A Mountain of Prayers
After surviving cancer three times, an Ames woman takes on an intensely physical and spiritual journey.
Among the must-have supplies Kim Townsend carried 18,000 feet up the Chhukung Ri climbing peak in Nepal were prayers.
There were more than 70 of them, each represented by a colorful 6x6-inch piece of cloth. The bright red, green and yellow cloths had been simply and lovingly decorated with words and drawings. Some of the prayer cloths commemorated lost loved ones such as Townsend's sister who died in her arms after a long battle with renal cancer. Others were tributes to cancer survivors, including three made by Townsend’s children in honor of
their mom. Many were created by people who use the services of the William R. Bliss Cancer Resource Center at Mary Greeley Medical Center.
Townsend, who faced both brain and breast cancer, is a woman of deep faith, and the challenging mountain climb, part of the Above + Beyond Cancer program, was just one component of her intensely spiritual journey to Nepal and the impoverished metropolis of Katmandu.
"I was stunned by the people of Katmandu. Despite their living conditions, they have tenacity, kindness and generosity of spirit," Townsend says. "In every aspect of their lives, on every corner of their streets, they incorporate their spirituality into a calmer lifestyle than I've ever seen. I've tried to incorporate their calmness into my daily life here."
Ready for the Challenge
Townsend was selected to participate in the highly competitive Above + Beyond Cancer program, which takes those who have overcome cancer on physically challenging journeys all over the globe. Participants are selected not on their physical ability or prior climbing experience but on their ability to embody and advocate for cancer issues.
Having survived two stage II gliomas in her brain and stage III breast cancer, all within the past 12 years, the mother of three and Iowa State University Ph.D. student studying educational leadership was an excellent match for the program's mission. But while Above + Beyond promises that cancer survivors will have overcome unbelievable odds once they complete their expedition, Townsend knows she beat the odds long before the trip.
The third time she was diagnosed with cancer, a spot in her brain showed up on a follow-up MRI scan. She had regularly undergone MRI scans since her first brain cancer surgery, and now, seven years later, the cancer was back.
"When they went in to remove the tumor, it was completely dead. Do you know what that is? That's a miracle," says Townsend. "It's through the power of prayer that I'm alive. I owe so many people so much. Hundreds of people have been praying for me for over a decade. I'll be paying it forward for the rest of my life."
Townsend has received world-class treatment for brain cancer from Johns Hopkins Medicine and the MD Anderson Cancer Center, and she considers the breast cancer care she received at the William R. Bliss Cancer Center just as exceptional.
"I don't get lost in the system here, like you can at some large hospitals. I always feel warmly received at Mary Greeley, like everyone really cares about me," says Townsend, who sees Dr. Mark Taylor and Dr. Debra Prow for regular checkups. "And my doctors here have been instrumental in coordinating care with my other specialists and hospitals all over the country."
Townsend was inspired to join Above + Beyond by a close friend. "My good friend Marilyn Vaughan called me one day and said, 'You need to do this. I want to do it with you,'" recalls Townsend. "So, I filled out a seven-part application one night without really thinking much about it, but then we got accepted."
Townsend and Vaughan trained for months before they traveled the 7,683 miles to Katmandu. They hiked trails, lifted weights and climbed 29 flights of stairs multiple times over a span of several weeks. All this was in preparation for the high-altitude endurance test they would face in Nepal.
"It was an experience of a lifetime," says Vaughan. Many of her friends
also created prayer flags for the trip.
Although Above + Beyond Cancer is meant to be a transformational experience, Townsend feels that the journey and her interactions with the
people of Katmandu were a learning experience and blessing combined.
While there, she and Vaughan volunteered with seniors and taught at a
local Catholic school for the poor. They are now setting up a nonprofit to
assist that school.
"I am so appreciative of the program and the experiences we had. It was
truly a blessing," Townsend says, "But I didn't feel like I needed to conquer the mountain to be transformed. Overcoming cancer and becoming in tune with God's plan, that's what was transformational."
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