River of Life: the Amazingly Incredible Epic Adventures of Carolyn Choate, Part I
by Carolyn Choate
Carolyn Choate recently used our FastTrack 385ft kayak to travel down the Delaware River from Port Jervis, NY to the University of Maryland School of Medicine to help raise awareness and funds for a cause that is close to her heart. Read part 1 of her amazing journey below and look for part 2 in the coming weeks.
October has come to a close but this one is especially hard to pack away in the attic of treasures stored. I returned the tandem FastTrack 385ft inflatable kayak that Sea Eagle owners Cecil Hoge, Jr. and John Hoge so graciously lent my older daughter and me this past year for an epic adventure like no other. For a cause that many of you may know all too well. Breast cancer.
I’m a survivor. There’s over three million of us out there. In the United States alone. Still, 14-years ago when they said I had a golf ball in my right breast and wouldn’t live to see my adolescent daughters graduate high school, survivorship meant waking up the next day. And, if I was lucky, the day after that. Until recently, I kept much of my cancer memorabilia in a corner of the basement, hidden from the light of day. Surgeries, aggressive chemotherapy whose side effects would intrigue the likes of Dr. Frankenstein, more surgeries. Boxes of collective heartbreak are piled high.
One of the more discouraging side effects was dropping out of graduate school. I was studying ancient heroic classics: Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Beowulf, Dante’s Inferno. Where once I breathlessly peered into the archetypal fish bowl of the human condition, joyfully reading about valiant heroes, exotic lands, exalted battles, and titillating romance, escaping my own misadventures in domesticity and a hectic career in media, cancer treatment made me a skeptic in a fortnight. And a feminist, of sorts.
How come guys get all the fun and glory? The mother of two daughters suddenly demanded from authors of yore. Battles? Boys, you ain’t never seen a battle like the one a woman fights to beat cancer! My shrewish side bellowed to a bewildered husband.
And, thus, my scheme to rewrite the world’s greatest epics from the feminine perspective as a legacy for my daughters was hatched. That was October 2003. The same month my oncologist convinced my 45-year old self to have her ovaries removed so as to take a promising post-menopausal drug that would reduce cancer recurrence. Aromatase inhibitors – or estrogen blockers – were developed by Dr. Angela Brodie at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in the late 1970s and approved by the FDA in 1994 to treat women, like me, with estrogen positive (ER+) breast cancer, the most common form of the disease. For us, estrogen is the gasoline that fuels cancer growth. I just hoped I lived long enough to fulfill my new found epic calling.
Ironically, however, life got in the way. Happily. Like seeing both my daughters graduate high school and college and land terrific jobs. Like me returning to grad school and finally getting that sheep skin after nine years. Like getting a second mastectomy in 2012. (Also without reconstruction.) Because I grew weary of the breast health hamster wheel of MRIs, mammograms, ultrasounds, PET Scans, biopsies, false positives, and worse? Cyclops boob. The annoying appendage that follows you wherever you go like a bad dream; one I was finally liberated from in 2012.
The epic writing plans, though long dormant, were still percolating nonetheless. In fact, as the years passed I began to doodle in the margins. Why settle for simply rewriting Homer’s Odyssey from my post-cancer perspective when I could solo the Greek Islands and actually relive Odysseus’ great journey of self-discovery? You know, get totally immersed and get myself together. What better way to replicate the courage and character of Beowulf through a feminine lens than by hiking alone across Denmark, reenacting the fabled battle with the monster Grendel on the very spot the smack down took place? I called it homework.
In the case of Odysseus, battle worn and without breasts but glad to be alive, I embraced this new version of self; complete in the knowledge that it was my mind, not breasts, that made me a woman. Likewise, the feminine Beowulf – aka Shewulf – slayed breast cancer in honor of all those who fought the monster or died trying. I morphed into a symbol of perseverance. And hope. One the U.S. Ambassador to Denmark, Rufus Gifford, at the time, recognized with a medal of honor for my financial contribution to the Danish Breast Cancer Organization for patient services.
The personal gratification of completing each epic adventure was only surpassed by the sheer rapture of recalling them to my daughters; writing about them, speaking about them, promoting the notion to anyone who would listen that, when you are fortunate enough to have been given a second lease on life – especially after a near-death experience with something like cancer – you can achieve just about anything.
And then it hit me: After all I had been through since diagnosis, I was worthy of writing my own epic, damn it! One I would dedicate to Dr. Angela Brodie for, without the miracle drug that saved me, there would be no sequel.
Last January, on my 59th birthday, I decided to kayak from my home on the Nashua River in Nashua, New Hampshire about 300-miles to the Inner Harbor of Baltimore, Maryland. A stone’s throw from the University of Maryland School of Medicine where an endowment in Dr. Brodie’s name was established at her retirement in 2016 at the age of 82. Did I mention I had no experience save for the five miles – or so – I had kayaked on the lazy river 500 feet from my house over the last 25 years?
Over a month of sane reflection on just how insane this idea was, I considered a route, the time frame, whether my body would cooperate, whether my husband would jump on board the crazy train (make that boat), and whether the University of Maryland School of Medicine would join forces in helping me promote one helluva fundraiser for the Brodie Endowment for Hormone-Related Cancers. But, above all else, I knew I needed the most advanced equipment I could get for keeping me and my side-kick alive for the duration. My 27-year old daughter, Sydney.
On February 24, 2017, my chief engineer and husband, Gordon Jackson, and I took the ferry from Bridgeport, CT to Port Jefferson, LI, to meet the fine folks at Sea Eagle and tell them about River of Life. They had just the kayak – and as it turned out – all the heart I needed for the journey of a lifetime. And, as you’ll read in Part II next month, thanks to Cecil, John, and so many engaged employees at Sea Eagle, River of Life far exceeded everyone’s expectations. Well, everyone except mine. I never doubted it for a second.