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PHOTOS: A Sisterhood of Resilience: Move Beyond Surviving

Breast cancer survivors hiking down a descent in the trail.
Breast cancer survivors hiking down a descent in the trail.

The Sunday before Thanksgiving, Miami’s Outdoor Pursuit Center (OPC) put on a day hike through Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. This trip differed from previous trips in that it wasn’t for students. Instead, this trip was for breast cancer survivors.

Breast cancer affects one in eight women. Fortunately, due to the significant progress that has been made in treatments, most women become survivors. Medical advancements have made it possible for victims to live long lives despite having the disease, or even to be cured. For the most part, victims of breast cancer can go back to their lives and keep on living. 

Except, there is no “going back.” Living isn’t what it used to be.  

Breast cancer changes lives. Survivors can’t return to the same lives they led before their diagnosis. The internal chemistry of their bodies has changed, and they may even be returning to the world with a part of them physically missing. Yes, surgery can change a survivor’s appearance, procedures exist to move muscles into the chest to create breasts. However, no matter what is done to alter a person's physical appearance after treatment, their body won’t ever feel the same as it did before cancer. 

Breast cancer changes the body. Survivors often have a decreased range of motion due to radiation. They may have swelling in their arms known as Lymphedema, or Neuropathy in their fingers and feet due to Chemotherapy. If a survivor received endocrine therapy, they will feel added weight in their bones. Chemotherapy also affects one’s short-term memory and ability to think clearly.

Breast cancer changes people. Dr. Kelly McLean, a surgical oncologist who specializes in breast and melanoma cancer, explains that while undergoing treatment, “ know the war and you’ve got a purpose. You feel grounded, and then all of a sudden you're done. People are like, great! Go home, war’s over. There’s no evidence of disease. Go back to your life, which no longer really exists like it used to, then come see us in six months and we'll check you again.” 

What is a breast cancer survivor supposed to do with themselves then?

To help survivors figure this out, McLean founded Move Beyond Surviving (MBS), a nonprofit organization designed to empower breast cancer survivors through nature. Move Beyond Surviving offers survivors a variety of outdoor activities as a way to get moving again and reconnect with who they are. It allows them to refine their sense of power and self in a safe and supportive environment.

MBS trips have ranged from high ropes courses, rock climbing, kayaking, backpacking, hiking, whitewater rafting, skiing, and even horseback riding. McLean additionally mentioned interest in stand-up paddleboarding and sailing.

“People want to do stuff,” she said, “but they don’t know what they can do. They’re afraid to try because they’re afraid to fail. But you’ve got to create that space in which you can try, and fail, and try again, and still feel safe. And that's okay. You got to test those limits. You’ve got to start learning what you can do again.”

On Sunday, November 19, MBS took 11 breast cancer survivors on a 6-mile hike through Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. Also on the trip were McLean, MBS Executive Director Tom Tressler, Miami Alum and OPC Trip Lead Katie Lockhart, and four Miami students involved with the OPC. Additionally, four of the survivors on the trip were McLean’s patients, three of whom she had been the primary doctor to operate on.

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The group met at a rest stop close to Red River Gorge and piled into two OPC vans for the ride to the trailhead. Upon arrival, the survivors got to know each other, and the OPC Trip Leads led an icebreaker to shake off some of the nerves. The hike began around 10 a.m.

Red River Gorge provided the hikers with a number of phenomenal views, resulting in photo breaks taken often. The weather was chilly in the shade but overall sunny, perfect for the hike. Survivors were able to pick their own pace and spent the time between photo stops sharing stories with each other.

At one of the first peaks of elevation, Tressler pointed out a rock formation on the other side of the valley known as “Double Arch,” which the group would have the option to climb later that afternoon. 

After a few hours of the hike, it was time for lunch, which took place on several logs in the lower part of the valley. While they ate, the survivors compared and contrasted their diagnoses and treatment methods.

Not long after lunch, the hikers arrived at a split in the trail. One direction was a one-and-three-fourths mile hike back to the parking lot, and the other direction was a three-fourths mile hike to Double Arch. Survivors were given the choice of which path to take since climbing to Double-Arch would add one-and-three-fourths miles to the total mileage. This being said, all of the hikers were up for the challenge and the group began the ascent to the arch.

Upon reaching the first level of the arch, the group shared a special moment when two of the survivors decided to remove their tops to take photos of their flat chests and mastectomy scars. Brooke Handley, a survivor from Lebanon, Ohio, went first and was soon joined by survivor Rachael Morgan-Kiss, who has been a microbiology professor at Miami since 2007. The two women smiled for the camera, struck silly poses, and flipped off cancer. The rest of the group cheered them on.

Once a sufficient amount of photos had been taken at the bottom level of the arch, the women lined up to climb a narrow stone staircase to the arch’s second level. Tressler stood at the bottom assisting each woman with the steep first step, and all of the survivors successfully made it to the top.

Tressler climbed up last and proceeded to ask the women how many of them were scared of Heights. Over half of the group raised their hands but agreed that the incredible view from the top as well as the feeling of accomplishment was worth it. One of the survivors then turned to the group of Miami students.

“What about you, are there things you did today that you wouldn’t have if we didn't do it in front of you?” She asked.

The students admitted that yes because they knew they were out there with a group of cancer survivors, they had done things they were scared to do.

The survivors returned to the bottom of Double Arch and began the two-and-a-half mile hike back to the trailhead’s parking lot. They then traveled across the street to Miguel’s Pizza for a trip breakdown and a well-deserved meal. 

At Miguel’s, many of the survivors expressed their gratitude for having found a place to belong and be active after breast cancer. Several of them compared MBS to a sorority, saying it was the closest and most supportive group they had ever been a part of. Then, turning to the Miami students, one survivor added “Though, this isn’t a sorority we ever wish you to be a part of. Please don’t join.”

While waiting for pizza, McLean explained more about how MBS came to be.

McLean has always had a love of nature and was torn between pursuing a career in medicine and working in the outdoors. She decided to go into medicine but wanted a way to blend her medical side with her nature side. So, in both 2017 and 2018, she partnered with North Carolina Outward Bound, an adventure trip organization.

With Outward Bound, McLean led a group of survivors on a five-day and four-night adventure trip that included backpacking, white water rafting, and rock climbing. The trip changed a lot of women’s lives, so McLean started to work on creating shorter, more accessible day trips to help even more women build their confidence.

Move Beyond Surviving officially became a non-profit in 2022 with the help of Tressler, who was introduced to her through a mutual friend. Being a full-time surgeon, McLean explains that she doesn’t have the time to run a full non-profit. She provides MBS with the medical expertise, but it is Tressler who provides the non-profit and marketing experience.

“I'm the inspiration.” McLean said. “He's the perspiration.”

Tressler connected the non-profit to Miami’s Outdoor Pursuit Center since they could provide MBS with technical expertise and needed equipment. The OPC now runs all of MBS’s trips, which has been a big success.

McLean’s efforts in creating Move Beyond Surviving has made a big impact on a lot of women. “It makes all the difference to have someone like Kelly to connect with”, says Brooke Handley, one of McLean’s patients. “A lot of the people (medical providers) I’ve come across on this whole thing are so clinical, like you are just a patient. To have someone be passionate about something that I’m passionate about, that’s amazing.”