Cancer was the impetus for TV’s Walter White to “break bad” and set out on a path of darkness and self-destruction – and most real-life cancer survivors would never take things that far. But many do understand the impulse to shake things up, and take a few risks, after their diagnosis.
Some climb mountains, some run marathons, some travel the world: The psychological impact of a cancer diagnosis causes many patients to redefine their priorities and push themselves beyond their pre-cancer boundaries.
Coming face to face with your own mortality will do that, psychologists say. And for women diagnosed with breast cancer -- who may have lost their breasts as well as hair, strength, sexuality and fertility -- the urge to be adventurous may be especially strong.
Lara Huffman, a 33-year-old Pittsburgh financial investigator, decided to jump out of a plane two days before her double mastectomy in May of 2012.
“I’d always wanted to go (skydiving) but I don’t think pre-cancer Lara would have done it in a million years,” she says.
Post-cancer Lara, however, was a different woman. Not only had she made it through the initial diagnosis in 2010, she’d endured a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, a chemo drug reaction that nearly killed her and the news that despite treatment, she’d still be losing her breasts.
“My biggest fear was being diagnosed with breast cancer; my mom died of breast cancer,” she says. “So my biggest fear had already happened. Skydiving? It was nothing. After everything I’d been through, I felt a little badass. As soon as we landed I felt like I could get into a bar fight and win. I felt invincible.”
Experts say this type of post diagnosis derring-do is common. Not only have breast cancer survivors braved emotionally and physically painful surgeries and treatment regimens, they’ve held hands with death.
“On the outside, you look like you’re the same person, but on the inside, you have a different take on what’s truly an emergency, what’s truly important in life,” says Dr. Deanna Attai, a breast cancer surgeon from Burbank, Calif. “Some people take that and run with it.”
Helen L. Coons, a clinical psychologist who works with breast cancer patients and is a survivor herself, says many patients take on challenges after seeing their own “remarkable” resilience.
“They may leave a less satisfying job and start a new career,” she says. ”They may leave a relationship that’s not working. They see that they have the courage to face things that might have seen daunting before – like a major hiking trip, adventure travel, or running a 5K.”
This penchant for physical challenges may explain the slew of adventure organizations devoted to breast cancer (and other) survivors, from dragon boat teams to Tour de Pink bike races to fly-fishing camps to surfing or snowboarding to cross-country motorcycle treks. Mountain climbing, in particular, has attracted hundreds of survivors via organizations such as Expedition Inspiration, the Climb to Fight Breast Cancer and Above + Beyond Cancer.
Leslie Vanoni, a 47-year-old software analyst and two-time BC survivor from Sonoma, Calif., trained to climb Mount Shasta with the Breast Cancer Fund’s Climb Against the Odds as a way to bootstrap herself out of post-treatment depression.
“You feel so helpless when you’re in treatment,” she says. “I felt ugly and full of self-pity. And this gave me an outlet for that -- a way to work it out. It made me feel alive after feeling so sick.”
Attai says post-diagnosis risk-taking is an “an extremely individual thing” that may subside “the further you go out.” Some people may be satisfied with a one-off adventure. Others, like Terri Wingham, seek a complete sea change.
A former headhunter, Wingham, 34, was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2009. A year and a half later, she’d had a lumpectomy, lymph node dissection, chemo, a double mastectomy and several reconstructive surgeries.
”I felt like I had to do something big,” she says. “I didn’t know how to get out of that post treatment funk. I thought about what would inspire me and had this idea about going to volunteer in Africa.”
Wingham had never traveled to a developing country before but wanted to do something that “scared me and was meaningful.” She also liked the fact that traveling was completely her choice. Cancer was no longer in control.
In early 2011, she quit her job and flew to Cape Town where she volunteered at a daycare for six weeks; after coming home to Vancouver, B.C., she gave up her apartment and continued to travel. During the first half of 2012, she visited five continents and volunteered with seven international organizations. She also created a foundation to help other cancer survivors follow in her footsteps; the first group went to India in February of this year.
For her, world travel was a way to gain perspective on her cancer experience and to redefine her life.
“It shifted things,” she says. “One of the reasons I wanted to go to Africa was that I wanted something bigger than cancer as my most recent story. I wanted people to ask ‘How was Africa?’ and not ‘Is the cancer gone?’ It truly did that for me.”
New challenges can be beneficial for breast cancer survivors, as long as they’ve fully recovered from the rigors of treatment.
“For some women to go on and have an empowering experience with their body is huge,” says Coons, pointing to studies that show a link between exercise and quality of life as well as a lowered chance of recurrence.
While no studies have been done on cancer survivors’ badassery, Coons says post-diagnosis risk-taking does correlate with two psychological fields of study known as “benefit finding” and “post-traumatic growth”.
“Women taking chances, making changes in their life, taking better care of themselves – these are all part of post traumatic growth,” she says.
Of course, not all cancer survivors should feel compelled to go out and climb a mountain. And some might take the risk-taking impulse too far.
Paula Mozen, a 55-year-old documentary filmmaker from Bozeman, Mont., fell and broke both her wrists after she decided to go on a steep four-mile hike by herself while recovering from her first round of chemo.
“I felt confident and thought ‘I’m just going to keep doing everything’,” she says. “Afterwards, my friends were like, ‘You are not allowed to hike by yourself.’ I think the chemo did screw with my brain and with my balance.”
Despite the stumbles, these breast cancer badasses have found their new lives – and outlooks – to be ultimately rewarding and free of regret.
“None of us know if the cancer’s going to come back or how much time we have,” says Wingham. “In some respect, that gives me license to say, ‘Hell, I’m going to live my life.’”
A frequent contributor at NBCNews.com and TODAY.com, Diane Mapes has taken up boxing and co-authored a FSOG zombie parody, Fifty Shades of Brains since her breast cancer diagnosis. She blogs about living with the disease at www.doublewhammied.com.