How Cancer Survivor Edie Sundby Walked 1,600 Miles

Day 9 — Mis­sion Purisi­ma Vie­ja Ruins

Edie Sund­by is the only liv­ing per­son who has walked the 1600-mile Mis­sion Trail. This would be an impres­sive feat for any­one, but it’s even big­ger for a can­cer sur­vivor who was once giv­en three months to live. After being diag­nosed with stage IV gall­blad­der can­cer in 2007 and told she was out of options, Sund­by didn’t give up. Despite 0.9% odds of sur­vival, the 62-year-old for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent for Pacif­ic Bell in San Fran­cis­co is now thriving—and get­ting ready for her next adventure.

“For me, walk­ing is a tran­scen­dent phys­i­cal, emo­tion­al, and spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence, like danc­ing,” Sund­by says. “If I can move, I am not sick. That is my alter­nate real­i­ty. And I believe with all my will in that real­i­ty. So when can­cer strikes (or in the throes of bat­tle), I believe that if I walk I will live; when I stop, I die.”

We talked to Sund­by about one of the hard­est walks in the world and how she got through it despite the odds.

Day 17 — Ven­tu­ra Train

The Clymb: When were you diag­nosed with can­cer? What did the doc­tors tell you at the time? 
EDIE SUNDBY: I was diag­nosed with stage IV gall­blad­der can­cer in 2007. My twin daugh­ters had just grad­u­at­ed high school and were enrolled in their first year of col­lege. The can­cer had spread from my gall­blad­der to oth­er organs (liv­er, colon, bile duct, hepat­ic artery, por­tal vein, peri­toneum, throat, and neck), and then to my lungs. Gall­blad­der can­cer and pan­cre­at­ic can­cer are the two dead­liest can­cers and few­er than 2% of those who have them live for more than five years. Because my can­cer was so wide­spread, doc­tors in San Diego gave me less than three months to live and rec­om­mend­ed pal­lia­tive care over treatment.

The Clymb: At that point, did you start any form of treatment? 
ES: I found Dr. George Fish­er at Stan­ford Can­cer Cen­ter who imme­di­ate­ly start­ed me on aggres­sive chemother­a­py. It took 5.5 years and 79 rounds of chemother­a­py (almost one mil­lion mil­ligrams) to sub­due the cancer—plus intense radi­a­tion, rad­i­cal liv­er surgery, and the loss of my right lung.

Day 33 — Sier­ra El Prin­ci­pio foothills to Ran­cho La Her­radu­ra 22

The Clymb: Were you an active per­son before your diagnosis? 
ES: I was arro­gant­ly healthy. I had prac­ticed and taught yoga for twen­ty years, and trained at a gym four days a week for years before diag­no­sis. While I was not out­doorsy, I was very phys­i­cal­ly fit from yoga and weight training.

The Clymb: When did you decide you were going to hike the Cal­i­for­nia wilder­ness? Was this some­thing that came up dur­ing treat­ment or some­thing you decid­ed after? 
ES: I start­ed walk­ing the canyons around San Diego dur­ing can­cer treat­ment, to cope with the effects of chemo, and to con­trol fear and anx­i­ety. I was so phys­i­cal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly deplet­ed after almost six years of con­tin­u­ous can­cer treat­ment, and after los­ing my right lung I was so grate­ful and thank­ful to be alive that all I want­ed to do was walk, con­nect with God, and feel the incred­i­ble joy of being alive. Then, six months after los­ing my right lung, I walked the 800 mile El Camino Real mis­sion trail from San Diego to Sono­ma, aver­ag­ing 14.5 miles a day for 55 days. When I got to the end of the trail in Sono­ma, I didn’t want to stop walking.

Day 34 — Ran­cho La Her­radu­ra to Desert Camp 26

The Clymb: You split the walk into two parts—800 miles through the Cal­i­for­nia Wilder­ness, and then an addi­tion­al 800 miles through North­ern Mex­i­co to the Cal­i­for­nia bor­der. Why did you choose these two trails? 
ES: The El Camino Real de las Cal­i­for­nias mis­sion trail stretch­es 1,600 miles from Lore­to Mex­i­co to Sono­ma Cal­i­for­nia. I walked the Cal­i­for­nia por­tion in 2013; when can­cer returned in my remain­ing left lung two years lat­er, I walked the first half, from Lore­to Mex­i­co to the Cal­i­for­nia bor­der. I chose to walk the El Camino Real de las Cal­i­for­nias mis­sion trail because it is true wilder­ness and no one in his­to­ry had walked the entire 1,600 mile trail.

The Clymb: Your sec­ond walk through North­ern Mex­i­co is one of the tough­est in the west­ern hemi­sphere. Can you tell us about it and the phys­i­cal demands of it? 
ES: The El Camino Real de las Cal­i­for­nias mis­sion trail extends 1,600 miles through the moun­tain wilder­ness of Baja Mex­i­co and the Sono­ran Desert to North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. I expe­ri­enced desert heat and cold, walls of cac­tus, sleep­less­ness, hunger, both phys­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al exhaus­tion, the dan­gers of wild crea­tures, encoun­ters with drug smug­glers, and weeks with no water oth­er than what a pack mule could car­ry. I was accom­pa­nied by vaque­ros (Mex­i­can cow­boys) who kept me safe and guid­ed me through the cac­tus and through the desert, over the moun­tains and helped me find the old Jesuit and Fran­cis­can trail.

Day 50 – Val­ladares to Ran­cho El Coy­ote 11, Valladares

The Clymb: How long did it take you to walk each trail? 
ES: It took two months to walk 800 miles from San Diego to Sono­ma and two months to walk the 800 miles from Lore­to Mex­i­co to the Cal­i­for­nia border.

The Clymb: What went into the prepa­ra­tion for these walks? 
ES: Cal­i­for­nia was a much dif­fer­ent walk than Mex­i­co. In Cal­i­for­nia, there were places to buy food and water, to eat and sleep. In Mex­i­co, there was noth­ing but wilder­ness for hun­dreds of miles. Remote, prim­i­tive ran­chos where I could occa­sion­al­ly buy tor­tillas and dried beef are scat­tered along the old mis­sion trail in Mex­i­co, and I car­ried dried pack­aged food on a pack mule, plus water. I slept in a tent in the desert, on soft sand, or on sweaty mule blan­kets. Some­times at a ran­cho, I would sleep on a mat­tress or boards on con­crete blocks ele­vat­ed a few inch­es above the ground, for pro­tec­tion against crawl­ing desert crea­tures like scor­pi­ons, giant cen­tipedes, and rattlesnakes.

The Clymb: What’s the biggest chal­lenge of attempt­ing such a long walk? Is it men­tal, like bore­dom or want­i­ng to give up? Or is it phys­i­cal exhaus­tion and discomfort?
ES: There is nev­er, ever bore­dom on a long walk. It is the most tran­scen­dent expe­ri­ence imag­in­able, and the most heal­ing. “Walk­ing is the best med­i­cine,” declared Hip­pocrates. Indeed, it is. I can hard­ly wait to take anoth­er long walk—and can bare­ly think of any­thing else.