Challenges are our greatest teachers

By Lisa Thompson

Challenges are our greatest teachers … if we’re paying attention. 

In 2015 I was diagnosed with breast cancer, shocking news for every woman.  I felt especially betrayed by my body because I am an athlete.  I eat organic vegetables.  I floss my teeth.  How could there be parts of my body that were no longer adhering to the plan that we’d all been following for the last forty-three years?  While I couldn’t change the fact that I had cancer I could control my response.  I became rabid-dog determined not to let cancer define my priorities.  Priorities that included climbing an 8,000-meter mountain in Nepal that year.  Thankfully, I worked with an exceptional team at Swedish Medical Center who were fiercely committed to beating cancer with me.  I went to Nepal and climbed that mountain (not all the way to the top – which is a different story) and I learned two things: 1) life is fragile 2) it is up to us to define the lives that we will live.  I returned to Seattle from Nepal with a new goal: to summit Mt. Everest.  But first, I had some prioritizing to do.  In the space of six months I quit my successful but unfulfilling corporate job, I divorced my alcoholic husband, I sold my house, and I dedicated myself to rebuilding my mind and body.  Barely a year after a bilateral mastectomy I became the 408th woman to summit Mt. Everest.  And while that is an extraordinary accomplishment, I knew when I stood at 29,029 feet that day that I was capable of more. 

While I was climbing Mt. Everest my father was beginning his own battle with stage four lung cancer.  From the other side of the world over a staticky phone line, he did his best to reassure me.  When I returned to my home town to care for him, he struggled to speak but could not hold back his pride in my accomplishment or his concern that I wasn’t done climbing.  I promised him that there would only be one more.

Mountains have played many roles in my life.  They have been a peaceful, healing sanctuary for me; they have been a means to grow and to explore my capabilities.  They have also expanded my confidence and tested my resilience.  Most mountaineers have a dream mountain, one that is barely on the safe side of their comfort zone, a mountain that will push and test them more than any other.  My dream mountain has a short and simple name … K2.  Although it sounds plain the challenges that exist on its icy, rocky flanks are not.  K2 is nearly 800 feet shorter than Mt. Everest, but they are not even in the same league in terms of danger or difficulty.  K2 has been summited by fewer than a dozen women, five died.  Most of the people in my life created lists of reasons that I shouldn’t attempt it.  My climbing coach broke up with me.  The body language of my friends changed when we talked about it.  My sister asked me to update my will. 

I believe that everything in your life has led you to this exact moment.  The lessons you’ve learned, the people you’ve loved, the mistakes you’ve made.  Everything.  Furthermore, the universe wouldn’t have brought you to this moment without a reason.  And if at this moment you are facing a challenge or a decision, then you most certainly wouldn’t be here if you lacked the capability to grow and expand into a better version of yourself.  

Doubts from the people that I loved affected me deeply.  But deeper yet was the belief that I was capable of safely climbing K2.  So, I hung on to the tiny spark inside of me that knew better, that believed differently.  Last July I became the first all-American woman to summit K2.  From the pinnacle of my dream mountain, the last of my dad’s ashes floated into the wind above Pakistan.

Some challenges threaten to break us, they test our resolve.  This is where the greatest lessons live.  When we choose a path that pushes us, instead of shrinking we become bold.  We move closer to the best version of ourselves.  And, most importantly, we become an inspiration for those around us.  So, climb an impenetrable mountain, set an audacious goal, love completely, refuse to let others define your boundaries.  And know that you are capable of more than you will ever imagine for yourself.

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