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After Beating Cancer, Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro was a Walk in the Park for Jennifer Smith

Sixty-five percent of people who attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, fail. Thirteen years ago, Jennifer J. Smith was among them when altitude sickness curtailed her attempt to scale the 19,341-foot peak, the world’s highest single free-standing mountain.

But the advice her guide gave her on that trek – “the summit is only halfway” – are words that have resonated with Jennifer ever since, especially when she was subsequently diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I knew I had to get through the treatment and I had to get rid of cancer. I started thinking, if the summit is only halfway and the summit is to beat cancer, what’s going to happen afterward?” Jennifer, 34, recalled in a recent interview. “Am I just going to be a mess? So I tried to focus on processing a lot of my feelings during cancer instead of just shutting down, which, at first, felt really easy to do. I thought, the summit is only halfway. I’ve got to deal with my life afterward. And I think that spending so much time in treatment focusing on my life after treatment manifested how I survived.”

Jennifer not only beat cancer with the help of her team at Smilow Cancer Hospital, but she returned to Africa earlier this year and conquered Mount Kilimanjaro on February 15, 2023. The accomplishment, a goal since her first attempt, meant that much more after her cancer diagnosis.

“My whole life had changed after that first trip to Kilimanjaro, and returning mattered so much that when my mortality got put in my face, I wanted to go back to 13 years before when I could run up the side of this mountain without any training or thought or concern for my health, this carefree person who didn’t know the life that was ahead of her,” she said. “I had a hard time the first time. I was 13 years younger. But this time it was like a walk in the park. It was so empowering to be able to do it 13 years older and after cancer.”

It took Jennifer five days to scale Kilimanjaro because as she went up each day, she’d acclimate to the elevation, then come back down. The return trip took only two days.

“From cancer, I got very in tune with my body. I try to quiet out everything and just focus on myself and feel my body. When I was climbing, I felt very good and I was very in tune, so if I got a slight headache, I would chug more water. In more ways than not, cancer did a lot for me – a lot more than it took from me.”

Jennifer, who works in office management and is her mother’s caretaker, was just 14 when a gynecologist advised her that she had fibrous breasts; a monthly self-exam became part of her routine.

“It was something I learned to do,” she said. Then three years ago, she noticed a lump in one of her breasts.

“I was focused on taking care of my mother, and I was trying to convince myself it was fine, it was a cyst. But in my head, I knew I had to get to a doctor. Then it grew a bit around the beginning of the year, so I felt that it was cancer.”

The experience taught Jennifer the importance regular self-examinations.

“People need to check themselves, know their bodies, and follow through with doctor visits and tests. People always think it won’t be them. I thought it wasn’t me even after finding the lump. I really was scared. And while not following through on my own care wasn’t going to make it any less scary – it was actually going to kill me – I found it easier to ignore it. So I am really passionate about telling people to do self-examinations and follow through even when they are terrified.”

At her mammogram appointment, when a nurse asked her if she had driven alone, Jennifer knew without having to be told that it was not good news. Her thoughts immediately turned to her mother.

“I didn’t know what would happen to her,” she said, choking up. “Then I thought, I haven’t climbed Kilimanjaro yet.”

Following that appointment, she received the official diagnosis of breast cancer and she knew that living in the New Haven area meant she was near Smilow Cancer Hospital.

“In my mind, why would I go anywhere but Smilow,” she said. “The first time I visited Smilow, there was a man who had driven three hours to be there, so I realized how lucky I was. I can’t imagine how much strength that must take to drive that far.”

She said the support she received from everyone at Smilow, including her oncologist Andrea Silber, MD, Professor of Medicine (Medical Oncology), and her reconstructive surgeon, Angie Paik, MD, Assistant Professor of Surgery, were instrumental in her journey.

“I remember saying that these people who work at Smilow must just leave it at the door because I never got that someone was having a bad day, or that someone was just too busy to deal with me, or had something going on outside of the walls where I was,” she said. “The people were always present, from greeting you at the door to saying goodbye when you leave. Everyone is making eye contact with you, everyone is smiling – and it’s genuine.”

Mountain climbing played an important role in Jennifer’s recovery and continues to be a major part of her life. In addition to Kilimanjaro, she has climbed in Guatemala and Peru. Her next goal is to scale the 46 peaks in the Adirondacks that are above 3,800 feet. She started them after her first attempt at Kilimanjaro, then got temporarily derailed by cancer, but is now intent on climbing all 46.

While Jennifer wouldn’t want anyone to go through what she has endured, she said the experience has made her life better.

“Cancer doesn’t have to be so sad,” she said. “It’s horrible that it happens. But it can bring a lot more inspiration and a lot more depth to the joy you feel because you understand that we have a finite time. You’re more present in the now, more focused, and you stop yourself from thinking about what could happen or what did happen. And you end up with much more appreciation for the joy and happiness in life.”