We Choose To Climb

Meet Houston's Super Seven: The tough women who climb, not cry — in facing cancer or Kilimanjaro

Meet Houston's Super Seven: The tough women who climb, not cry — in facing cancer or Kilimanjaro

I grew up in the Piney Woods of East Texas, behind the “pine curtain,” in a spot in the road between Crockett and Lufkin called Hudson. A rural area to say the least, Hudson was a place where I ran wild through the woods, rode horses, fell out of trees and learned physical labor, like baling hay.

I got hurt often, but if the injury didn’t require an immediate trip to the Lufkin hospital, my no-nonsense, Depression-era raised mother would perform a quick triage and announce, “Oh quit your crying. You’ll be fine; why, I’ve had worse places in my eye.”

I remember wondering how she wasn’t blind if her eye had been hurt worse than whatever gaping, bloody wound I was presenting to her.

As I grew older I realized she was telling me with that colorful metaphor to buck up. She was saying, “That’s life.” Overall, that’s not a bad approach. But to me, that approach can become dangerous, depending on what follows the “that’s life” part. Both of my parents’ seemed fatalistic, like they didn’t have control of their lives.

 The thought that this was the end to Kilimanjaro never entered Becky Pope's mind. To better deal with chemotherapy, she dressed in costumes for each treatment. 

“I’ll push my rock uphill, put on a brave face, muddle through.” As they grew older, neither was truly happy nor content, but rather resigned to play the hand dealt to them.

I emulated this behavior for awhile. But as I watched my mom succumb to illness and bitterness, and my dad spend more and more time working to escape the sadness and anger he felt because of my mom’s illness, I knew I had to find a different approach.

At the age of 51, I like to think I’ve found a different, better way. I am happy and healthy. My work is my passion, and I’ve had a 25-year love affair with my beautiful partner. As the T-shirt says, “Life is Good.”

But — what happens when life isn’t good? Should we just say, “That’s life?” Or should we seek to make changes?

I’ve met people at all kinds of life crossroads in my career as a fitness and wellness coach. I’ve had great success with some of them. Many credit me with changing their lives — like the seven who will be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with me in September. And while I would love to say I was able to make such a difference because I’m the greatest coach ever, I know that their attitudes, determination and definition of what comes after the phrase “that’s life,” have allowed them to make positive changes in their lives.

The “Super Seven” as I like to call them, aren’t bubbly, bumper-sticker quoting cheerleaders. They are ordinary women who are dealing with illness, injury — you know — life, with extraordinary determination, humor and sometimes just plain bull-headedness. They don’t do it perfectly every day. But they refuse to be defined by the obstacles life throws at them.

I wrote about Becky Pope’s battle with ovarian cancer in my last CultureMap column, about how she is the inspiration for Project Kilimanjaro. She’s been battling a nagging pain in her foot and last week was diagnosed with a hairline fracture. She cannot train for four weeks.

Choking back tears, she told me the news and understandably related that she felt defeated. But during the same conversation, she also said this would not stop her, and she wanted to know how we could revamp her program so she could do conditioning work without being on her feet.

The thought that this was the end to Kilimanjaro never entered her mind. To better deal with chemotherapy, she dressed in costumes for each treatment. Check out Pope's last chemo treatment celebration dance — dressed as Wonder Woman of course:

Who knows what she’ll come up with to dress up her boot cast? Stay tuned.

Pam Hilmes was sexually molested by a family member beginning at age nine. As a young adult, she became addicted to alcohol and drugs to deaden the shame and guilt. In January of this year, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

But, in May of this year, she celebrated 25 years of sobriety and, despite chronic pain, she continues to train and is determined to summit with her partner Becky.

Sheri Dawson’s journey speaks to many. Life just simply caught up with her. Missed opportunities, less than ideal relationships began to erode her confidence and zest for life. Bitterness and cynicism set in and she found herself sad, unhappy and unsure about life. Knowing she wanted more, she decided at 43 years of age to begin redefining her life by improving her health.

In January, she completed her first marathon after losing 45 pounds and 20 percentage points of body fat.

Dr. Jackie Doval grew up a chunky kid and became an obese adult. Even with her medical training and knowing the health problems obesity can cause, she yo-yoed for years. Last year she decided: No more. We set to work changing her nutrition and creating a sensible workout plan that fit her busy schedule. She has dropped 25 pounds and is setting the example for her 11-year old son.

 These women don’t possess any special secret. But they do get up each morning and often decide to make that day — and their lives— somehow better, somehow richer. 

Venita Ray became a mom at 15, dropped out of school, turned to drugs and alcohol, and ended up on welfare. In her late twenties, she went to AA, got sober, went back to high school and got her diploma. Ten years later, she finished law school and landed her dream job in Washington D.C.. In 2003, she was diagnosed HIV positive and her life was once again turned upside down. But she never gave up; today, she lives by the motto — No Excuses.

Pat Wente was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. In 2009, suddenly unable to focus and complete tasks, she was fired from her position as a high-level marketing/communications executive after years in the profession. In 2010, she was diagnosed with late-occurring cognitive impairment and brain damage as a result of chemotherapy drugs. Although she’s been advised to not make the climb, Pat continues to train with us and find ways to lend inspiration and motivation.

Deb Sanders is a pioneer of sorts. She became an agent with the FBI 28 years ago at a time when female agents were not common. When Deb turns 57 at the end of the year, she faces mandatory retirement. Leaving a career she loves is not going to be easy. Deb is looking at Kilimanjaro as the beginning of her reinvention and the beginning of new possibilities in her life.

These women don’t possess any special secret. They haven’t cornered the happiness market. But they do get up each morning and often decide to make that day — and their lives— somehow better, somehow richer.

To hear more about their stories, visit WeChooseToClimb.com. You’ll be inspired.

Editor's note: This is the second part of a regular series that Houston's Shana Ross is writing for CultureMap on the climb, detailing everything from the preparations to the push up Kilimanjaro. Next up — Houston to Kilimanjaro: How to train for 19,000-feet at sea level (it ain’t easy)!

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Special Agent Deb Sanders on assignment in Iraq
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The gals with their Zara Tours trek guide, Macon Dunnagan, who visited Houston recently for a fundraiser
Mount Kilimanjaro
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Becky Pope in her Thanksgiving chemo treatment costume. Theme: "Cancer is a turkey." Photo by Shana Ross
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Sheri Dawson at the finish line of the Austin marathon - her first ever - in January of this year Photo by Shana Ross
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Dr. Jackie Doval at the finish line of the MS 150 Photo by Shana Ross
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