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Utah cancer survivor summits Kilimanjaro, celebrates life

OGDEN — As Molly Froerer stood at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and watched the sun coming up on the African savanna, she reminisced on another difficult climb in her life — the time she beat cancer.

At 35, Froerer was unsuspecting. She had three young kids and had just started a teaching job. During spring break in 2013, she asked a doctor about a bothersome lump in her breast that turned out to be stage 3 breast cancer, requiring quick action on her part.

"When you have cancer, you spend a lot of time worrying that you're going to die," she said Wednesday. "But you try to be as happy as you can while you do it."

Three years later, Froerer joined her doctor on a trip to Kilimanjaro last month to help locals there see that it is possible to survive the possibly fatal disease.

"They don't think it can be cured," said Dr. Brandon Fisher, a radiation oncologist at Ogden Regional Medical Center's Cancer Center. He said there is a less than 20 percent survival rate of cancer in some countries outside the United States.

There are more than 11 million cancer survivors in the U.S. and spreading the story of even one of them, Fisher said, "creates inspiration for those people who are basically handed a death sentence with cancer diagnosis."

Fisher is the founder of Radiating Hope, a cancer outreach group that aims to increase awareness of the disease but also of its many treatment options around the world. The organization raises money to repair, transport and set up radiation machines in countries in need.

Froerer and Fisher accompanied two such machines on their recent trip to western Tanzania, where they now have three machines for a population of 43 million people. Medical recommendations suggest one per 100,000 for proper handling of cancer, Fisher said.

Froerer lost both breasts to cancer, endured months of chemotherapy and then visited Ogden Regional for six weeks of TomoTherapy radiation — a fairly new type of radiation treatment that allows doctors to isolate cancer in areas of the body that contain soft tissue, without damaging that tissue.

Fisher says radiation is like the "mop," cleaning up whatever cancer cells and remnants thereof are left in the body following more rigorous surgery and chemo.

The procedure utilizes imaging technology and computer analyses to line up the body and send radiation through thousands of beams in a fluid dose to quickly obliterate any cancer.

Fisher said Froerer "was up against a pretty big wall" with a "tough cancer to beat." TomoTherapy was able to deliver a high dose of radiation to her chest wall and skin on the outside of reconstructive implants, but avoid her lungs, heart and spinal cord, decreasing toxicity and avoiding bothersome hot spots, as well as decreasing the chance of recurrent cancer.

She's now been disease-free for three years.

"You really do go through a lot when you have cancer," Froerer said.

Making it to the top of Africa's tallest peak and the world's largest free-standing mountain just proved to her that she many more reasons to live.

"I always thought I could do hard things," the now 38-year-old Eden resident said. "Cancer made me know that I could do hard things."

And while Kilimanjaro — a 16,001-foot dormant volcano, a 19,340-foot rise from sea level — isn't terribly difficult to hike, it is long and requires willpower and dedication, much the same as cancer, Froerer said.

"Cancer survivors are always changed," Fisher said, adding that it is often the ultimate "fight for their life."

On their recent trek, Fisher and Froerer carried Tibetan prayer flags containing the names or initials of cancer patients they know, a tradition six or seven years in the making for Fisher. The idea is that as each thread on the thinly woven flag is loosened and freed by the winds at the top of the world's mountain ranges, it results in a prayer offered for wellness, health and hope.

Fisher plans to conduct an official Tibetan prayer flag ceremony with the more than 1,000 flags he's collected over the years when his organization meets at Everest Base Camp in April next year. The public is invited to attend, with donations made to help Radiating Hope. More information can be found online at radiatinghope.org.

It was midnight when they left Barafu Camp, covering some steep terrain until the ironically sweet reward of sunrise on June 4.

"It was an experience of a lifetime," Froerer said. Being a cancer survivor, she said, has given her a new perspective, knowing "how fragile life is."

"You stand on that precipice," she said. "It changes you."

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards