Eric’s Story

Site created on January 18, 2021

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Journal entry by Eric Larsen

Two weeks ago we took a road trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park and then on to Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge to catch some of the Sand Hill Crane migration. It was almost 60 degrees at the dunes, and the sun and warm wind was a refreshing break from winter in Crested Butte. The kids didn't have a care in the world as they ran, jumped, and rolled down mountains of sand. It was the first time in nearly three months we were able to relax, carefree, as a family. It was also the first time in a while that I was able to take more than a few steps and not feel completely exhausted. The past three months have been overwhelming and this last month of chemo has been debilitating. 
Maria has been outstanding with writing updates...and basically everything else, but I wanted to share a few of my thoughts from the past several weeks and months.
After being diagnosed with rectal cancer in the beginning of January, I got thrown, head-long, into a series of tests, pokes and prods. After my initial scans, it appeared as though the cancer had spread to my lungs. In Gunnison, the oncologist asked me to sign a paper stating that I was accepting 'palliative care'. She stated matter-of-factly that I could have several good years left. I was in shock and all I could think about was our kids and how this would affect them. What would their lives be like if I died when they were 11 and 9? I cried a lot and retreated inward. It was impossible to discuss any of my conditions for fear of coming face to face with a very stark reality. It was so hard. So hard. 
We spent most of January trying to figure out what was going on in my lungs. It was hard to be hopeful — for every piece of good information we received, there was another bad piece attached to it. Finally, I had a VATS lung biopsy in Denver. With Maria staying in Crested Butte to take care of the kids, I checked in alone after being dropped off by my friend Ryan. I couldn't stop crying. I wasn't scared about the procedure — deflating my lung and sticking a video camera inside, then cutting out some pieces to biopsy — but rather, the implications of the results. I have never been more scared in my life. As they wheeled me into the operating room I was nearly hyperventilating from fear. Tears were pouring down my face and in my oxygen mask. As they transferred me to the operating table, a nurse, who I couldn't see, held my hand to offer me comfort. It was such a small act of kindness but it allowed me to take one last steady breath before I was out. I woke up an instant later, out of surgery. I stared at the ceiling. I tried to answer the nurses questions as best as I could.  I was still scared. Initially, the doctor had told us that it would take 7-10 days for the biopsy results to come back, but within a few minutes, he stopped by to tell me that there was a 95 % chance that the nodules were not cancerous. I cried again - long deep sobs, but this time with relief. I spent a couple of days in the hospital recovering and even the nurses pulling a 16" tube of my side and lungs did little to dampen my optimism. For the first time in several months, I felt hope. 
But it didn't last long. After heading to Boston for a checkup with Dr. Ted Hong, I started chemo treatments in Gunnison, Colorado,  just 30 minutes down the road from Crested Butte.  I was relieved to be able to do chemo so close to home so I could be with the kids. It's hard enough to be gone on expeditions (in the past), but now — to be physically present but not able to really engage with them (due to chemo)— is heartbreaking. After my treatments, I lay in bed and listen to Maria and the kids eat dinner, talk, and laugh. I feel every kind of terrible in these moments, the least of which is the fatigue, nausea, and more due to the toxicity of chemo treatments. It puts me in a pretty dark place.
My professional career has been defined by my love and tolerance of cold so much so that it is fundamental to my identity and being. On a personal level, I also find great joy in winter environments and recreation. Enjoying cold and winter fills me with happiness, and even pride (the good kind). I could be a screw up in everything else in my life and I would at least have achieved excellence in that one thing. Unfortunately, one of the side effects of one of my chemo drugs (Oxaliplatin) is “cold dysesthesia” which means that different parts of my body become extremely sensitive to cold - cold drinks, cold temperatures, cold food, cold air - pretty much any brief physical contact with a cold substance elicits a very painful pins and needles sensation. It would be funny if it wasn't such a cruel twist of fate. This cancer has taken away so many things: my job, some of my sponsors, sense of hope (at times), physical abilities, and more, but it had to take my cold tolerance as well. Not that I ever compare myself to a superhero, but that's like superman not being able to fly or aquaman not being able to swim. 
