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Down the San Juan River

by Claudia Hirt Foster

I have run rapids before, but never ones like these. I have breast cancer. Two months ago, a phone call changed the course of my river. "Your biopsy was positive," the detached distant voice on the other end was saying...and my kayak suddenly veered down an unknown tributary.

The red walls of the canyon loomed on either side of me. Shut from the sun, the sky darkened, and I steeled myself for an uncertain ride. I felt fine, and yet I could hear the terrible rumble of the rapids distantly up ahead, and so I stiffened by body and set my oars. The canyon walls were steep, and I knew that these rapids I could not portage. "I can't go around them; I have to go through them," I instinctively knew, and I knew there was no returning upriver...going back was not an option. Even with the roar in my ears, I couldn't yet know if the rapids were going to be a Class 1 or a Class 5, a Stage Four.

But I had River Guides. They knew the river. I banked my kayak on a sandbar and climbed a cliff to confer with them. Surgeon, plastic surgeon, oncologist and radiology-oncologist...These were new words and at first I didn't even understand each specialty. So much to know and so little time to chart my course, yet my river guides know the river and I'm not the first, nor the last, to gain from their experience. We stood on a ledge of red rock, reading the river below, studying the rapids. I felt slightly lightheaded at this height, focused on the rush of water that coursed over and through the massive boulders...the boulders I needed to clear. "Depending on the water level and the subtle relocation of rock, the rapids change with each person that runs them," I was told. I listened. Intently. "Keep your eyes just three feet ahead of your boat," they continued. "Imagine the smooth water ahead, but don't get too far ahead of yourself. Know that there are friends downriver below the rapids watching for you, ready to celebrate with you, but keep your eyes focused on the water and not the rocks. The boat goes where your eyes go."

In the month before the surgery, as tests were run and the massive rocks studied, some of the decisions were mine to make. Their sage advice was tantamount, but I still held the oars. No one could run the river for me. As I continued to plot my course--mastectomy, lumpectomy? Unilateral, bilateral?--I kept taking the boat out of the water, re-studying the river, conferring again with my guides, confirming again our decisions...and each time I would put the boat back in, reassured. It's both blessing and burden that there are so many options, especially with breast cancer which can include reconstruction. There are many different possible channels one can choose to run between boulders.

For me, the worst was the month of decisions. My kayak and I would sometimes get caught up in eddies. I was "supposed to" be strong, to fight, to not give up, but there were nights when I just wanted to let go of the oars, to let the kayak crash at will on the rocks, to let the river have its way with me. But for all the angst of anticipation, once the decisions were made and my course determined, the surgery and recovery proceeded with relative calm and grace. I straightened my boat, I set my oars, and I kept my eyes three feet ahead of me in line with the head of the rapids.

The undercurrent pulled me downriver towards surgery, steadily at first, then increasingly more intensely. There was no turning back. I was ready. I gripped my oars and with a steady firm pull, I became one with the river. I was excited now. There was no fear in it. My heart beat instead with excited anticipation and I was glad to go through them. And then I was. It was just a blip on the river, a fraction of a moment of time. I had skated through the boulders, just as we charted it. In the blink of an eye, I had cleared them.

And sure enough, my friends and family stood on the sandbar below, just as I hit flat, still water. What had been the water's roar became the roar of them cheering. My Rite of Passage. "All Grace and Glory," one good friend said. "A Trooper," according to my mom, who should know, since she's one herself. "A Woman Warrior." A River Runner. "Amazonian Women had cut off their breasts to be better archers," one friend said. And I can now count myself as one in a company of brave women who have faced the white churning water. I hadn't chosen this river course, but a soldier is no less a soldier for having been drafted.

There are more rapids, I know. Some might be quite large. Who knows what bumps and rapids lay ahead downriver, beyond the bend? But my boat is strong and so am I. I have more support from more friends than I had ever known I had. And I have the compassion and wisdom of my river guides. They'll be there watching and there when I need them. My oncology team. My river guides.

Claudia Hirt Foster was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2014. She recognizes it as the Ultimate Adventure that came at the end of a year of many more-expected traveling-adventures. On the day of her biopsy, she applied for a one-month volunteer position as a kayak river guide In Coastal Oregon for the following summer. Shortly after her mastectomy on Thanksgiving, she was accepted for the position, and this August, she will be doing a solo drive from her home in San Diego to Newport, Oregon, with her 14 foot travel-trailer. The Adventure continues!