Climbing past cancer |

Climbing past cancer

After battling breast cancer, Iversen prepares to summit Mount Shasta

Melinda Dudley

— From the moment Dr. Rosanne Iversen found a lump in her breast in January 2007, she was convinced it was cancer. It was a secret she kept for more than two months, afraid to find out the truth.

As a health care provider – she operates a family practice in Steamboat Springs – Iversen was fearful of not only being right and having her cancer confirmed, but also of being wrong.

“No one ever wants to be told that you have cancer,” she said. “But as a physician, if you go in and order diagnostic imaging and it turns out to be nothing, you look like a fool.”

After an epiphany during a hypnosis session at a wellness convention in Albequerque, N.M., in February 2007, Iversen bit the bullet and scheduled a mammogram for six weeks later.

Iversen was on-call at Yampa Valley Medical Center the weekend she got her diagnosis, trying to admit a patient on a Saturday morning.

“Here I had 8- and 10-year-old children, a husband, a practice,” Iversen said. “How can you take care of someone when your life is falling apart?”

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In two weeks, Iversen went from mammogram to biopsy to mastectomy, after her diagnosis of infiltrated ductal carcinoma. She began chemotherapy May 1, 2007.

“It was a shock for me, because I’ve lived a healthy lifestyle,” Iversen said. “I’m used to preaching to patients about doing that, and now here I was. I had to deal with the feeling that I’d failed my patients by coming down with the disease.”

More than a climb

After undergoing reconstructive surgery, Iversen underwent a heart procedure in November to correct a chemotherapy-induced arrhythmia that caused her heart to jump to 228 beats per minute whenever she tried to exercise.

During her recovery, Iversen began reading “No Mountain Too High” by Andrea Gabbard, a book given to her by a friend. The book chronicled Expedition Inspiration, the 1995 quest by a group of breast cancer survivors to climb Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. The climb benefited a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization founded in 1992, the Breast Cancer Fund, which works to identify and eliminate environmental causes of breast cancer while also raising awareness of the disease and making it a public health priority.

Intrigued, Iversen checked the organization’s Web site and found they were taking applications for Climb Against the Odds 2008, a June climb on California’s Mount Shasta. Iversen, who had no mountaineering experience, immediately set to work on her application essay.

“Participating in the Mount Shasta climb will be an empowering way for me to celebrate life,” she wrote in the essay. “I will never forget this year of my life, the good and the bad. I will never forget the climb, the good and the bad. Since the climb is beginning as my treatment year is ending, I see the climb symbolically representing the pivotal event, moving me gracefully forward and beyond cancer.”

On Dec. 1, 2007, in remission less than a year after she first suspected she had cancer, Iversen learned she would be one of 35 breast cancer survivors and supporters from across the country who will attempt to summit the fourteener Thursday, one of the longest days of the year.

She and her family left for California last week.

Rising risk

“Breast cancer affects one in eight women in their lifetimes – it used to be one in 20, and more younger women are being diagnosed,” Iversen said.

Breast cancer incidence in the United States increased more than 40 percent between 1971 and 1998, according to the Breast Cancer Fund.

Risk factors for breast cancer include everything from general health no-nos such as smoking, drinking and lack of exercise, to lifestyle factors including a late first childbirth.

The No. 1 risk factor is simply being a woman, followed by increasing age – in their 30s, women face a one-in-234 risk of breast cancer, but by their 60s the ratio skyrockets to one in 28, Iversen said.

Lifetime estrogen exposure also has shown to be a significant factor, though research continues. Although women have little influence over the natural estrogen their bodies produce during their lifetime, they can limit environmental and industrial exposures. Estrogens and estrogen-mimicking compounds can be found in everything from pharmaceuticals to cosmetics and pesticides to plastics.

The Breast Cancer Fund’s mission appealed to Iversen, who’s used to preaching healthy living to her patients.

