GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Anne Chamberlin has already faced a mountain of challenges in her life. She plans to face one more — and this time, it will be by choice.
“I have been infatuated with Mount Everest since long, long ago,” she said. “To me, it’s just the most beautiful, natural monument to Earth. I’ve seen the movies, I’ve read the books. I just wanted to see it.”
This week, she’s not only seeing it, but she’s also climbing it — at least to its base camp.
Chamberlin, of Grand Rapids, decided to scale Everest at a time when her now 56-year-old body was at its weakest point following two separate near-fatal bouts with cancer.
“I guess I’m doing this climb because I want to prove maybe to myself that I am alive, I’m strong, I’m capable,” Chamberlin said. “Because I wasn’t capable, I wasn’t strong. I was very, very sick.”
So Chamberlin hired a personal trainer.
“One day she looked at me says, ‘You want know what, I’m going to climb to the base camp,'” Amanda Fisher, Chamberlin’s personal trainer at the Mary Free Bed YMCA, recalled. “And I went, ‘OK. Climbing Everest. Got it.'”
For the past five years, Chamberlin’s dream seemed impossible.
“I was diagnosed in the fall of 2012, October, right after I had gotten married. We were just getting ready to go on our honeymoon,” Chamberlin recalled. “I was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkins lymphoma; a very aggressive, high-grade form.”
It was so bad that she was rushed to chemotherapy.
“By the time I was diagnosed, it had spread from basically head to toe,” Chamberlin said. “It was in my bone marrow, so it was in my skull, it was in my femur, it was in my shoulder. It also had created tumors in my abdomen and my spleen was also almost completely covered.”
Because the cancer was so advanced and aggressive, doctors had to infuse the chemo directly into and up her spine. After nearly and year and half of treatment, Chamberlin was surprising cancer free and officially classified as in remission.
But just six months later, in November 2014, it happened again. She was diagnosed with stage 3 neck and throat cancer. She underwent major surgery again, with doctors removing some 30 lymph nodes from her neck.
“Once again, I had a chemo, radiation, feeding tube, and I think that was almost harder than the first cancer because you can’t eat. The radiation is just brutal,” Chamberlin said.
She survived and again reached remission, but that didn’t mean she was healthy.
“I lost all of my muscle,” she said. “I was just a bag of bones. “
Once again, Chamberlin needed to rehab her body and her mind. So when Dr. Chris VandenBerg wanted to create an oncology rehabilitation department for cancer patients at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids, Chamberlin was more than happy to get involved.
“He had a pool of patents and they really wanted to know what would have been helpful, what is helpful, what were your struggles, how can we help a patient?” Chamberlin said. “And I was able to help him develop his department to serve the oncology community.”
She set a goal to climb to at least the base camp of Mount Everest — not only for herself, but also as a way to inspire others battling cancer, especially those facing the type of precarious prognosis she was.
“When you’re sick like I was, as many people are, having a nugget of hope is sometimes almost impossible,” Chamberlin said. “When you’re that ill, just breathing is a challenge. You have thoughts in your head about dying. You have thoughts in your head, ‘Will I leave this hospital?’ And those are really scary and dark. I also think the stronger you are, the more fit you are, if you get sick, you have a much better chance of surviving.”
Today, Chamberlin is strong again.
“She has done absolutely phenomenal. To me, that’s just the coolest thing I can say I’ve seen happen,” Fisher, Chamberlin’s personal trainer, said as she cried.
Chamberlin says she’s ready to do what she was told she probably never could: climb Mount Everest.
“Life is a gift and none of us have a guarantee,” she said. “If you’re very sick, I want someone to have just a nugget of hope, because I was very sick and now I’m well, and at times I didn’t think I would make it.”