After Breast Cancer, Trying A Different Kind Of Cure

It was two years to the day since I'd been told I had breast cancer. I stood just outside the mouth of the World Trade Center PATH station with a view of what felt like the entire island of Manhattan. I looped my thumbs into the straps of my backpack and started walking north. This, I’d decided, was how I’d fix myself. I would walk the island of Manhattan and prove that I was strong again.

I was 28 when I got the news. Though the active part of my cancer treatment was complete, the experience didn't feel over. I knew how lucky I was: alive, with no evidence of disease. But I was deeply sad about the permanent changes to my body. I was still really pissed off. And worst, I was horribly anxious, jumping out of my skin every time a car beeped its horn, or my dog barked, or my husband spoke when I wasn’t expecting it.

Cancer does that. Because it isn't an outside force, a pathogen that you can jettison with frequent hand washing, or an injury to be avoided with appropriate gear. Cancer is you; it is your own cells, and you can't escape it. 

Oftentimes, the old me felt like a friend who had moved away, and all that was left of her was a souvenir mug, chipped at the rim.

But it had been two years — shouldn’t I be over this by now? That was the message I felt being transmitted through the ether. Not only should I be over it, but I should be inspiring others with just how quickly I had left cancer in the dust. I wanted to move on. I was ready to put this behind me, and get back to the real business of my life. But just wanting to feel better wasn't enough — I needed to do something.

I settled on an odd idea: I would walk a 32-mile circle around Manhattan, land where I was diagnosed, mastectomied, chemo'd, and radiated. Inspired by Cheryl Strayed and other wilderness walkers, I decided to try my own urban trail. I didn't fully understand why I felt compelled to do this, but when the possibility revealed itself, all I thought was, "Yes."

I did a reasonable amount of research in advance of my city walk, known to some as The Great Saunter. I picked up adhesive moleskins and a fresh pack of socks. In the morning, I carefully braided my few inches of hair and thought about my route. I would walk up the west side, and come down the east. The sun would never be in my eyes. I wouldn't get lost — Manhattan's mostly a grid after all. My weather app said it would be hot, but I would hydrate.

But walking north from World Trade, that confidence was checked as commuters jostled past me. "This is really stupid," I thought as I passed that store in Tribeca that only sells enormous balloons. I snapped a photo of a giant inflatable earth, and I pushed on. Stupid idea or not, I wasn't a quitter.

The first hour went quickly, and I began enjoying the rhythm and sweat as I climbed the steps to the Highline. I glided above the city, covering the park's 20 blocks in moments, mentally waving at my hospital as I passed it a few blocks to the west. 

When I began my cancer treatment in 2012, walking was how I took stock of myself. I was shocked that a shuffling gait was all I could manage for days after my mastectomy. In the fall I started chemo, and walking was as strong a chronicle of my decline as the strands of falling hair. By the end of the twelve infusions, I would get winded after walking a single block. My hips ached from effect of the treatment on my joints. I walked anyway.

My doctors were scattered across the city. Most of my treatment took place at Beth Israel's three locations — 15th and 8th, Union Square, and 2nd and 14th. As I walked up the west side, I passed Roosevelt Hospital, where I got my chemo infusion a few days after Hurricane Sandy, when downtown was still dark. I passed the turn off for my physical therapist on 79th and West End. It was so close to Zabar's I could practically smell the pickle brine, but despite my twice-weekly appointments, I had never made it over. 

Maybe it was because it felt like that haunt of my college days, firmly in my past. Oftentimes, the old me felt like a friend who had moved away, and all that was left of her was a souvenir mug, chipped at the rim.

I thought of all I had lost as I moved up through Riverside Park. I stopped for my first sock change at St. John the Divine, in Morningside Heights. I took sanctuary from the potent July sun, exploring the cool and quiet nave. There was a massive pair of phoenixes suspended from the ceiling, the work of artist Xu Bing. The birds were made of industrial debris, and a thousand tiny points of light. Their message seemed clear to me: Go on. Rise.    

Shortly after being diagnosed, I drew a road map in my head. The landmarks and detours shifted as my treatment plan evolved, but the big red X at the end was always the same — it was the point at which I would be OK again; when I would feel normal. At first, I thought it would maybe take a year. When a year came and went and I was still dealing with treatment and reconstruction, I stretched it 18 months. And now, yes, it felt like I was finally closing in.

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By Washington Heights, it was approaching 90 degrees, and there was little shade along the river, so I turned inland. After missing turns and doubling back, I emerged in the forest of hospital buildings that are clustered around 168th Street. I passed a woman on her cell phone, crying outside Columbia-Presbyterian hospital. I sent her silent comfort, having spent my fair share of time on the phone outside the hospital in tears.

The thing about my walks is that I am frequently lost. I am always confident I can find my way, while at the same time lacking any innate sense of direction. I often find myself declaring maps to be simply "wrong" and confidently marching west when I should be going north.

Ignoring this fact about myself, and the now deep red flush of my cheeks, I pushed onward, to Inwood. I bought a green coconut off the back of a truck.

I had imagined finishing this walk, tired and dirty, taking the ferry home. I would sail into the sunset (and Jersey) with the city at my back, while the credits rolled. Triumphant, and healed. I hadn’t considered how I would feel if that didn't happen.

When I reached the top of the island it was four o'clock, and I had been walking for seven hours. I checked the GPS map on my phone; I'd somehow added significant distance to the journey. Despite the grid, I had gotten lost while looking for iced coffee and snacks, and had to double back across several blocks. I had already walked 19 miles, and I still had to go all the way back down.

My energy, an effective combination of coffee and nerves, was not lacking until this moment. But sitting in the grass in Inwood Park, it began to slip down my back and away into the earth. I texted Matt, "Not sure I should continue," expecting him to give me permission to quit. But he didn't. "You've come this far," he said, and that he would drive from Trenton, where he works, to pick me up if I needed it. I rallied.

As I headed across town, I bought a coco helado that melted within seconds. I thought I was walking east, but I came to a sign for 10th Avenue and was confused. I reset my course and reached an oddly desolate Harlem River Drive. I got very, very hot, and sweat poured down my legs, and I thought about what could happen if I fainted somewhere along that road alone. I sat down on a bench, and completely alone on this island of two million people, and two million of the worst moments of my life, I cried.  

I had imagined finishing this walk, tired and dirty, taking the ferry home. I would sail into the sunset (and Jersey) with the city at my back, while the credits rolled. Triumphant, and healed. I hadn’t considered how I would feel if that didn't happen.

As I slouched over to the 1 train, I thought of the phoenix sculptures in St. John the Divine. I studied my reflection in the subway window. My hair was slicked against my skull with sweat. I had not risen, transformed and beautiful, after breast cancer. I wasn’t leaving all that in the ash. 

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At home, I stretched my muscles and felt hollow. I was not magically healed the way I had hoped. Matt took me out to dinner, and offered to do the other half of the walk with me on another day. I accepted, and on the second anniversary of my first chemotherapy, we finished the circle together.

A few years ago, some German scientists found that when people are lost and without guideposts like the sun, they will walk in circles, despite their best efforts to move forward in a straight line.

Walking this orbit around Manhattan, I realized that time is not strictly linear; the memory of my stint in the chemo suite doesn't diminish steadily over my shoulder. This event is like the moon — always there, of differing size and brightness. Sometimes it's visible during the day, and with me all night. Sometimes it's blood red and heavy and close on the horizon, other times it's just a shadow. But it moves around me. It is not my north star. It is not my sun.

Images: Emily Helck

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