I was 24 years old, and climbing ruled my life. Monday: Climb. Tuesday: Climb, dinner with climbers. Wednesday: Study, but really watch climbing videos. Thursday: Climb. Friday: Drive to crag. Saturday: Climb, party with climbers. Sunday: Climb.
My life felt perfect. But soon, everything would come crashing down.
I was living in Cleveland, Ohio, halfway through medical school at Case Western Reserve University, and had just started dating a wonderful guy. A retired 100- and 200-meter Division 1 sprinter, I found fresh focus in my new sport, climbing for the past year and a half. I started climbing while in grad school at Columbia University for a Master’s in nutrition. In the fall of 2009 I’d bought a year membership to the Manhattan Plaza Health Club (MPHC) climbing gym after one visit. I climbed a few more times and, to my surprise, just didn’t like it. My body was tired and worn out from the toll track had taken. I didn’t want to work out. I wanted to explore Manhattan.
Seven months later, as I was preparing to leave the Big Apple and begin medical school in Ohio, I calculated how many more times I needed to go to the MHPC to break even. The answer was only about a dozen.
By my seventh time, I was hooked. Bouldering was a puzzle I needed to solve using both my brain and body, with endless variations. In July 2010, upon moving, I joined the Cleveland Rock Gym, met new friends in the sport, and began bouldering weekly at Coopers Rock in West Virginia. Three and a half hours away, Coopers was the closest established bouldering area. It had short, easy approaches and a high density of boulders. I was quickly obsessed with Helicopter, a lowball V5 roof with a crimpy topout. It was so close to the ground, I mainly used clothing as crashpads! Several times I felt I was close on it. My weekends, my friends, everything was climbing.
I even did my first lead climb, a 5.10 at the Red River Gorge—finally understanding the true meaning of the word “pumped.” A whole new world had opened up to me.
On the other hand, I was exhausted all the time. Fatigue had slowly built up over the late winter and spring of 2012. But … surely this was normal with all the stress and work of med school? I developed a cough. Allergies maybe.
One day in May, as I reached for a glass from the cupboard, my throat closed. I couldn’t breathe at all. I lowered my arms, and the weight on my chest lifted, allowing air to flow again.
Still, I didn’t think too much was going on. A few days later, I tried to climb, but fell off my warm-up because my throat closed so fast. As I lay on the floor gasping, fellow climbers gathered around.
“Are you all right?” one asked.
“Yeah, I’m totally fine.”
He said, “I don’t think so. This isn’t normal.”
Over the next few weeks, breathing was difficult nearly all the time. I slept propped up on four or five pillows to relieve the pressure on my chest.
I visited my primary-care doctor and a nurse practitioner. They concluded it was just my asthma—“acting up,” as one said. My new boyfriend, Brian Dubyk, asked me to his best friend’s wedding, outside of Cleveland. I would meet his entire family.
“Yes!” I said, excited to be integrated into his life.
Sitting at a flower-covered round table at the wedding, I discovered I could barely swallow food anymore. I pushed the food around, took tiny bites and cleared my plate quickly. I didn’t want his family to know me as the sick girl so I kept smiling and chatting.
I began to drink most of my calories in the form of soymilk. It wasn’t enough.
My social life revolved around climbing, so, despite not being able to climb much, I still went to the gym. One of my climbing partners, Marie, said, “You’ve lost weight.”
I said, “No, I haven’t.”
She said, “Your face is too thin.”
The next week, in early July, I saw a commercial for same-day appointments at the Cleveland Clinic. I made appointments with every doctor I could—allergist, pulmonologist, and an ENT all in one day.
When the time came, multiple specialists agreed that something was wrong and ran every test they could. A few days later, my phone rang.
The pulmonologist said, “Your results are in.”
“What are they?”
“I can’t give them over the phone. Please come in as soon as possible.”
“What? Why? Just tell me, please.”
“No, please call when you arrive.”
Heart pounding, I jumped into my car and booked it to the hospital, four miles away. As I waited in an exam room, a procession of sad doctors entered, standing around me as if someone had died.
“You have cancer.” I don’t remember who actually broke the news. “We don’t know what type or the treatment,” the person said, “but there is a 13-centimeter mass in your chest. It’s malignant.”
The mass was taking up most of the space in my chest and compressing my trachea and esophagus.
“What’s the next step?” I asked.
“Surgery to get a biopsy,” the doctor said.
The only woman doctor politely asked the others to leave, so we could talk one on one. I was trying to stay strong, but tears spilled over. She gave me a pep talk that I remember to this day.
She said, “Favia, if you’re strong enough to climb and attend med school with such a huge mass in your chest, you have the strength to beat this.”
My friend and classmate Shomari drove me home and stayed until Brian arrived and held me as we cried. Until this point, I had never said, “I love you” to any man in my entire life, and I couldn’t believe I could die before I got to start a life with him. Too afraid to say it out loud, I wrote it on a piece of paper and handed it to him. He took the pen and wrote, “I love you, too.”
The next few days were fantastic, because I lived life as if I wasn’t coming back from the surgery. I learned how to change the oil on a car, went out to eat at fancy places, and, as a lifelong animal lover, played with a lot of cats, mine and Brian’s (four in total).
Within a week of my diagnosis, I checked into the hospital for exploratory surgery. I woke up from the biopsy vomiting violently, with my arms, neck and face as swollen if I had been stung by dozens of bees. Three days later, I was discharged home to Brian’s house, but on my first night there the swelling returned. We made our first of many trips to the ER, and I was admitted to the hospital for blood clots.
Days later, the pathology report on my biopsy came back as inconclusive. I would need a second biopsy.
The oncologist said, “I can’t start you on chemotherapy until I know what we are dealing with.”
