Ann Maechtlen never knew what hit her.
Growing up on a ranch in Southern California, her dad used chemicals and fertilizers to grow avocados and vegetables. Her exposure probably gave her Hodgkin's lymphoma at age 22, which in turn required radiation treatments, which probably gave her breast cancer too in 2006 at age 45.
Maybe that's why Maechtlen is so big on beating back her demons these days. The Florence resident makes fitness a top priority with her hiking, biking, skiing and kayaking. Even when she was undergoing chemotherapy in 2007, she still went kayaking.
"I never thought I'd have to go through cancer again," she lamented. "I was doing good things so it wouldn't happen to me.
"Just to get through the chemo was one of the hardest things to deal with. But by staying active it made me feel like a normal person. Kept me from going crazy. It was kind of a lifesaver."
This past week, Maechtlen scaled 14,162-foot Mt. Shasta in Northern California to personally punch The Monster in the mouth. She trekked with 32 others as part of the Breast Cancer Fund's Climb Against the Odds.
She confronted her fear of heights and raised a few bucks in the process. The best part of the cause, according to Maechtlen, is it supports work to identify - and advocates for the elimination of - the environmental and preventable causes of breast cancer.
Maechtlen figures the more women know about potential causes of breast cancer, the better their chances of avoiding the problem.
"Really I'm concerned with all the chemicals used in everyday life," Maechtlen said. "From automobile fumes to chemicals in our shampoo and face creams and plastics. There are some nasty chemicals proven to cause cancer. People really need to be aware of all that."
Research indicates no more than
10 percent of breast cancers are genetic. Science increasingly points to environmental factors in the sharp rise of incidence.
Maechtlen's sharp rise up Mt. Shasta can be summed up in one word: poignant. Tackling such a tough task may seem counter-productive considering her medical history. But she wanted to prove to herself what is possible less than a year after chemo treatments.
"I wanted to stop a few times, but people kept saying, 'Come on! You're almost there!' " she said. "It was a powerful experience.
"It was real narrow and icy in places. The wind was really strong, with 50 mph gusts. It was a brutal climb, but you get to the top and feel like, 'Wow. I can really do anything.' "
Maechtlen was joined on the mountain expedition by Missoula's Debra Parker. The 55-year-old climbed in honor and memory of close friends who have experienced cancer.
The expedition started Tuesday with a hike to the base camp at 9,000 feet. The hikers tried to go to bed early to prepare for the toughest part of the climb, which started at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday. But sleep was hard to come by staring in the face of a 13-hour test.
"There's a certain amount of anxiety when you do something like this," said Parker, who prior to this past week had never hiked above 10,000 feet. "It was honestly the most difficult thing I've done.
"It's very spiritual and emotional. The Mountain Gods were with us coming down because there were pockets of snow where you can sit down and slide out. I had the longest sled ride of my life, probably about 3,000 feet that we didn't have to walk."
We all have our own mountains to climb in everyday life. Maechtlen and Parker confirmed two undeniable truths in their climb this past week: a little courage and encouragement from friends can go a long way.
For more information on breast cancer prevention, log on to: www.breastcancerfund.org.
Sports columnist Bill Speltz can be reached at 523-5255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.