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In Between Chemo & a Double Mastectomy, This Woman Went Skiing…A Lot

The writer, editor and Guinness World Record holder (most feet skied uphill by a woman in 24 hours) lounges in a sea of down while on an expedition in Far West China, Xinjiang. Dina Mishev photo.

A single drop of blood fell to the snow, making a hollow plop. Halfway up hiking a backcountry run, Dina Mishev stared down at the lone drop of red on white. More blood pooled to the point of her nose. Dina watched as another drop fell, joining the first one on the snow. The blood stared back at her, a reminder of all the reasons why she couldn’t let herself stop climbing.

Fresh from her second round of chemo a few days prior, Mishev was actively ignoring the pain, nausea and exhaustion that crushes most cancer patients. The drops became steady, painting her jaw and the snow around her feet. She reached into her pants and dug out a tissue, ripped off a chunk and stuffed it into her bloody nostril. She gritted her teeth, took a deep breath, and kept pushing upward.

She and a small group of friends were ascending a skin track to ski the Son of Apocalypse Couloir in Grand Teton National Park. In her normal life before cancer, Dina would have been at the head of the pack, breaking trail. But on that day, her body torn apart by toxic chemicals, she had fallen behind.

As she put one foot in front of the other, Dina struggled to reconcile how cancer had taken so much from her. Now well behind her group, fluctuating between self-pity and anger, the sickness — and the treatment — had turned her into someone she couldn't recognize.

After countless switchbacks, Dina found her group waiting at the top of the run. She replaced the saturated, bloody tissue from her nose, took a look around, and with a grin, claimed first chemo ascent.

The morning before her final round of chemo, May 1, 2015, Mishev readies her kit at the top of Teton Pass. Dina Mishev photo.

An hour later, Dina once again found herself under duress. What had been an internal mental game hiking up was now a physical game of survival skiing on the way down. The conditions had started as light, forgiving powder. But as the run steepened and the couloir began to choke, the snow hardened up, barely covering peppery granite protrusions that lurked just below the surface. 

Dina was exposed, on-edge, and tapping into her reserves.  

Each jump turn was an entire reality that offered its own destiny. One slip away from injury, Dina hardly had time to contemplate the devil that could kill her later, because death was reaching out to her now.

People fear the unknowns of the future, but most often danger is actually right here, in the present.

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Somewhere in the mix of icy hop-turns and side sliding, Dina lost track of time. Eventually she found herself at the bottom of the choke, heaving, covered in a film of cold sweat.

Below her, the last section was a wide open apron of soft snow that offered reprieve from the intensity of the run’s upper reaches. As she gained speed, cutting turns through the creamy snow, Mishev felt everything click. All the stress, the chemo, all the shit — it melted away, and all that was left was the moment, clear and pure, free of cancer.

Unlike earlier, consumed by the immediacy of danger, the focus that overtook Mishev on that apron was not born out of fear, but of peace. She gave herself to the present, and slowly forgot all the things that had been taken from her. Those moments of peace, high on that mountain — that’s who Dina is.

The Hard Way

In between her chemo and double mastectomy, Dina traveled to Kauai to find some inspiration on the Na Pali Coast. Dina Mishev photo.

Dina doesn’t like taking shortcuts. During her years as a writer, editor, and adventurer, she’s never shied away from a challenge. “A common thing throughout my life is if there’s a hard way to do something, that’s always the way that I do it,” she explained. 

An accomplished mountain athlete and writer, Mishev has made a life of telling stories and accepting challenges that most would shy away from. Her literary accolades read like a best-of of adventure and outdoor publishing with Sunset, Outside, Nat Geo Traveler/Adventure and Men's Journal topping the list. When she isn’t writing, she’s helping others craft their own stories as the editor of Jackson Hole Magazine.

Just as an example of Dina’s tenacity, her first year breaking into freelance, she sent out 1,483 queries letters “all by snail mail … I got one assignment that paid $500, which I don’t even think covered the postage.” She remembered over a laugh, “Most people would do that and be like, ‘This career is not for me.’ But the harder something is — the more I want to do it, and the more appealing it is.”

Mishev gathers local beta from a family of fish during a dive. Dina Mishev photo.

In her life, Dina has thrived, but that success has come in spite of being dealt extremely challenging circumstances. Since the summer of 2006, Dina has lived under the shadow of Multiple Sclerosis, a potentially debilitating disease that can lay dormant for years, only to rear its head later in a person’s life.

But Dina’s issues with MS were merely a warm-up for when, on December 19th, 2014, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Understandably, the news that she’d need chemotherapy, along with a double mastectomy and continual radiation, was extremely shocking.

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Just to be clear, chemotherapy is not pretty. As a treatment, it's designed to attack cells that divide and self-replicate, such as cancer. But unfortunately, chemo drugs can't tell the difference between normal, healthy cells, and the ones that cause problems. So it kills them all.    

After doing a session of chemo, most people, including Dina, eventually find themselves overcome by nausea. Often bedridden for days at a time, a person's side effects can include bloody noses, sores of the mouth and esophagus, heartburn, hemorrhoids — all accompanied by depleted physical and mental strength. 

The more you can feel like yourself and remind yourself of the fundamental person that you are whenever you’re in a bad situation, whether it’s emotional or physical — I think that helps the healing process.

True to her nature, Dina has pushed through these challenges like she approaches all challenges in her life — the hard way. Starting treatment in January 2015, she routinely complimented her chemo with laps on the pass, hikes up Snow King, excursions in Grand Teton National Park, and other physically demanding activities.

