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Boarding to Breast Cancer: Megan Pischke’s Battle For Life

Professional snowboarder Megan Pischke was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2012. Paul Watt photo via the Chasing Sunshine documentary. 

Something was just off—on a deep physiological and energetic level. It wasn’t connected to paranoia or fear, and professional snowboarder Megan Pischke had every reason to trust the foundation of her body. She was the powerhouse athlete who could dominate big mountain lines in Alaska comps, stop at the bottom to breastfeed and then head back up for the next lap. 

Five years after giving birth to Leighli, Pischke welcomed her son, Reef, into the world. She was the wife of DCP, professional snowboarder David Carrier Porcheron. In top-tier health, she was a yogi with a by-the-book lifestyle: daily plates of leafy greens and a diet free of boos and cigarettes. At 41 years old, Pischke showed no signs of slowing down. 

Pischke snowboarding. Paul Watt photo via the Chasing Sunshine documentary.

Despite all odds, she received one of those harrowing phone calls that no one should ever need to pick up. “I was sitting on my stairs. I nodded my head to my husband—he lost his shit. I was in total shock,” remembered Pischke. 

A couple of weeks earlier, her doctor had rushed out of the room at her appointment, after he saw the ultrasound. A biopsy was immediately scheduled, which confirmed stage 3 breast cancer, an aggressive phase that had advanced beyond the tumor and into her lymph nodes.

“I’d had cancer for a long time,” Pischke reflected. Fortunately, the disease hadn’t metastasized further to other organs. “My body was able to keep it contained, because I had a healthy lifestyle—but hearing the news didn’t seem real. I asked my doctor to come over, so we could all talk in person.”

Portrait of Pischke. Rebecca Amber photo. 

A prognosis also brought relief. For the last few years, she’d been trying to nail down why something in her body didn’t feel right. Physician visits—including a chiropractor, craniosacral therapist and naturopathic doctor—plus bloodwork related to her thyroid, food dye, and gluten all ended with no lead. In her 20s, she’d had a near-death experience when she hit a tree snowboarding and was rendered unconscious with a hemorrhaged spleen. Years later, and following big life changes, perhaps her immunity system was compromised or her spine was unaligned.

But—cancer? “We were both crying and felt helpless in so many ways,” Pischke said about the following days with DCP as she let the reality sink in. “Caregivers may come to realize that they can be supportive in many ways, but they can't actually walk the walk for that person," said Pischke. 

Caregivers may come to realize they can be a support, but no one can actually walk the journey of breast cancer for that person.

Before her full mastectomy and reconstruction, she visited a shaman—and so did DCP and Pischke’s mom—to practice meditation and process anxiety. “It was my way of dealing with the feeling of being trapped in my own body while there’s something killing me,” she said.

She dug into her insecurities and fears to alleviate any psychological anchors that could hold her back from focusing on a positive path during the fight ahead. 

Pischke snowboarding in the backcountry. Phil Tifo photo. 

Pischke's snowboard career had been long and successful with countless podium finishes and steady industry support, but the sport’s commoditization and embedded scrutiny of athletes had simultaneously challenged her self-worth. She’d also grown up in California in the '90s, where it was common for girls to get nose jobs and breast augmentations. A buried layer of questions about her body image resurfaced. "I had to find my spirit and let go of all the shit of the past. Cancer touches every single layer of your being, not just your body," said Porcheron.

I had to find my spirit and let go of all the shit of the past. Cancer touches every single layer of your being, not just your body.

Two months later and after her surgery, she took an anticipated trip to Baldface Lodge where she snowboarded with friends while working as the crew’s massage therapist.

Pischke dropping a cliff with a tail grab at Baldface Lodge. Scott Sullivan photo. 

“That’s when I told Travis [Rice], ‘I start chemo next week,’ and everyone was shocked,” she said. “I thought I would go through cancer for a few years and resurface. I remember walking around the neighborhood delivering baked bread to say, ‘Thank you for watching the kids’—but no one wanted anything in return. I don’t know if it was shyness or embarrassment, but once I opened the gates to receiving help, it was phenomenal and life changing. It still makes me cry: Cancer has taught me the need of reciprocation," she said.  

Pischke playing with her two kids. Rebecca Amber photo. 

Pischke and DCP would wake up at 4:30 a.m. to pack all of the cold caps on dry ice. He would stand-up paddleboard for an hour, and then trade spots with Pischke so that she could SUP, before the kids were dropped off at a friend’s house, day care, or school. 

“My hospital days were long, so I was outside as much as I could be. I was running, doing yoga and meditation, and overindulging in Mother Nature as a part of my treatment,” said Pischke.

Spending time in Mother Nature was a central part of Pischke's breast cancer treatment. Rebecca Amber photo. 

Chemotherapy became a full-time undertaking for six months. At the same time, Porcheron wanted nothing more than to stop time. Her kids were so little—1 and 6 years old—and she wanted to see them grow. 

It still makes me cry: Cancer has taught me the need of reciprocation.

Before surgery, during chemo, and for a year afterward she received weekly cycles of high-does IV vitamin C. She did hyperthermia, a targeted high-temperature treatment that weakens cancer cells to make them more susceptible to the chemo.

Family portrait. Phil Tifo photo. 

To feel a sense normality, Pischke decided to do cold cap therapy in an effort to prevent hair loss. The tight-fitting hat has a gel coolant that’s chilled between -15 and -40 degrees to freeze the hair follicles. For 4 to 5 hours straight, her husband would help her switch caps every 30 minutes. The process is a tremendous commitment of time and energy. A rotation can’t be skipped. Sixteen chemo treatments and 300 caps later, DCP hadn’t missed one.

Yoga practice at a B4BC young survivor retreat. Rebecca Amber photo. 

