two hikers stand on the top of silver peak near snoqualmie pass

Through Cancer, Covid, and Cancer Again, I Rediscovered Myself in Hiking

I looked down at my sweaty, dusty watch and did a quick calculation. We were closing in on eight and a half hours on our Rim-to-Rim hike in the Grand Canyon. Even though it had been seven months since I had hiked this far, I felt great. The adrenaline was flowing, and the stoke was high.

While two of my three hiking buddies lay on the ground at Indian Gardens resting, I told them that I was going to shoot for the moon and try to finish the 24-mile-long trek with 4,500 feet of elevation gain in an audacious 10 hours. 

a single hiker stands on the trail at artists pallet in death valley national park
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Here goes nothing, I thought to myself. I raced off along the flat bottom of the Grand Canyon, knowing that the switchbacking upper section of the Bright Angel Trail would torment me later on. (It did.) 

As it turned out, it took me a half hour longer than I wanted to complete those final 4.5 miles and 3,000 feet out of the Grand Canyon. As I was putting the finishing touches on the final switchbacks of the South Bright Angel Trail, looking exactly like you’d think after 24 hard miles, I felt myself relax. It all clicked in that moment: I was going to be okay.

Eight months before this hike, at the age of 26, I was diagnosed with gray zone lymphoma, a rare non-Hodgkins/Hodgkins combination of cancers that caused a 10-centimeter tumor to grow in my chest near my heart. Treatment started in December 2018, and at that time, I was living in a constant state of exhaustion

I had spent the previous six months conquering the beast. This Rim-to-Rim hike was a celebration that the battle was over and proof that I could still perform athletically at the level I did before my diagnosis. 

a person walk on the beaches in santa barbara during a crazy sunset.
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

At this point, 70 days past my final chemotherapy appointment, but still in the middle of radiation, what seemed impossible months earlier had actually become possible. I had spent months worrying that I wouldn’t be able to push my body as far as I used to.

I crested the canyon walls, exhausted beyond belief, and joined the swarm of tourists on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. Here, eyes darting around, looking for a bench to collapse onto, I felt more invigorated than I had in a while, knowing my old self hadn’t been lost in the chemo cocktails.

My family has always been outdoorsy. Road trips to national parks were a summer staple; We spent weekends and holidays hiking throughout our home state of Arizona and the rest of the southwest. Although my parents tried to instill in me and my brother the value of outdoor experience and adventure, I didn’t realize how much it meant to me until cancer temporarily took that away.

For the six weeks before treatment began, I was too tired to do much of anything. The fist-sized tumor sapped my energy, and simply walking upstairs at work was a chore. Even when we began to see signs that treatment was shrinking the cancerous tumor, my body was still not in shape to do the activities my mind wanted. 

I had to remind myself to start slow and build up. Initially, that meant 20 seconds of running followed by minutes of walking. Then, eventually, the running took over the walking. I still remember the first time I ran a full mile, a week after my third treatment. I was worn out, but elated.

During those 18 weeks of treatment and month of radiation, I looked for opportunities to venture outside.

I started with small hikes, 1 to 2 miles around the desert near my parent’s house, to clear my head and try to find some normalcy. I also started lightly jogging, trying my hardest to will my body back into shape. Then, two months into treatment, I did a pretty strenuous (especially for me) hike into the Superstition Mountains to photograph a snowstorm that had blanketed the peaks east of Phoenix. 

We started on the Carney Springs Trailhead, eventually ascending 1,500 feet in less than 2 miles. As you can imagine, there were a lot of breaks. Once hitting the pass and entering the basin, everything was white: new, fresh, calm. 

This was the most demanding hike I had accomplished since backpacking in Yosemite the prior October before treatments started. Still, to this day, I’m unsure how exactly I had enough energy and stamina to complete such a challenging hike with remnants of chemotherapy still coursing through my body. But it was all a precursor for what I had in mind four months later. 

