Climbing to New Heights: A Breast Cancer Survivor's Journey of Recovery
BayCare Kids Wellness and Safety Educator Deborah Sickmon knows firsthand about surviving breast cancer treatment, as well as surviving what comes after treatment.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa was the exclamation point in her battle to return to normal after fighting and beating breast cancer. This October, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Sickmon is sharing her story of courage, hope and survival.
Sickmon was already overdue for her regular mammogram in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Her days shifted from being an educator for BayCare Kids Wellness and Safety Center to sheltering in place at home. When her department was asked to serve as delivery personnel and patient escorts at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Sickmon willingly answered the call.
“During this time, I kept ignoring a soft mass I felt in my left breast, writing it off as just another cyst,” said Sickmon. “As I continued to log miles on my sneakers from walking all over St. Joseph’s Hospital, I began to notice tenderness in my left armpit that just wouldn’t go away.”
She finally made an appointment with her physician and received a script to complete her mammogram. Time passed before she received a call from her physician’s office with her results. It was Stage 2 breast cancer.
After five months of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and seven weeks of radiation, Sickmon had successfully beaten cancer. But, she wasn’t prepared for the challenges that came after the treatment was over.
“My body was ravaged,” she said. “The neuropathy in my hands and feet made walking, opening a water bottle and many other simple tasks almost impossible.”
Sickmon was determined to be back to what she was before treatment – an active woman whose focus was on helping others. Among her other activities, she serves on the fundraising board of the Makindu Children’s Center in Kenya, which brings awareness to the struggles of the more than 500 orphaned and vulnerable children of Makindu. The center is near Mount Kilimanjaro, a dormant volcano so tall that it’s known as “the Rooftop of Africa.”
But now she had to focus on helping herself. Many months of therapy at the St. Joseph’s Hospital Outpatient Rehabilitation Center had her back to handling daily basic tasks. Sickmon returned to work, but even teaching a class for three hours left her bedridden.
Her hair was growing back and her friends, family and coworkers saw her as healthy. What they didn’t see was how she fought to build stamina, balance and strength while wondering when her brain fog would finally clear.
One afternoon, Sickmon’s phone rang. The caller was a friend who was with her when she last visited the Makindu Children’s Center. The friend wanted to do something special to mark her upcoming 60th birthday. She invited Deborah to join her in climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, that at 19,341 feet is the highest free-standing mountain in the world. “I instantly agreed,” said Sickmon. “Then reality hit. I’m in no shape to walk a 5K race, much less climb.”
This new goal motivated Sickmon as she pushed through her rehabilitation. She shared her aspirations with her trainer, who was fully on board. The training and recovery efforts kicked into high gear as the date of the climb neared.
Two years and two months after hearing the words, “You are cancer free,” Sickmon was ready to attempt an ascent that would take nearly eight days.
During her late-night landing at Kilimanjaro International Airport in Tanzania, Sickmon began to realize that this would be the biggest challenge of her life. She was prepared, but understandably nervous. She visited the Makindu Children’s Center before her climb.
“This second visit filled my soul and affirmed why I was climbing that mountain. I was climbing for me. I was back. I was healthy,” affirmed Sickmon. “I was also climbing for these kids. The adversity I’d face for eight days on that mountain would pale in comparison to adversities these children have faced every day of their lives.”
At 11 p.m. on the sixth day of climbing, after only a few hours of sleep, Sickmon and her group donned their headlamps and began the final leg of the ascent. Hiking the 3,000 feet of switchback trails throughout the star-filled night gave her hope that they would reach the rim of the volcano near daybreak.
Sickmon successfully reached Uhura Peak the morning of June 24, 2023. She proudly draped her “Breast Cancer Survivor” sash across her body and stood at the top of the mountain with the knowledge that she had conquered not only cancer, but the comeback from cancer as well.
According to the American Cancer Society, when breast cancer is detected early, and is in the localized stage, the 5-year relative survival rate is 99%. Early detection includes doing monthly breast self-exams and scheduling regular clinical breast exams and mammograms.
Click here for more information about breast self-exams and mammograms at BayCare.