Anne Mandeville Long
Anne Mandeville Long

To the Highest Heights
Tuesday, August 16
In and out of the blazing sun and cool, dark rainforest, we are trekking to an Incan city carved into a mountaintop. Our feet will take us on a 3,200-foot vertical climb over 11 miles in eight hours.

We are taking the last of our 28,000 steps on the trail. The cliff-hanging, cling-to-the-mountain part of our hike has passed, when we wondered if one misstep might have been our last. The last 30 minutes have been quiet, reflective and apprehensive. Our team has trained and raised funds for over six months for this moment. This team is comprised of one doctor, two nurses, two oncology coordinators, four patients, a Takeda representative and others connected to multiple myeloma, including my husband and me who lost my sister to the disease in 2012. We are all ages and skill levels, brought together by a common goal: to celebrate life and contribute to new discoveries in the field of cancer research. Like Hiram Bingham, we are on a quest, powerfully motivated and uniquely personal. We have our own reasons for raising the funds for cancer research. But today, we step together. Together we have raised both $150,000 and immeasurable public awareness. We are reminded of the seemingly inconsequential gesture of the young Andean boy who took Bingham by the hand and showed him his playground; now known as the lost city of Machu Picchu.

Our final path on the trail has been mostly shaded, dark and moist with lush tree ferns, towering sub-tropical trees, and rare orchids. Our experienced guide, Javier — a bit over 5 feet tall with mocha-colored skin with a bright white smile — informs us we must rest and catch our breath before the final ascent. Perhaps he understands that we will need to gather our strength and to prepare for the upcoming indescribable experience.

After snacks, water and some animated Inca storytelling from Javier, we sling our orange Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma backpacks onto our backs. Hand over hand, we climb the 50 steep Inca stones, appropriately named the Crying Steps. The air is thin; labored breathing is audible. One by one, we reach the top step and breathlessly pass through a small, stone doorway, intended to keep out the enemy. Now, we welcome one another with much cheering and camaraderie. Love and admiration for each other grows among us.

Presently, we are following the trail back into the sub-tropical environment. As we gain elevation, the cobblestone path is wider and more intentionally set. I look up.

A stunning late afternoon light emanates from an opening at the crest of the hill. Again, my breathing is labored, a mixture now of the high altitude and a rush of adrenaline. I am approaching the famous Sun Gate. When at last I reach the top and turn toward the light, it is blinding. I am blinking tears from my eyes to see what the Incas pilgrimaged to experience. Carved into the pinnacle of a craggy mountain is an organized collection of stones. A sublime kaleidoscope of man and nature at work. A city abandoned and given back to the Gods, only to be reclaimed years later.

My sister Lisa was an adventurer. Multiple myeloma took her life, but her spirit shines in me and all the other lives she touched. It's crazy to say, but her death has opened up my life in ways I never dreamed. Because of Lisa, my husband Robert and I have become endurance athletes and, now, high altitude trekkers. So far, we have raised $13,200 to move this mountain of Machu Picchu with a goal still of $15,000. And we have our sights on other goals like climbing Kilimanjaro and Mount Fuji. Our healing has been in running, and now I can add hiking to the list. Thanks to CURE, Takeda Oncology and the MMRF, Robert and I have transformed our lives.

At the Sun Gate, as my vision clears, it dawns on me that Machu Picchu, with its brilliant green terraces and perfectly placed stone blocks, towering above a threatening jungle, represents human achievement overcoming adversity.

How do I best honor Lisa? Carry her adventurer spirit to the highest heights and keep on bringing awareness and the necessary funds for others not only to live but to soar to their own greatest heights.
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