Fighting stage IV cancer inspired Edie Littlefield Sundby to become the first person to walk the entire El Camino Real trail in the last 250 years.
Photo: Edie Littlefield Sundby
Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I was arrogantly healthy. I did yoga religiously, I went to the gym, I walked, I ate only organic food. But cancer doesn't care how often you lift weights or hold the whipped cream.
In 2007, I was diagnosed with stage IV cancer that affected eight of my organs and was given a few months to live. My life insurance paid me 50 percent of my premium within three weeks; that's how fast I was dying. I was stunned at the state of my health—anyone would be—but I wanted to fight for my life. Over five and a half years I had 79 rounds of chemo, intensive radiation, and four major surgeries. I'd lost 60 percent of my liver and a lung. I almost died so many times along the way.
I've always believed it's important to take care of your body physically, emotionally, and spiritually. My whole life I've always wanted to stay moving.
When I went into remission in 2013, I had to do something to heal physically, spiritually, and emotionally. (Related: I Tried Spiritual Healing In India—and It Was Nothing Like I Expected) I wanted it to be something wild and crazy and ridiculous. I'd been walking along parts of the El Camino Real mission trail near my home in San Diego, and had the idea to try to walk the 800 miles north along the trail from San Diego to Sonoma. When you're walking, life slows down. And when you have a life-threatening disease, that's exactly what you want. It took me 55 days to reach Sonoma, taking the walk one day at a time.
When I returned home, I found out the cancer had returned in my remaining lung, but I didn't want to stop walking. Coming face to face with my own mortality yet again made me that much more eager to get out and live—so I decided to keep going. I knew that the Old Mission Trail didn't start in San Diego; it actually began in Loreto, Mexico. No one had walked the entire 1,600-mile trail in 250 years, and I wanted to try.
So I headed south and walked the remaining 800 miles with the help of 20 different vaqueros (local horseback riders) who each knew a different section of the trail. The California portion of the trail had been brutal, but the second half was even more unforgiving. We faced dangers every hour of every day. That's what the wilderness is: mountain lions, rattlesnakes, giant centipedes, wild burros. When we got within four or five hundred miles of San Diego, the vaqueros were very concerned about narcos (drug dealers), who will kill you for nothing. But I knew I'd rather be taking risks in the wild west than boxed up in my house. It's in dealing with fears that we're able to overcome them, and I realized I'd rather be out there having a narco kill me than cancer. (Related: 4 Reasons Why Adventure Travel Is Worth Your PTO)
Walking the mission trail in Mexico did to the outside of my body what cancer did to the inside. I was really beaten up. But getting through that hell helped me learn that I was in control of my fear. I've had to learn to surrender and accept whatever may come, knowing I have the capacity to deal with it. I've learned being fearless doesn't mean that you never have fear, but rather that you aren't afraid to face it. Now when I go back to the Stanford Cancer Center every three months, I'm ready to face whatever happens. I was supposed to die 10 years ago. Every day is a bonus.
Read Edie's account of her 1,600-mile journey in her new book The Mission Walker, available July 25.