Action Hero Survivors  :  Margaret Imai-Compton UPDATED

Margaret Imai-Compton

Outreach and awareness of ovarian cancer is one of the HERA Ovarian Cancer Foundation’s biggest priorities. We’d like to thank Margaret Imai-Compton for sharing an update to her story and for continuing to inspire us through her journey, her climbing, and her perpetually positive outlook on life.

It’s Not Surviving, It’s Thriving

Why we climb is a personal choice. Some climb to connect—to others, to ourselves, to nature—while others climb to dig deep and find the ability to persevere through difficult terrain or mind-bending sequences. Whether its connection or empowerment, the lessons learned from working through a difficult path can permeate our lives on many levels, even outside of our climbing lives. Even into the realm of our health.

Margaret’s story begins in February 2013, when she was first introduced to the HERA Ovarian Cancer Foundation. While on a trip to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, one of her expedition members, Vaune Shelbourn, told the story of her friend Donna, who she lost in 2007 to ovarian cancer. The story stuck with Margaret; inspired by Vaune’s commitment to raising awareness about the disease, she decided to join Vaune’s fundraising team at HERA’s 2013 Boulder Climb4Life.

The stories she heard from women at the event had a powerful message, and what she walked away with was a small, yet pivotal, understanding of some of the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer. The Latin aphorism, knowledge is power, applies here. Because walking out of that 2013 Climb4Life with a small understanding of not only the often mysterious and hard-to-pin-down signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer, but also the first basic questions and requests to ask a doctor, were ultimately some of Margaret’s best defenses.

Being a patient in a doctor’s office is akin to being a student in front of a master. There is a natural order of deference to the one that holds the power. So being a patient asking the doctor to run a test, in this case the CA-125 blood test, can be a huge task and a nerve racking one. Sean Patrick, the founder of the HERA Foundation, often drew parallels between finding the inner confidence and empowerment to fight through a climb (despite personal doubts or outside elements) and assembling the wherewithal to take charge of your health—to ask questions and challenge the seemingly unshakable knowledge of a doctor. What this meant was not only being attentive to changes in your health, but also being your own advocate: doing your own research, asking questions, challenging doctors by saying why and, in this case, asking to have a test done.

While there is no perfect detection test, the CA-125 blood test is the only existing marker that might indicate ovarian cancer. And when Margaret noticed some unusual symptoms after this Climb4Life and had an appointment with her doctor, she asked for the test. It was scheduled for a few months later, after a summer of climbing; getting the test done immediately didn’t seem necessary. Her doctor had responded: “you’re the last person I’d expect to have ovarian cancer.”

But by October 2013, it was official; her symptoms had been from ovarian cancer. Margaret was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and received treatment.

When Margaret’s first Action Hero’s story was published in 2014 on HERA’s website, she had just finished her first round of chemotherapy—she thought it was the one and only.

But the cancer returned and she started another round of treatment. Then another. Now Margaret has a medical oncology team consisting of three to four principal doctors and a number of Fellows at one of the leading cancer hospitals in Canada, the Princess Margaret Cancer Hospital. She is on her third round of chemotherapy, which is administered almost weekly and has been for nine months. She gets three weeks of treatments, then has a week off when she flies to the Rockies to base herself in the mountains.  To date, she has received a total of 46 intravenous chemo infusions.

The lower dose weekly treatment allows her to maintain many of the most important aspects of her life: climbing, being in the mountains, playing with friends and spending time with her daughter, Carly.

“The day of, and after the chemo,” she says, “I feels like a limp tulip.” But then she regains her strength and continues on. “I do something everyday” she says, which is her way of not only keeping her body strong, but maintaining the things that have the most powerful healing aspects in her life: the mountains. Right now she is training for a trip to the French Alps—an hour of cycling, a yoga class, a long trek or a day of ice climbing is the norm. “I have this belief that our bodies are wise and will heal over time,” says Margaret. “…and I decided my body was going to work with chemo.”

Margaret notes misinformation and fear around chemo. “There are great anti-nausea meds, and you can maintain a high-functioning life,” she says. “I’m proud of what my body can do. Never underestimate it; your body is a miracle.”

Since getting into the mountains is such a huge piece of her healing, this was essential. And staying in shape to do so is a top priority. When she decided this, she said there was a bit of a switch. “I switched from feeling like I was surviving to feeling like I am thriving,” says Margaret.  “Life threw me a trunkful of lemons and I’m making the most flavorful, tasty, quenching lemonade of it, I can’t stop it’s so good.”

Margaret’s perennial optimism is contagious and overflowing. The message became less about a diagnosis and more about learning to love and appreciate the people and things in her life. There are sad days, yes, but there are no bad days. “Cancer is a word, not a sentence,” says Margaret.

Rather than battling, she accepts a certain co-habitation for the time being. “I don’t like this metaphor of fighting and winning and losing…I came to understand that it’s acceptance,” says Margaret.  “It’s getting up in the morning and meditating and saying, ‘what is the adventure today.’ I’m not surviving, I’m thriving.”

Words of Advice:

Take note:

When she was first diagnosed, Margaret’s appointment was 20 minutes long, but she missed the last 18 minutes that followed after the words, ‘ovarian cancer’. “So I started recording every appointment,” says Margaret. She takes her iPhone and records every conversation, so she can refer back and research more when needed.

Be your own advocate:

“A lot of women don’t have a voice,” says Margaret, “some are emotionally paralyzed or don’t have the confidence. I could see how easy it is to become passive and simply journey along with the medical team.”

Margaret takes advantage of her position to spread her story at Ovarian Cancer Canada Conferences and to medical students. She believes talking about, and sharing real-life stories is what leaves a lasting impact on people, much like the story of Donna left a lasting impact on her.

Talk:

Talk incessantly. Talk about signs and symptoms. Challenge yourself and especially your doctors. Do your own research and ask questions. Ask for second opinions. Be part of your own treatment team. Last, inspire others. “Storytelling has such power,” says Margaret. “ I remember two ladies talking about their stories at that 2013 Climb4Life. That’s what I remember. If they had just been talking about facts and stats, my eyes would have glazed over.”

On gratitude:

“I think if I hadn’t been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, that I would never have spent this much time in the mountains and stopped to really appreciate people in my life. People like Vaune. Without her story of Donna I would not be here; I have so much gratitude that the Universe decided we needed to be friends…Like my daughter: Vaune is my guardian angel.”

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