikes to be had. She hopes to keep climbing. She hopes to conquer more of the “seven summits” of the world, to foster hope in others.
“In essence I climb to give hope and also inspire people, to show that there is a choice in every reaction,” she concluded. “It’s a very long journey to figure out how to cope with this new normal.”
Wherever that journey takes her, Smith will find a mountain, and keep going up.
Rashae Ophus Johnson is a freelance writer from Eagle River.