“It’s an organization that looks at prevention through environmental causes, which is something I’m passionate about, because it’s something you can control,” Iversen said. “You can’t control genetics.

“You can choose what you eat,” she continued. “You can eat organic, which is free of pesticides and herbicides, you can eat hormone-free meat and dairy products, which are free of hormones.”

New earrings

On a recent day in the clinic, Iversen saw a mix of cases – two new patients in for physicals, a worker’s compensation patient recovering from a neck injury, a 6-month-old baby’s wellness check and a 35-year-old man trying to quit smoking.

Quitting smoking is what he can do to lower his risk of cardiovascular disease and make the biggest effort toward his own health, she said.

“What you do when you’re 35 affects what happens to you when you’re 50,” Iversen said. “This is what I do all day – tell people to eat healthier, live healthier and order tests, tests, tests.”

Among Iversen’s desktop clutter – mail, newsletters, fliers on upcoming migraine seminars – sat the raffle ticket sales records for a fundraising party held May 19 at Cantina, and a copy of the Breast Cancer Fund’s book “Climb Against the Odds: Celebrating Survival on the Mountain.”

Although battling breast cancer has changed plenty about her life, the experience also has given Iversen a new understanding when interacting with patients battling the disease.

“In reality, it has helped me be more compassionate with patients and understand their concerns and their need for answers,” she said.

During a checkup in May, breast cancer survivor Karen Schulman and Dr. Iversen shared styling tips for their post-chemo hairdos – both closely cropped and curly.

“We compare boobs; we compare hair,” said Schulman, who underwent a double mastectomy after her diagnosis in April 2007.

“Now when you’re thinking, ‘Should I mousse my hair today or not?’ – at least you’ve got hair to mousse,” Iversen said.

Mid-morning that day, Iversen changed out her earrings for a heart-shaped pair with pink breast cancer ribbons – a gift that had just been dropped off by another patient of hers who also is battling cancer.

Moving on

For Iversen, Climb Against the Odds is the final step in the cancer chapter of her life story.

“There’s a lot of similarities between going through something like breast cancer and a climb,” Iversen said. “Because you gain something positive. Because you come out of it a better person. Because you come out of it stronger. Because you become more open and honest.

“No matter how bad I got beat up in my training : it’s still nothing like I felt when I was on chemo,” she continued. “Before cancer, I would have complained. But now it’s not so bad.”

Training for the climb not only helped her physically recover after her surgeries, but got her involved with the Breast Cancer Fund – networking with her fellow climbers has been healing, Iversen said.

Thirteen years after she took part in Expedition Inspiration, Patty Duke still is close to the 14 surviving members of the Mount Aconcagua climb. Duke, a SmartWool co-founder who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992, first heard about that climb while reading a newspaper at a Las Vegas trade show.

Duke contacted the Breast Cancer Fund about supplying SmartWool’s then-new socks for the climbers and wound up applying and being selected for the inaugural climb.

“We were all women with the same disease and the same goals – raising money for breast cancer,” Duke said. “Hearing each individual story, we just cried and laughed, and we’re all still very close.”

At last count, Iversen had raised more than $41,000 for the Breast Cancer Fund leading up to the climb. After dedicating the past six months of her life to fundraising, event-organizing and intensive physical training, Iversen said she’s ready to get her life back.

“I’m going to live for today and enjoy it,” Iversen said. “You don’t know what the future holds.”

On the ‘Net

For more information about the Breast Cancer Fund and Climb Against the Odds, visit http://www.breastcancerf…. From June 17 to 19, check http://www.breastcancerf… for daily blog updates from base camp.

Uphill battle

– Today

As part of her recovery from breast cancer, local physician Rosanne Iversen joins Climb Against the Odds 2008 to benefit the Breast Cancer Fund

– June 22

Iversen, a novice mountaineer, throws herself into training and fundraising for her arduous climb

– June 29

Iversen and a team of 35 breast cancer survivors and supporters take on Mount Shasta

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