Hiking Through Cancer: An Interview with Rebecca Sperry
After being diagnosed with cancer in 2020, Rebecca Sperry underwent years of treatment all while being in graduate school, working part-time, and hiking over 1,000 miles mostly in the White Mountains National Forest of NH. You may know her as a Hyperlite Ambassador or from her wonderful articles and think-pieces on thru-hiker culture or from her honest updates about hiking through cancer, but wherever you know her from I’m glad you’re tuning in with us to learn more of her inspiring story.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The full recorded interview can be found here @appalachian.trail on Instagram. All photos courtesy of Rebecca Sperry.
What first inspired you to get into hiking solo?
One day in 2015 I wanted to go hiking and my husband didn’t feel like going. So, I decided to try going solo. I hiked Mount Major which is not that large of a mountain in New Hampshire, but I did it solo. I got hooked mostly because I think hiking solo as a woman was really empowering for me.
From there, I started doing a couple of other hikes that summer and then I stopped once it got colder. In 2016, I found what was then called “Appalachian Trials” and became enamored with the idea of doing a thru-hike and the idea of being a long distance backpacker. I never ended up doing anything over 3 days, but I really fell into the thru-hiking community from my mindset and my connection with The Trek. I love it, I love hiking, I love being outside and I love hiking solo. It is probably my favorite thing in the world.
So, are the White Mountains basically in your backyard? You seem to spend a lot of time there.
The White Mountains are about 90 minutes north of me, so they’re basically my backyard as far as I’m concerned.
In regards to your 52 weeks of cancer treatment, on your blog where you logged over 100 hikes during that time, you write, “I experienced more life in the last year, while in treatment, than any other year of my life.” Can you explain what you meant by that?
I think that the thing that’s difficult about cancer is that you can’t understand what it’s like to go through it until you’re going through it. I think there’s a huge connection there with thru-hiking too. You go through this really crazy experience out there in the wilderness and you become kind of a different person - you’re transformed. For me, hiking and pushing my body physically while going through that cancer treatment, I think I filled more time up throughout the day during then than I ever did before in my life. Which is kind of crazy cause I was sick for the vast majority of the year! But I think I knew just how important it was to be active and continue to use my brain because of the effects of the treatment. So I just pushed myself to think and move way further than I normally would have because I didn’t want to have those horrible side effects.
Do you think that helped alleviate some of the physical side effects of your treatment?
The big thing with chemotherapy that the doctors will tell you while you’re in treatment is that they’re really trying to make you sick. The particular drug I was on affects your gastrointestinal and skin and hair, which is why you lose your hair. But what you can do to kind of alleviate some of the side effects of being exhausted, anemic, and feeling all-around horrible is exercise. I asked my oncologist about my hiking capabilities, and they told me to do as much as I could handle and I’d know when to stop. It helped a LOT. Even if I was just on the treadmill for 20 minutes, I felt better. My brain felt better. I really think the main reason I came through chemotherapy and was able to get back to life a little easier was because of how much I exercised through treatment.
In your writings, you say “Everyone faces cancer in their own way. Some choose to do every single thing possible to ward off a recurrence. Some people choose to not do treatment at all. Then, there are the rest of us, somewhere in the middle, just trying to find our way and make decisions nobody should have to make.” Would you say that hiking made it easier to process and make those decisions?
It was very difficult because at first, I didn’t want to do chemo. Then they sat me down and told me this would kill me. So when you have somebody sit there and tell you that, you kind of come to terms with it or you don’t. I did research and I listened to the doctors.
I actually chose to not continue my hormone therapy treatment - I was supposed to continue another 4 ½ years - and a huge factor that played into that decision was that the medication they had me on was affecting my ability to hike. My stamina, endurance, and quality of life were affected, but I’m doubling my risk of recurrence because I’m choosing to not continue. It’s been rough - I’m not going to say it’s been easy.
