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Lifting Hopes

Health Wanted


Published March 9, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

It's a powder day at Sugarbush. Thick pillows of snow are piled up among the pine and birch glades, and showboaters are fluffing them with frosty precision. But the white stuff can't muffle the shouts of glee that reverberate around the mountain -- least of all the amped-up hollers of Ann Taylor. She tips her Dynastar skis down the off-ramp of the Super Bravo Express Quad, then races a snowboarding buddy down the Valley House Traverse, trash-talking the guy while double-poling for speed. Passing her friend and hooking onto Spring Fling, Taylor takes a quick breath, then starts bouncing through the soft moguls, laughing and whooping all the way down the hill.

"Skiing is such a joyful experience," says Taylor, a Burlington-based physical therapist and ski instructor. You'd never know the 53-year-old is "suffering" from stage IV, or advanced, metastatic breast cancer. "You just laugh; you're like a little kid again and there's so much joy there . . . We call it fun therapy."

Taylor learned she had cancer in 1994. "It was like I was dead; it was extraordinarily scary and I was filled with doom and gloom," she recalls. Living in Salt Lake City at the time, she discovered that one option for treatment and recovery lay in the surrounding Wasatch Mountains. During 14 weeks of chemotherapy, she says, "I just continued skiing, from 8000 to 11,000 feet at Snowbird."

Taylor's betting the same sort of outdoor therapy works next weekend at Sugarbush, which tops out at just 4083 feet, for participants in the area's first-ever Adventures in Living.

Organized by Taylor along with fellow instructor and breast-cancer survivor Ashley Fischer and extreme skier John Egan, the event is open to all cancer survivors and their friends and families. It combines the pure, on-snow fun of skiing or snowshoeing with "mindfulness" sessions led by Shambhala Tibetan Buddhist teacher Sharon Keegan. There are organized conversations, too, about the stresses and successes of a life burdened with a cancer diagnosis. It's one of several grass roots efforts around the state that aims to change the way people cope with the disease. Nearly 10 years after Lance Arm-strong started doing athletic battle with malignant tumors -- detailed in his book, It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life -- Vermont-ers are trying a similar, adventurous approach.

"Not everybody's going to feel as good as I did," says Fischer. She was astonished to find, after her 2003 diagnosis, that she still had energy to ski. "Too many people are told, 'You're going to be exhausted.' Skiing, and running my dogs for agility, actually enhanced and helped my experience. They made me OK, and allowed me to say to myself, 'You can have a normal life through all this.'"

No national studies have documented the benefits of adventure therapy for cancer patients and survivors. But researchers at the Univer-sity of Toronto have confirmed that climbing mountains can help adolescents with cancer. Anecdotal evidence suggests the same may be true for adults. "People have discovered that the more active they get, the better they feel," says Williston's Richard Lewis, who works for the American Cancer Society. "The movement of healing through activity is fairly recent."

Taylor takes a two-pronged approach to this activity -- she inspires and helps others through the outdoors, and advocates for cancer research and appropriate treatment. In the summers, she runs sea-kayaking retreats for cancer survivors through the Rutland Regional Medical Center. Much of her time indoors is now devoted to writing up ideas for a survivorship workgroup funded by the Centers for Disease Control. "Advocacy is key," she says. "I'm probably not through with the cancer deal; I'm in an advanced group. But I'm going to beat the averages, because there's nothing average about me. And once someone is stronger they can give back."

Taylor expects about a dozen participants at the Sugarbush Adventures in Living weekend. If history is any indication, interest is likely to snowball. Manchester's Casting for Recovery was founded in 1996 to provide fly-fishing retreats for breast cancer survivors. There are now 30 different camps throughout North America.

Organizers of the Stowe Weekend of Hope, meanwhile, are planning to host between 1500 and 2000 cancer survivors, patients and families from April 28 to May 1. Now in its fifth year, the event features free workshops, lectures and seminars with top oncologists and researchers, with free rooms at area hotels for first-timers and free rides on Amtrak's Train of Hope. People come from as far south as Baltimore.

The freebies help draw hundreds, but by the weekend's closing ceremonies, it's a different kind of green that counts. "Being in Vermont in springtime has a very different feel than, say, being in a steel-mill town in the fall," says Lewis. "This is a powerful time." After three days of wandering the hills around Trapp Family Lodge, cycling Stowe's bike path and snapping photos of cows, participants hang "flags of hope" against the Green Mountain backdrop. It makes for a memorable image.

"It didn't matter what cancer we were battling . . . we all shared in making that cancer insignificant in relation to who we each really are," one past attendee wrote in a thank-you note to organizers. "We are not patients or caregivers or supports or loved-ones-left-behind so much as we are each unique souls with love to offer and wisdoms to share. How better could we have renewed that part of ourselves than to be in those poetic mountains of Stowe?"

Not everyone will feel well enough for outdoor pursuits. Some won't live to see the next year, as event founder Dr. Patti O'Brien points out. A breast- cancer survivor, she explains that some of the original volunteers have died from their cancers. But that reality doesn't dampen her sense of renewal.

"Nature can be a powerful source of space and inspiration for people," says O'Brien. She tapped into that power by planting an apple tree in her back yard each time her cancer treatments and tests left her feeling rotten; she now has a small orchard. "Getting the diagnosis of cancer can be very disempowering," she acknow-ledges. But "Stowe has been blessed with beauty we can use to remind ourselves that we can all heal and grow despite many challenges. Spring is a time of rebirth, and green is a color of hope."

Taylor intends to prove that hope can also come in white. "It's that empowerment process; that's what the weekend is about," she says of Adventures in Living. "Being heard, being able to support each other. Within the context of support we share information, we empower each other, we have fun. It's all those aspects in the discovery of the outdoors."