Healing

Dina fools around on a villager's borrowed motorbike in Far West China. Dina Mishev photo.

One common theme that resonates throughout Dina’s writing is her passion for the outdoors. Stopping short of calling her exploits an end-all cure, Dina writes about the natural world like a reflective lover considering the merits of a better half.

“The outdoors are my meditation. Being outside is the only time I can really clear my mind. … Even sobbing while skinning up Snow King, I feel better at the top than if I had been sobbing at home.” She said.

When someone is told that they could die, that awareness can throw a person’s identity into a tailspin. For Mishev, being outside provides a means of staying grounded.

“I think the more you can feel like yourself and remind yourself of the fundamental person that you are whenever you’re in a bad situation, whether it’s emotional or physical — I think that helps the healing process,” she emphasized. “The wilderness puts things in perspective.”

Strength, Anger, Sadness and Fear

Dina wears a Penguin Cold Cap during chemo in order to retain her hair follicles. The headgear was -37 degrees celsius and she wore it for 10 hours straight. It hurt! Dina Mishev photo.

Dina knows there is a big difference between physical and mental strength. For most of her treatment, she was able to fend off the fear of an uncertain future.

“Physical strength is the easiest. Emotional strength and mental strength are more difficult.”

Some of the same personal qualities that have allowed Dina to be successful as a writer — tenacity, perseverance, resilience, self-belief — also enabled her to stay strong in the emotional throes of cancer.

Physical strength is the easiest. Emotional strength and mental strength are more difficult.

But several weeks before her double mastectomy, she started noticing a horrible taste in her mouth; one she described as that of a dead animal, loaded with its own feces, set on fire. She had tasted it before — when she was gearing up for an especially consequential ski line or leading a tough climbing pitch. 

It was fear.

That same taste returned when she was out hiking with her lover down from the Sleeping Indian in the Gros Ventre mountains outside of Jackson. This time, however, the awful taste of fear stemmed from the awareness that even after all the chemo, radiation, blood transfusions and surgery, there would never be any total reprieve. The cancer could always come back.

“Just coming down through that beautiful light," she said. "Meadows and wildflowers, and with the man that I love ... I didn’t want to die.”

Dealing, Not Battling

The writer conducts research for a story on Jackson's iconic Cowboy Bar in 2008. Teton Media Works photo.

Part catharsis and part creative inspiration, Dina has chronicled her journey through cancer by writing the C-Word. A marquee column on jhnewsandguide.com, she's utilized this platform to convey all of the finer aspects of cancer treatment. She spares no detail, no matter how intimate.

The C-Word is important because it gives a public voice to a rarely explored issue, providing inspiration to many others undergoing their own challenges.  

Due to her willingness to share her experiences with the general public, Dina is approached by a lot of people she doesn't know, all with words of encouragement. She loves living in a community where random strangers will stop to voice their support. But also, she does feel that the way we talk about cancer in our society is misguided.

Saying that I’m — or anyone — is ‘battling' cancer insinuates that there's a winner and a loser and that if you end up dying from cancer that it's your fault.

“I hate the term ‘battling’ cancer and it's the one thing I always speak up about,” she explained. “Saying that I — or anyone — is ‘battling' cancer insinuates that there's a winner and a loser, and that if you end up dying from cancer that it's your fault. ‘My friend's mom lost her battle with cancer.’ Fuck that. If you die from cancer, you're not the loser. You just got dealt a shit hand.”

Pushing Forward

Leading up to the operation, Dina commissioned a photographer to create a collection of images celebrating her life. Carrie Patterson photo.

In June, Dina got the double mastectomy. Just three weeks after having her breasts removed and then surgically reconstructed, she returned to her chair as Editor of Jackson Hole Magazine. As if that’s not inspiring enough, Dina was recently appointed to the Town of Jackson's Travel and Tourism Board.

Cancer has changed Dina’s life, but not in the way people would expect. The clarity that has accompanied the prospect of death has allowed her to purge the non-essential from her life. 

“Cancer made me realize that some things in my life had been dying a gradual, slow death. Cancer made me either let them fully die, or check in and say ‘Okay, I need to get this part healthy.’ ”

Because of her cancer, everything superfluous in Dina's life is now subjected to the chopping block, spanning the spectrum from personal relationships to material possessions. There is irony in the fact that something as destructive as cancer can also be cleansing, like a wildfire's renewal of a long-dead forest. 

People like Dina offer us a reminder that ultimately, we’re not in control of the circumstances we’re dealt in life. But in tandem with that truth, she also illustrates that it’s up to us to choose whether to let a bad hand control our fate, or to push through the anger, sadness, and fear, and find something better. Whether to turn around and give up — or grab that piece of tissue, stuff it in your bloody nose, and keep on skinning past the point in the snow where that first bloody drop fell.

Interested in the C-Word or some of Dina's other writing?

Check out her work at dinamishev.com, follow her on Twitter @dinamishev, or check out her Instagram profile.

From The Column: Women in the Mountains

This lady is an incredible inspiration of strength and determination. I can’t begin to imagine what it takes to continue on with the adversity she faces everyday. Makes me so very thankful for my health. I would offer up some kind advice for her to get away from the chemo and try natural treatments such as mega doses of iodine and sea cucumber with lots of hemp oil. Chemo is proven to be a killer as it eventually leaches all the calcium from your bones and leaves you vulnerable to bone fractures and breakage just from normal everyday activity let alone intense mountaineering and skiing that this lady loves. I hope she goes on to live a long happy life.

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