“My husband and I promised each other that whatever happens, we have to give it 100 percent,” said Pischke. “There were days when I was vomiting and sobbing and I was this pile of mush and my husband was like, ‘We’ve got to change your cap. We’re committed to the treatment.’”

Pischke and husband, DCP. Kim Woozy and Mahfia Productions photo. 

The biggest irony was Pischke’s other job—helping women with breast cancer, before she was ever diagnosed. For 14 years, she was a wellness ambassador for Boarding For Breast Cancer (B4BC), a nonprofit that promotes breast cancer awareness through early detection education and leads nature-based wellness retreats for patients and survivors. 

B4BC was co-founded in 1996--by Lisa Hudson, Kathleen Gasperini, Dawn Kish, and pro-snowboarders Tina Basich and Shannon Dunn—in honor of Monica Steward, co-founder of Bonfire snowboard clothing. Steward was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 26, and tragically passed two years later.

The 20th Boarding For Breast Cancer (B4BC) Sea to Sky Yoga Mala event. B4BC photo. 

Getting involved with B4BC was a natural draw. Pischke and pro snowboarder Barrett Christy were leading snowboard and yoga retreats at Vail Resort, so they began to couple the gatherings as fundraisers for B4BC. 

The retreat program, now called Chasing Sunshine, provides scholarships to 20 women annually for ocean- and mountain-based sessions. Each spring and fall, 10 women gather to surf, ski or snowboard. Healing is enhanced by the community support and wellness practices including massage therapy, nutrition classes, yoga, meditation, acupuncture and life coaching.

Portrait of Pischke, B4BC Health and Wellness Marketing Manager. Rebecca Amber photo.  

“I would never pretend like I knew what these women were going through or that I knew what they needed to heal. These experiences are individual, because of our histories, personalities and backgrounds,” said Pischke, now the B4BC Health and Wellness Marketing Manager. 

Her current objective is to build more brand support and triple the sponsorship pool from 20 to 60 women per year.

Today, 1 in 8 women across the U.S.—at least one friend or family member at the full dinner table—will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. Less known: Men can also develop breast cancer, and their lifetime risk is close to 1 in 1,000, according to Breastcancer.org

Last year alone, B4BC visited 50 college campuses and educated more than 10K young women about breast self-examinations and healthy lifestyle practices.

Another unthinkable call came six months after Pischke was diagnosed. Her brother-in-law, Joe Timlin, had died in an avalanche near Loveland Pass. Jeremy Jones named his next peak—a first-climbed and first-descent mission—Mt. Timlin, in honor of Timlin, who was the regional sales manager for Nidecker, distributor of YES and Jones snowboards.

“That was a reality check for me that maybe, I could go. He was young, smart, intelligent, kind, serving and he still left this place—you can leave at any moment,” she said. 

A deeper sense of mortality motivated Pischke to share her vulnerable struggle with the hope of helping others who are battling cancer. 

That was a reality check for me that I could go. He was young, smart, intelligent, kind, serving and he still left this place—you can leave at any moment.

With her friend Paul Watt, of Whistler Creek Productions, she created a documentary short that shares a glimpse of her chemotherapy: Chasing Sunshine, premiered January 2015 in Aspen during the Winter X Games.

Boarding For Breast Cancer (B4BC) Chasing Sunshine winter retreat. B4BC photo. 

Many women arrive at Chasing Sunshine retreats laden with fears about swimming in the ocean or riding down a mountain. 

Bone density issues surface, as a side effect to medications. Damage to the reproductive organs and fertility are in question, as a risk of chemotherapy. Some freeze their eggs to help reassure a future of pregnancy and children. The body’s range of motion can be altered after surgery, which puts the possibility of activities—like surfing and snowboarding—in question. Post chemo, when the routine of treatment is gone, survivors can go through a paradox of solace and anxiety. 

You are in such a different head space about your ability and body after having cancer. I wondered if I would ever be able to hike a mountain and snowboard down it without feeling awful.

The retreat is a space for women to examine their personal uncertainties and reestablish faith with their health and bodies. It took a year for Pischke to feel confidence with her remission and even longer to build back a portion of the 30 pounds of muscle that she lost during chemo.

“You are in such a different head space about your ability and body after having cancer. For the past few years, I wondered if I would ever be able to hike a mountain and snowboard down it without feeling awful. Another major fear factor is getting hurt—and feeling physical pain—again,” said Porcheron, who still takes tons of daily supplements to mitigate reoccurrence.

Pischke at the starting gate of the 31st annual Mt. Baker LBS competition. Natalie Langmann photo.

Say your prayers—is the token advice scribbled above the tiny shed’s doorway, which serves as the starting gate for one of the oldest, most celebrated and prestigious competitions known to snowboarding: the Legendary Banked Slalom at Mt. Baker.

In February 2017, riders of all ages and abilities—including pros Travis Rice, Terje Haakonsen and Torah Bright, to name a few—brought their g-force expertise to the high, fast turns along the natural halfpipe course. The 31st annual showdown was as equally about reunion as it was the coveted prizes: spray painted duct tape rolls and Pendleton Blankets.

Pischke riding the banked turns at the 31st annual LBS snowboard comp. Natalie Langmann photo. 

On a bluebird day with Mount Shuksan in view, Pischke beat her odds. Regardless of being retired from the comp scene she swept 2nd place in her division and rode home with an iconic roll of silver duct tape. 

“It was a special moment for everyone. My friends and husband were balling and excited. One of my good friends started crying…his wife is going through cancer. My whole community knows what I’ve gone through and still go through today.”

Strong in a new way, Pischke continues to chase sunshine.

Pischke on podium at the 31st LBS, five years after being diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. Natalie Langmann photo. 

Chasing Sunshine Retreats are held each spring and fall. Apply at b4bc.org

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