A pair of feet overlook a cliff, while a friend waves from the bottom

Free Falling

I have never considered myself someone who is afraid of heights. I love to go to the top of the tallest building around when visiting a new place and see the panorama below. I live in Chicago and have no trouble ascending to the highest floor of the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower and walking out onto the glass-floored lookout.

However, I have always been terrified of “free fall” situations. I detest roller-coasters because I can’t stand that moment when the bottom drops out. I have never wanted to skydive or bungee jump. I even hate water slides that drop suddenly!

Going out of my comfort zone for my cancerversary

On my 6th cancerversary, I traveled to Mexico for a family vacation and we decided to visit the ancient Mayan ruins of the city-state of Coba, located less than two hours away from where we were staying in Playa del Carmen. These ruins, dating back to 100 A.D., are dominated by a large pyramid that is 138 feet tall and was the heart of the ancient city. Of course, climbing this pyramid is the thing to do. It’s 120 steps — this doesn’t sound like a lot, but the steps are very, very steep, and seem much steeper going down than going up.

Climbing to new heights for a glimpse of the view

While I didn’t find going up overly challenging, once I turned around and looked down, it was a completely different story. You see, this was not exactly a safe descent from the top of a lookout. There were crumbling steps, no guardrails, and nothing to hold onto except a rope that was loosely anchored up and down the middle of the pyramid. I soon realized that using the rope would not work for me since many others were doing the same, and it jerked back and forth constantly.

I ended up scrambling down the pyramid in a crab-like fashion, scraping my left leg in the process. When I finally made it back to the bottom, random bystanders clapped along with the rest of my family (that’s how I knew it definitely wasn’t a graceful descent). Our guide ordered an “auto-rickshaw” (basically a bicycle with a seat for a passenger) to get me back to the tour van since my leg was bleeding from the scrape.

Completely wild, different experience

Was I proud that I climbed the pyramid? Oh yes! Would I do it again? No way! It veered a little too much into the “free fall” category that I don’t like. I have now realized that the potential for free fall is just as scary to me as certain gravity-defying drops. I looked down from that pyramid and could picture myself tumbling head over heels to the bottom; it was completely different from all other ascents via safe stairs or elevators to high spots I had make previously.

Lung cancer feels like a free fall

Why am I talking about this in an article on lung cancer though? After giving this experience a lot of thought, I realized that it was a perfect way to have celebrated 6 years of living with stage IV lung cancer. Being diagnosed was like being thrown into a free fall situation without a safety net.

Through learning about my diagnosis and getting involved in advocacy work, I took some control back over my life, giving me a way to deal with fearful heights in a more manageable way. I’m still here, 6 years later, maybe a little more damaged (“scraped leg”) than before, but still living and loving life.

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