I wasn't necessarily going for any world records, but I realized last week that this is the first winter in at least 25 years where I haven't camped overnight. Spending time in a tent in winter is both my job and passion. I love the simplicity of camping as well as the thoughtfulness required to spend extended times in extreme cold —  both sleeping and awake. Most years, I'm in my tent on the snow somewhere between 30 and 60 days (sometimes more). All tallied, I've probably spent nearly four years of my life camping in one cold place or another. While I miss the simplicity of tent life, the more frustrating part is that this just seems to be another existential part of my being that this cancer is taking away. 
I don't believe the world is necessarily cruel or unfair. I generally describe myself as an optimist and feel lucky while not necessarily believing in luck. I've had my fair share of good runs and bad, but regardless always seem to find the silver linings. Lately, I'm finding it hard to find joy. People ask how I'm doing and I try to answer upbeat and positive. No one wants to hear the long list of things that keep me awake at night. I find that a simple 'OK' is the best answer. Luckily, I'm surrounded by so many compassionate, generous, and helpful people who have shown overwhelming amounts of kindness and support, and who understand my lack of communication isn't a lack of compassion or gratitude. I can't thank them enough for their kindness and understanding.
I also realize that my grief and situation pales in comparison with those who needlessly lost loved ones in yesterday's shooting in our old home town of Boulder.  We have many friends who live in the area, some just a few blocks away.  Maria was at that same parking lot just last week to meet a friend. Luckily, she was there last Thursday and not this past Monday. My heart aches deeply for all those affected. 
Lately I've been thinking a lot about perspective and compassion. With so many people offering love and support, it's impossible to not feel buoyed by their care and concern. I know the feelings are genuine but it's hard to truly understand someone else's struggles unless you've experienced them yourself.  Take my dad for example. For nearly 30 years, he fought Parkinson's disease. He was the same age I am now (49) when he was initially diagnosed.  In what I would call a cruel twist of fate, I'm only now beginning to understand more of what he went through, including his white knuckle approach to fighting the disease. While he wasn't able to make his body work (walk normally, not shake), the greater tragedy was how it impacted his mind. As a lifelong academic, his intellectual thoughts were slowly, then quickly, taken away. My dad probably could have lived a significantly more fulfilling life (for him) had he gotten into a car wreck and lost the ability to use his arms and legs. But time goes only in one direction and 'self pity' and 'what if’s' are not expedition destinations I tend to explore. It's heartbreaking to have to learn lessons like this now, through my own struggles and years after he died, but I'll take these moments of clarity and understanding when and where I can.
I've often said 'the best way to be successful is to not have another choice'. Which is exactly the situation I'm in now. Despite the tone and tenor of this update, I am feeling hopeful. Today, I had my third chemo treatment. And while I'll be in a living hell for the next few days, it means I'm half way done with this initial round of chemo treatments. For the past three months, I've been focusing simply on finding a way to make it through each hour, or each day. However as I begin to create systems to manage the pain and extreme discomfort of the 'medicine', I am starting to cast my mind farther out to the future. Not towards being cured, but at least to the next stage of treatment. After chemo, six weeks of radiation. 
The parallels between expeditions and fighting cancer are uncanny. On my bigger expeditions, I flip back and forth between focusing on long and short term goals. When the long term goal seems unreachable, we celebrate hourly or daily achievements. When we get bogged down in the day to day, we remind ourselves that we're still making progress and keep that far off objective in our sights. I call it nearing and faring. Yesterday, using hand and foot warmers to keep the cold dysesthesia at bay, I went skiing for an hour. It was the most physical activity I've done in three months and sharing those moments with Maria — who has sacrificed so much over the past few months — was incredible.
And in case anyone's wondering, despite my personal grooming taking quite a hit over the past few months,  I have not yet surpassed my personal "no shower" record of 72 consecutive days, or "wearing the same underwear" record of 55 consecutive days (both during separate North Pole expeditions). I don't feel especially strong, resilient, or brave, but I am moving forward down this path one day at time -- enjoying the small victories and doing my best to endure the pitfalls that arise. 
Thanks again for all of your love and support. It means so much. 
-- Eric 
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