Once I learned I was cancer-free, I doubled down. I was newly aware of how short life was and determined to pack as much into it as possible. In late May 2019, two months after I finished my treatment, I celebrated like any sane person does: Hiking across the Grand Canyon.

That summer, I went on to hike Mt. Whitney in one day, stayed up all night photographing the Milky Way over Sedona, solo backpacked Colorado’s Blue Lakes, and bagged Mt. Sneffels, a fourteener in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.

I became inseparable from my camera: The photos of forests, trails, and high, lonely peaks were tangible proof that cancer had been a speed bump on my journey, not the end of the road.

summit lake at sunset
Photography was a crucial outlet for Alec during his cancer journey. (Photo: Alec Sills-Trausch)

Nine months after my treatment ended, the Covid pandemic surged, setting off a series of lockdowns around the world. Along with millions of other people, I lost my job in the ensuing economic turmoil. Instead of trying to find a new one, though, I decided to embrace life away from the desk and head outside instead. 

I qualified for governmental income assistance that summer, using it as a safety net to pursue photography and writing full-time. Everything that happened to me between my cancer diagnosis and the beginning of the Covid onslaught made one thing very clear: In that moment, being outdoors, far from crowds, was the best thing I could do for my community and myself.

My brother and I embarked on a five-week road trip through Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, exploring sparsely visited locations and national parks. Some of the highlights were backpacking the rugged Wind River Range, bagging a summit in the Washington Cascades, experiencing Mount Rainier National Park for the first time, and getting a taste of the beauty of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. In all, we hiked over 270 miles. 

I kept shooting photos, and at some point, decided that what I had thought of as a detour in my career was what I actually wanted to do for a living. I wanted to inspire people to seek their own adventures and let others fighting their own struggles know that it’s okay to be vulnerable. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, and every hike and trip I took was proof.

As it turned out, that was a message I’d need to hang on to.

The author in the hospital in 2023. (Photo: Alec Sills-Trausch)

In the fall of 2022, the lymphoma returned. I had to undergo two more rounds of chemotherapy followed by a grueling stem cell transplant which included six more days of ultra-intensive chemotherapy that wiped out my entire immune system, leaving me in the hospital for 21 days total.

My parents and girlfriend spent another month after that nursing me back to health at home. For those first 90 days post-transplant, I barely had an immune system; I had to take extreme precautions to avoid catching the smallest bug. 

Today, eight months later, I’m again cancer-free, but the physical toll of the bone marrow transplant has pushed grueling adventures a bit further off—it will be a while before I hike from rim to rim again.

That’s not to say I’m not enjoying myself: My girlfriend and I tackled Iceland’s Ring Road in June under the midnight sun, hiking 75 miles in 10 days and returning with more memories than we can count. We enjoyed gorgeous waterfalls, the otherworldly Icelandic highlands, and mesmerizing coastlines.

That’s not to say our adventures were stress-free. There was always a piece of us that worried about getting sick in a foreign country and how my body would hold up with a go-go-go itinerary. Thankfully, everything worked out: We stayed healthy, and I felt like my old self through the miles and long days.

As good as I feel now, I also realize my ceiling will never quite be the same. That’s OK: The summits might be smaller, and the backpacking trips less intense, but the thrill of being in the wild surrounded by the scents and sounds of the world will carry me on. I will feel alive. Because that’s all I can ask for.

This article originally appeared on Backpacker.com

Author: Alec Sills-Trausch

Title: Founder of Explore with Alec

Expertise: Hiking, Backpacking, Photography, and Road Trips

Bio:

Alec Sills-Trausch is a hiker, backpacker, landscape photographer, and syndicated travel writer. He enjoys showing off the beauty of the world through his photos, videos, and written work on ExploreWithAlec.com. Alec is also a 2x cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, showing the world that there is a future from this terrible disease.

He lives in Washington, where he gets to enjoy the stunning PNW mountains in addition to all the other places he attempts to visit each year! You can see more work on IG at @AlecOutside