Survivor Stories Down the San Juan River

Charting a Course through Breast Cancer

Claudia Foster in kayakClaudia Foster. I have run rapids before, but never ones like these. I have breast cancer. Two months ago, a phone call changed my river’s course. “Your biopsy was positive,” the detached, distant voice on the other end had said … and my kayak suddenly veered down an unknown tributary.

The red walls of the canyon loomed on either side of me. The sky darkened, and I steeled myself for an uncertain ride. I felt fine, yet I could hear the terrible rumble of the rapids ahead, and so I stiffened my body and set my oars. The canyon walls were steep, and I knew that these rapids I could not portage. “I can’t go around them; I have to go through them,” I instinctively whispered. There was no returning upriver … going back was not an option. Even with the roar in my ears, I couldn’t yet know if the rapids were going to be a Class 1 or a Class 5, a Stage IV.

But I had river guides. They knew the river. Surgeon, plastic surgeon, oncologist, oncology-radiologist … These were new words, and, at first, I didn’t even understand each specialty. So much to know and so little time to chart my course, yet my river guides know the river, and I’m not the first, nor the last, to gain from their experience. “Depending on the water level and the subtle relocation of rock, the rapids change with each person that runs them,” I was told. I listened. Intently. 

“Keep your eyes just three feet ahead of your boat,” they continued. “Imagine the smooth water ahead, but don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Know that there are friends downriver, below the rapids, watching for you, ready to celebrate with you, but keep your eyes focused on the water and not the rocks. The boat goes where your eyes go.”
I was “supposed” to be strong, to fight, to not give up, but there were nights when I just wanted to let go of the oars.In the month before the surgery, as tests were run and the massive rocks studied, some of the decisions were mine to make. The sage advice of my river guides was tantamount, but still I held the oars. No one could run the river for me. 

Claudia FosterClaudia Foster
It’s both a blessing and burden that there are so many options, especially with breast cancer, which can include reconstruction. There are many different channels you can choose to run between boulders.

For me, the worst was the month of decisions – Mastectomy or lumpectomy? Unilateral or bilateral? Silicone or saline? TRAM flap or LAT flap? My kayak and I would sometimes get caught up in eddies. I was “supposed” to be strong, to fight, to not give up, but there were nights when I just wanted to let go of the oars, to let the river have its way with me. I didn’t know it at the time, but for all the angst of anticipation, once the decisions were made and my course determined, the surgery and recovery would proceed with relative calm and grace. I’d straighten my boat, I’d set my oars, and I would keep my eyes three feet ahead of me, in line with the head of the rapids.

The undercurrent pulled me downriver toward surgery, steadily at first, then increasingly more intensely. There was no turning back. I was ready. I gripped my oars, and with a steady, firm pull, I became one with the river. I was excited now. There was no fear in it. My heart beat instead with excited anticipation, and I was glad to go through the rapids.

And then I was through. It was just a blip on the river, a fraction of a moment of time. I had skated through the boulders, just as we had charted it. In the blink of an eye, I had cleared them.

And, sure enough, my friends and family stood on the sandbar below, just as I hit flat, still water. What had been the water’s roar became the roar of them cheering. “All Grace and Glory,” one good friend said. “A Trooper,” according to my mom, who should know, since she’s one herself. “A Woman Warrior.” “Amazonian Women Warriors cut off their breasts to be better archers,” one friend said. And I can now count myself as one in a company of brave women who have faced the white, churning water. I hadn’t chosen this river course, but a soldier is no less a soldier for having been drafted.

There are more rapids, I know. Some might be quite large. But my boat is strong, and so am I. I have more support from more friends than I had ever known I had. And I have the compassion and wisdom of my river guides. They’ll be watching and will be there when I need them. My oncology team. My river guides.


Claudia Foster is a breast cancer survivor living in Escondido, CA.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2017.