I asked, “Can I freeze my eggs to preserve my fertility before we start chemo?”
“No. That takes weeks. You don’t have that long.”
Before the second biopsy, the surgeon came into my room and said, “I’m going to cut your left pectoralis muscle this time for a tissue sample. If that doesn’t work, I will break open your sternum to fully expose the mass to get enough tissue for a diagnosis.” I agreed reluctantly, still in pain and recovering from the first biopsy site, on my right pectoralis. I couldn’t imagine how breaking all my ribs was going to feel.
I woke up with my sternum intact, but both of my pecs had now been sliced. My lungs collapsed, fluid collected around my heart, and my bladder became infected. My heart and bladder recovered in the next couple of days, but the chest tube had to stay in for nearly a week.
Three weeks after the initial biopsy, a definitive pathology report came in. CANCER: HODGKINS LYMPHOMA. I was unexpectedly relieved by the diagnosis, because now I could finally start the next phase of my life: CHEMOTHERAPY.
In August, four weeks into my hospital stay, I received my first round of chemo. My friends and family gathered around me as the first batch of poison flowed into my veins. I was smiling and laughing at first, until the nausea kicked in. But I survived treatment #1 and had two weeks until my next treatment. I was discharged from the hospital and ready to start living my life again.
With both of my pecs cut, I struggled to open the refrigerator door, so I knew climbing would be impossible.
I did attend a cookout at the Cleveland Rock Gym, and mostly sat because moving was so difficult. The CRG climbers approached me one after another and offered support. One climber, Matt (whose lease happened to be up) moved closer to me to help out on a daily basis, and Chris Allen, owner of the gym, drove my mother to the hospital at midnight one night when I had to go to the ER. Other climbers took me to doctors’ appointments or came by to give me all the latest climbing gossip.
I was quite excited to be living with a boyfriend for the first time, even if the circumstances weren’t great. For our six-month anniversary, we went to a steakhouse, which was a real treat after eating hospital food for a month. I tried to cut my steak, but couldn’t—you need pecs to use a knife. When I finally sawed off a bite, the steak moved so slowly down my constricted esophagus that I nearly choked. Next I tried to eat chocolate cake but couldn’t swallow that either. I could no longer eat my favorite foods.
After that, I gave up on trying to lead a normal life. All my thoughts were on attempting to survive minute by minute.
After each round of chemo, I would fill buckets with sludge vomit and then sleep for days. Chemo. Coma. Wish for death. Back to chemo.
My arm veins collapsed. I had to get a subcutaneous leg/groin port. Afterwards, I could not weight my leg. I entered a bathroom schedule where Brian or friends would carry me to the toilet. As the weeks went by, I could limp around, but I still sometimes have difficulty walking due to scar tissue.
At the end of January 2013, I reached my 12th and final chemo appointment. In mid February, my port was removed, and a scan determined that my tumor was dead. I had been wishing for this moment for so long and thought I would return to my life now. Wrong.
Friends texted, asking me to climb, but I froze. I refused to see anyone.
I had been so occupied for eight months just trying to stay alive that I hadn’t processed anything that had happened to me. Now that the pain and nausea were subsiding, I was angry about all the changes I had been through. I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror. I even went so far as saying, “Favia is dead” to my friends and family and declared my birthday was “Death day.” It would take me six years to have a birthday party again.
Alone at home one night with stitches still in my leg from the port removal, I accidentally dropped a plate on our tile floor—and screamed. In that lonely moment I realized I needed a reason to put my life back together. I ran through all the possible motivators, things that gave me joy, and decided on climbing. I vowed to regain my strength and come back stronger.
I wasn’t ready to see any of my climbing friends (or any friends, for that matter), so as soon as I could walk again I signed up for boxing training to regain stamina and punch out my anger. After a couple of months of boxing, I was finally ready to return to the climbing gym. I went at noon, when the gym was nearly empty. I could only traverse because the incisions in my pecs made it difficult to lift my arms. After 15 minutes, I was exhausted.
After a month of traversing, I tried a vertical jug haul, V0, and failed. Two years before, I had campused and beach-whaled up Humpy, a physical V4 at Cooper’s Rock. Now I was worse than before even starting climbing. I got back on the wall and was struggling again until I heard the only other person in the gym, my old friend Dede, cheer. Her words motivated me to finish my first problem!
About 14 months after my first surgery, I finally climbed up the wall to the anchors. I began reading about training for climbing and formulated spreadsheets with different workouts. During this time, Brian proposed, and we got married in the Cleveland Zoo among the animals of the rainforest.
I became a setter at my gym and started making regular trips back to Cooper’s Rock. Nearly two years after my initial surgery, I hopped on my pre-cancer project, Helicopter, with no expectations at all. I was actually just doing it for a funny photo of me climbing in my wedding dress. But I found myself feeling solid on every move, and then pulling the crux, and then to my amazement I topped out my very first V5! Yes, in the trailing dress. I was more shocked yet because, deep inside, I really hadn’t thought I could ever get my strength back.
Now, almost seven years post-treatment, I train as hard as ever, and climbing is the focus of my life. My husband, our many furbabies and I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, because I couldn’t continue driving four to seven hours to climb outside while practicing medicine. The closest crag, with over 200 boulder problems, is a 15-minute drive. My favorite crag, the Temple, is a limestone bouldering roof 40 minutes away. Training also led me to compete in “American Ninja Warrior,” where I met yet another wonderful community—and learned that no amount of training will ever make me good at parkour.
My body is still recovering and maybe always will be. But climbing saved my life.
This feature appeared in the fifth issue of Gym Climber.
Feature image: Favia Dubyk on the Skykomish River while climbing Hittin’ the Rail (V5), Index, Washington. By Steph Mok.