I’ve been “done” with treatment technically for 2 months now, which is great because I’m feeling stronger. I’ve come to terms with it. At first it was really hard and I felt like a quitter and that I could’ve continued. But there’s people everywhere that choose to stop treatment and none of them are weak or incapable - they’re choosing for a reason, too. So I’ve come to terms with it.
I understand you’ve since adopted a section of trail in the Whites National Forest, can you tell me a little about what that process is like, getting involved in trail maintenance in that way, and what duties or responsibilities that carries?
So there’s a local - I feel like everything goes through local channels up here - there’s a local up here who’s involved in trail maintenance and I talked to him years ago about adopting a trail. He said he managed the trail that went through the Whites National Forest and that I’d need to get on their Facebook Page where they listed the sections that were available. So, I had a section years ago. Then, last spring, I decided I wanted to give back to The Whites because of how much I had gotten out of them and saw Cedar Brook Trail was up for adoption. The guy who worked for the National Forest in that section of The Whites connected with me and walked me through the process. It really wasn’t that difficult.
I love exploring the different ways hikers have gotten into trail maintenance. So what kind of trail maintenance activities do you do in your section?
First, I attended a new volunteer training. They show you places you can borrow tools at caches hidden in different parts of the White Mountains and how to do all the basic things. After that, I was a Level One Maintainer. I go out and do “brushing” to clear the corridor, clear any debris that I can physically pick up and move, clear water bars, and remove some small blowdowns. They usually don’t want you doing anything bigger than your wrist and you’re not allowed to use a chainsaw or axe unless you’ve been officially trained, which I have not. I could theoretically do blazing as well, but my section is in the wilderness which means it’s not allowed there. I love going out with tools to play in the woods, and as a woman I feel it’s kind of empowering and not something that I ever would normally do (and I don’t own a house) so it’s really fun to be in charge of this section of forest. I’m supposed to head out there at least once in spring and once in fall.
A follower of mine recently sent me an article of yours, “Remaining Relevant in the Outdoor Industry”. In this you write about the important role hiking plays in your mental health but that, “the pressure to do something Instagram-worthy now that I’m technically done with cancer treatment is still there”. How do you use that pressure in a positive way, and what advice would you have for someone in this industry struggling with the pressure of social media?
I like being held accountable and being public about what I’m doing because it challenges me to remain active. I’m actually pretty lazy and not a very athletic person, so when I don’t feel like getting up in the morning I can use that added pressure to get up and go do something. Over the years that has definitely helped me continue being active. In terms of navigating it, I’ve had to learn a lot over the last year that I didn’t realize at first about being public with my life. Learning to navigate the difference between a friendship and a business relationship with people was unexpected and has been difficult for me. I had to learn to not take it personally and just because I dipped into this personal subject with someone, that didn’t mean we had more than a business relationship.
I also feel like there is a lot of pressure to keep hiking and keep doing and keep posting and remaining relevant. I think there are a lot of people who only do one thru-hike and then that’s it and they’re good and they’re moving on with their life, and then there’s the pressure from social media to continue being active in that role. They say “what’s next”, or they’ll click the unfollow button. Maybe that’s a sign it’s time to take a step back from social media.
Okay, this one is mostly for me the next time I visit NH. What are some of your favorite peaks in the Whites that you’ve summitted?
I recommend that if you're thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, just take a right when you get to the Guyot Campsite and go straight until you hit The Bons. It’s technically 3 peaks and it’s equivalent to Franconia in terms of views and is in the middle of nowhere - and if you come back to hike it it’s a 20 mile day with about 5,000 feet of climbing. I’ll say Isolation is another great one, and depending on what trail you take, is about 14 miles total and it has a really good view of The Presidential Range.
Before we officially wrap up, Rebecca, are there any shoutouts you’d like to give or anything you’d like to touch on?
I’d love to thank the hiking community. It’s been a really tough year and a half and everyone has been really wonderful in supporting me. I feel grateful to be a part of this community.