Moving mountains

Sherry Miller is taking her uphill battle with cancer to the mountaintop.

Finding a cure for breast cancer seems as daunting a task now as scaling Mount Everest must have seemed a century ago. Over the course of her lifetime, a woman has a 1 in 8 chance of getting breast cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 200,000 women and 1,500 men in the United States develop breast cancer each year. That means it’s pretty likely that you or a loved one will have breast cancer at some point.

Battling cancer can be a devastating experience, but for Sherry Miller, it’s just another mountain to climb—literally. She’ll be scaling Mount Shasta this July to raise money for breast cancer research.

Miller, 51, has been a Nevada resident since 1978, when she moved to Reno from Montana. She’s had a 22-year career in the cabinet-making industry, and she started her own business, Trillium Designs, in 2005.

Her struggle with cancer began in 1998, when a routine mammogram found a small tumor. Miller’s doctor recommended surgery. She chose to have a lumpectomy—a surgical removal of the tumor, but not the entire breast. Because of her family history—Miller’s grandmother and sister also had breast cancer—Miller opted to also undergo chemotherapy and radiation therapy. The treatment appeared to be successful, and Miller remained on Tamoxifen, a hormone therapy that inhibits cancer cell growth. For five years, her mammograms and CT (Computed Tomography) scans showed no recurrence of the cancer. It seemed that Miller had won.

But in 2003, shortly after Miller and her life partner, Tamela Gorden, celebrated Miller’s fifth anniversary of being cancer-free, the disease returned.

"[We were] very surprised because it had been already five years,” says Miller. “If you make it five years, you’re usually considered ‘cured.'” She was diagnosed with breast cancer that had spread to the wall of her chest surrounding the left lung, causing fluid to collect there and making it difficult to breathe. “For the rest of my life,” she explains, “I would have cancer that would have to be treated like a chronic disease.”

Miller had always been athletic and in good health, but the metastasized cancer was now potentially life-threatening. “[My doctor] told us at the time that 10 years would be really good if I made it that long,” she says. Slender and muscular, Miller looks fit today in a sporty pullover and jeans. Her cropped brown hair is slowly growing back after falling out from chemo.

Miller’s second round of chemotherapy was difficult and painful. “It caused irritation on my hands and feet, which made it feel like they were burning,” she says. “They were red, and the skin started to blister and would slough off.” After 15 weeks of treatment, the doctors discontinued the chemo because it was affecting her liver function.

In November 2004, a routine CT scan found two tumors in Miller’s liver, and she began another round of chemotherapy. The treatment left her tired and nauseated, and she lost her hair. Most people would try to rest and conserve their strength, but Miller decided to climb a mountain instead.

Survivor skills
The Climb Against the Odds is organized by the Breast Cancer Fund (BCF), an organization that seeks to identify and help eliminate preventable and environmental causes of cancer. Since 1995, cancer survivors and their supporters have scaled mountains in Argentina, Japan, Alaska and California to raise funds for the BCF, and Miller wanted to participate, too.

Sherry Miller, seen here with her “training partners,” Maya and Kelsey, has already been through five rounds of chemo, but she’s climbing Mount Shasta this summer. Previous page: Miller on the climb to Mount Rainier in 2005 for Breast Cancer Fund’s “Climb Against the Odds.”

Photo By David Robert

“I found out that they were going to do Mount Rainier,” explains Miller, “and I love that area, and I thought I might as well do it now because I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it again.” The climb was set for July 2005, and Miller, who had no mountain-climbing experience, began eight months of training while still in chemotherapy.

Climbing a mountain calls for some serious preparation, including a snow school training class. “You’re required to take that so you have some experience with the ice ax, crampons and getting roped up,” Miller explains. “I really didn’t know what I was getting into when I signed up. … I wasn’t thinking about glaciers and high altitude and wind. But it was a good motivator for me to get back into shape after the chemo and let people know that I was healthy again.”

The two-day climb, says Miller, was unforgettable. “It was exhilarating,” she says. “It was exciting to be on the mountain.” The climbers made an “Alpine start,” beginning before dawn to maximize daylight hours. “We were dressed and out on the snow by 1 a.m.,” she recalls. “It was the night before the full moon … you wore a head lamp, so you could see all these little lights bobbing up the mountain. We were roped together in teams of four or five people, and the guides would set the pace, so you had to keep up.”

By 5:30 a.m., the group reached 12,600 feet and a rest area. “I was cold; I had the shakes; I was sick to my stomach, and I had a headache,” says Miller. “Basically, I had altitude sickness. The guides told us that if we didn’t feel that we could go on, we needed to decide now … I decided to turn around.”

Back at camp, Miller met up with a group of other survivors. While waiting for their fellow climbers to return, they talked about their experiences with cancer. “Some of them had been through other climbs,” Miller says. “A couple of us were very angry with ourselves. … Other people were just ecstatic that they’d gotten that far.”

Soon, the climbers returned. “We greeted everybody as they came down the mountain,” Miller remembers. “It was exhilarating to hear them talk about getting all the way to the top, but it was tough to see the excitement on their faces and feel that jealousy or anger that I didn’t make it. Then we all came back down the mountain, and all our friends and breast cancer supporters and climbers from other groups were there. They were excited that we all made it back down safe. They didn’t care whether we had made it to the top or not.”

Miller raised $13,560 with her climb, which contributed to a total of more than $522,000 raised for the BCF. After she returned, tests indicated that the metastatic cancer in her liver was growing again, and she endured five months of chemotherapy.

Nevertheless, Miller decided to take part in the 2006 Climb Against the Odds. This time, they’ll be scaling the 14,162-foot Mount Shasta in Northern California from July 9-11.

Miller’s fundraising goal this year is $15,000. She’s already raised $15,784 from speaking engagements and donation letters sent to friends and family. You can see Miller’s climber Web site and donate at (click on “Sponsor Climber").

For the participants, it’s a highly symbolic event. “The survivor’s life is a climb in itself,” says Miller. “When you’re on chemo, you’re down pretty low, and getting through the chemo takes a lot of strength and endurance just to get through and recover. So they compare that to what it takes to climb a mountain.”

Recent test results indicated that the lesions in Miller’s liver are growing and multiplying again. She’s already begun her fifth round of chemotherapy, but it’s not stopping her from training for the Mount Shasta climb.

"[Breast cancer] doesn’t have to take over your life,” says Miller. “You can still persevere and have a wonderful life and do amazing things. And it gives me a good opportunity to show my family and friends that I’m still very much alive and fighting to stay there.”