NAUGATUCK — What began as a personal quest for Gail Novaco to mark a trio of milestones in her life, ended as a journey for eight breast cancer survivors who wanted to thumb their nose at the disease.
“There’s life after the diagnosis. It sounds so cliché but it’s true,” said Novaco, a Naugatuck resident and English teacher at Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls.
On July 30, Novaco and her fellow survivors, ranging in age from 33 to 71, embarked on a 13-hour hike up Mount Washington in New Hampshire, nearly 6,300 feet in the air, a trip the group deemed “Mount Washington or Bust.”
The hike was set in motion March 2011 at the Betty J. Borry Breast Cancer Retreat weekend at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center in Bretton Woods, N.H.
The past year marked a trio of milestones for Novaco — she turned 60 in January, she stopped taking post-treatment medication that intensified her joint pain last October, and last year was the five-year anniversary of her last breast cancer treatment.
At the retreat, Novaco recalled, she was thinking about the confluence of these milestones and a way to celebrate them when she said aloud her goal was to climb Mount Washington.
“When you say something out loud, suddenly you have to do it because other people have heard you,” Novaco said.
The morning after her proclamation, as she looked over a map of the mountain, another woman locked pinkies with Novaco in a “pinky swear” that the two would climb the mountain together. The idea spread from there as other women at the retreat quickly signed on for the climb.
In the months between the pinky swear and last week, the women trained and prepared for the climb.
“I cranked that treadmill up to 10,” Novaco said.
Novaco set out for the summit July 30 at 8 a.m. with Adrienne Bobay of Danbury, Donna Landerman of Bloomfield, Wendy Coggswell of Manchester, N.H., Michelle Hansen of Worcester, Mass., Patricia Nelson of Barrington, N.H., Mal Sperling of Rindge, N.H., and Julie Tamarkin of Brimfield, Mass. Tamarkin’s sister, Mary Chipps of Missouri, came along to support Tamarkin although she did not have cancer.
The group was taking the easiest trail, which guidebooks estimated was a 4 1/2 hour hike. The plan was to reach the summit, where they would be met by Novaco’s husband James in a car with Allison Allen, 65, of Tolland, whose health problems prevented her from hiking the whole way. The group would hike down another 1 1/2 miles to a lodge where they could spend the night, then summit again the following morning and ride a train down.
The nine women, all battling various health problems associated with breast cancer treatment, found the hike a lot harder than they expected. Just short of the summit nine hours later, James Novaco had to drive four of them to the top and then down the mountain. The last hikers did not reach the lodge until 9 p.m.
“It just didn’t stop,” Novaco said. “It was just five miles of rocks.”
Bobay, the youngest of the group at age 33, was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2009, when she was 30. She is now on post-treatment medication that leaves her weak in the knees and sore in the joints.
As she sipped coffee and enjoyed the view from a boulder outside the lodge, Bobay said she felt relieved and accomplished.
“It definitely felt good to me, knowing that I can still do that, given everything I had gone through,” Bobay said.
Landerman, 64, said she was active and outdoorsy before her diagnosis two years ago. Even while she was being treated for stage 3 cancer, she sometimes went cross-country skiing for 20 minutes at a time, but she was not sure she could accomplish a feat like Mount Washington.
“I was not sure I would be strong enough to do that again,” she said. “I feel really good about it, and I hope other women hear you can get strong.”
Even though everything didn’t go as planned, Novaco described the experience as “hugely rewarding.”
Novaco hopes the climb can become a symbol for and a statement to newly diagnosed cancer patients that, although it may not seem so, there is life after the diagnosis. She’s also planning to write a book about the climb, with each woman writing a chapter about their experience.
For Novaco, all she has to do is look at her daughter, the newly-married Kyle Menze, for proof that there is life after diagnosis.
When Menze was 9 years old, she was diagnosed with T-cell non-Hodgkins lymphoma and underwent 26 months of chemotherapy at Yale-New Haven Hospital. She had a tumor in chest that was so large it was choking her trachea, Novaco said.
Novaco said her daughter’s experience inspired her to go into the medical field. Now, at the age of 27, Menze is doing her residency in pediatric physiatry at the Nassau University Medical Center on Long Island.
Novaco said when she thinks about her little girl, undergoing treatment that caused her to lose her hair, she never would have imagined at the time she would grow up to become a doctor.
“I never would have believed it,” Novaco said.