On the evening of September 14, 2015, I was sitting at home watching TV when my phone rang. Six days earlier, I’d had surgery on my left leg, just above my calf, to remove a large chunk of melanoma, which I’d been diagnosed with earlier that summer. The incision was six inches long and so deep and gnarly I nearly fainted when I saw it for the first time. During the operation, Dr. Robert Andtbacka, a surgeon at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute, had also removed a single lymph node from my left groin to see if the melanoma had spread, which would make it a much more serious situation.
I wasn’t too worried. I’d always been healthy and active, but when my phone rang, I knew immediately something was wrong. It was Dr. Andtbacka, calling me from his personal cell phone to tell me that the cancer had spread. “We need to get you back in here for another surgery as soon as possible,” he said. But I could hardly hear him. I’d never been more scared.
Over the last 12 years, I’ve written a lot about risk and what happens when things go badly in the mountains. In 2005, I interviewed a father who’d recently lost his 23-year-old son in an avalanche. I can still hear the anguish in his voice. At the time, I’d never known anyone personally who had died in the mountains. Now, it seems inevitable that someone I know won’t survive the winter. I decided the last way I wanted to die was in an avalanche. The phrase “at least he died doing what he loved” made me angry. I became an advocate for turning around at the slightest hint of doubt, to staying within my boundaries, and doing everything possible to make certain I came home at the end of the day.
But then, one day I woke up and had cancer. Suddenly, skiing and life and everything I cherished took on a great deal more meaning. Though it didn’t change my perception of how much risk I was willing to take, it helped refocus my outlook on the things that truly mattered: my family, my friends, my health. It was also about setting clear goals for a fuller life: see something beautiful every day; be comfortable in who I am as a person and skier; and, this one kind of surprised me, don’t be afraid.
I’ve certainly had a lot of fun in the mountains, but I was always mindful of what might lurk just beneath the surface. Then, as I was skiing in the Tetons last winter, a friend told me, “Just because someone else died in an avalanche, doesn’t mean you will as well.”
I was struck by the simple logic of the statement. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be conservative in your decision-making or do everything possible to avoid an accident. But it also means you shouldn’t let the bad shit rule your life. Just like cancer.
My doctors told me that had my diagnosis been 10 years ago, “it wouldn’t look good.” Now, due to advances in treating skin cancer, they say people with stage 3 melanoma have a 78 percent chance of survival after five years. Which is great…until you think about the other 22 percent and how you’ve still never skied the Haute Route. Though widely underestimated, melanoma has become one of the fastest growing forms of cancer in the U.S. This year alone it will kill more than 10,000 people.
In surgery number two, Andtbacka removed 10 lymph nodes from my left groin. It looked like he’d taken a big ice-cream scoop of flesh out of my inner left thigh. The site looked hideous and oozed yellow fluid. It was a struggle just to look at myself in the mirror, let alone not succumb to the darkness of the “what ifs.”
As physically demanding as it was to recover from two back-to-back surgeries, the mental challenge of learning how to cope with cancer was far more difficult. The stress during those first six months was crippling. During one particularly grueling deadline, I came down with a full body rash, which my doctors couldn’t explain.
Being diagnosed with cancer left me feeling, at times, hopeless. Despite the various treatments, there’s a sense of having no control over your fate: You either have cancer, or you don’t; or maybe you do, you just don’t know it yet. And so you lean on things you can control: diet, exercise, relationships, the way you see the world, day-to-day decisions.
Though my oncologist gave me the option of entering a drug treatment program, I decided to forego drugs and their many side effects to focus on diet and overall health. A central component of my recovery included skiing.
It seems obvious now, but as I focused on those little things, I became a better skier while regaining a sense of control over other parts of my life. By midwinter, as I stood atop a steep, powder-filled couloir in the Tetons, I felt comfortable in my decisions, more grateful for being able to skin up a mountain, and, perhaps, a better handle on my fate as a cancer patient. There were times I got scared, and times I wanted to turn around and did. There’s still no glory in dying in an avalanche. But skiing in big terrain became less about choosing how to die, and more about how to live.
Ultimately, nobody should have to apologize for wanting to ski big mountains if that’s what makes them truly happy. We all just need to make sure we’re doing it for the right reasons. For me, that means being comfortable with who I am, making sure the people in my life know what they mean to me, and being able to ski powder. Because that’s when I feel free.
Matt Hansen is the Editor-at-Large at Powder. He’s militant about sunscreen and skiing powder with friends—doctor’s orders. This story originally published in the January 2017 issue, the Photo Annual (45.5). Subscribe to The Skier’s Magazine here.