Cancer Survivor Lisa Thompson Is Aiming to Summit the Most Dangerous Mountain In the World
Thompson is currently a week into her climb up K2.
Lisa Thompson might be a world-renowned mountaineer today, but some of her first memories involve spending long days outside exploring the woods and cornfields in her home state of Illinois. It wasn't until she moved to Seattle in 2009 in her late 30s that she found an irrevocable love for climbing.
"Mountains are part of the culture here in Seattle," Thompson tells Shape. "But what really drew me to climbing was the fact that no one believed I could do it."
Finding Her Passion
As a short-statured Midwestern girl, it's no surprise that most people called Thompson's dream of becoming a climber just that-a dream. But she's never been someone to take no for an answer. "I don't look like a typical mountaineer," she says. "When I started working in Seattle, my coworkers would often go climbing on the weekends, but I was never asked to join because of how I looked and because of where I grew up. I'm so stubborn though, and that rejection led me to find climbing on my own." (Meet rock climbing champ Sasha DiGiulian, the first woman to conquer "Murder Wall".)
Thompson started by dabbling with some small mountains in the Cascades, one of the major mountain ranges of western North America. But it wasn't until she scaled Mount Rainier, the highest mountain in the Cascades, that she realized her passion for climbing was more than just proving a point.
"After Mount Rainier, I learned that climbing was something I really enjoyed," she says. "The idea of setting a big goal, literally and figuratively, and working really hard to accomplish it, was seriously appealing to me-and I knew there was no turning back."
Over the next six years, Thompson became a professional climber and scaled five of the world's highest peaks, while still maintaining her full-time corporate job. With each expedition, she learned confidence, resilience, and a plethora of other skills that shaped her into the person she is today. It was then that she felt ready to tackle the greatest mountain range on Earth, the Himalayas, in January 2015. "Climbing in the Himalayas had always been a dream of mine and I felt that I tested my body and mind enough to be ready for such a huge challenge," she says.
So, Thompson picked an 8,000-foot peak that she felt matched her talents as a climber and started gearing up for her trip to Nepal that August.
A Life-Changing Diagnosis
While prepping for her latest adventure, things took an unexpected turn. Thompson went in for a routine mammogram at 40, which detected an abnormality in her breasts.
"The words 'You have breast cancer' weren't words I ever thought I'd hear in my life," Thompson says. "Especially because I'm an athlete, I eat healthily, and I take really good care of my body. I just remember thinking: 'How could this be happening to me?'" (Related: 5 Simple Ways to Reduce Your Breast Cancer Risk)
After a series of tests, Thompson learned that she had a Stage 1 ductal carcinoma in situ. To treat it, she would be able to skip chemotherapy and/or radiation, but would need a bilateral mastectomy and several follow-up surgeries.
While the unexpected diagnosis came as a huge shock, Thompson decided she was going to attack this new obstacle in her life with a positive mindset. "It was one of those situations where my stubbornness really came in handy," she says. "I was determined not to let cancer dictate the trajectory of my life or shake my desire to reach my goals."
So Thompson found an amazing team of doctors who understood that while she was willing to do everything to treat her cancer, she was still going to do what she loved. In fact, her diagnosis pushed Thompson to reevaluate her priorities, allowing her to set her biggest goal yet: climbing Mount Everest. (Related: The First Female Climber to Summit Mount Everest Without Oxygen Is Going After a New Record)
"Climbing in the Himalayas was one thing, but I know that at some point in my life, I wanted to scale Everest," she says. "After my diagnosis, I wasn't sure what life might have in store and felt that if I was ever going to climb Everest, I should do it now," she says. So, over the next year, Thompson began simultaneously training for her climb and fighting her cancer, one surgery at a time.
Her Fight to the Top
Climbing Everest is one of the most grueling and physically demanding tasks in the world-so to do it while battling cancer is practically unheard of. (Related: Surviving Cancer Led This Woman On a Quest to Find Wellness)
After her mastectomy and three subsequent surgeries, Thompson found her energy at an all-time low. For weeks, she was bedridden, unable to lift her arms let alone train to scale the mightiest mountain on Earth.
Over the next few weeks, however, Thompson slowly began regaining her strength. Her doctors monitored her progress closely, clearing her to do simple exercises like walking on the treadmill as her body became stronger. Soon enough, she was cleared to go on her first run and was eventually able to go back to her regular training regimen.
Three weeks after her final cancer surgery in March 2016, Thompson made the decision to quit her corporate job and leave for Nepal to tackle her lifelong goal of climbing Mount Everest. (Related: Record-Breaking Mountaineer Bonita Norris Will Make You Want to Be a Badass Climber Too)
"Through treatments and surgeries, the things I learned as a climber are what really helped me get through that time in my life," she says. "Thanks to mountaineering, I chose to focus on what I could control, I surrounded myself with a strong team and kept moving forward even when I thought I couldn't. While I was fighting cancer, the mountains took on a broader meaning for me and I found tremendous healing in that."
Her Greatest Challenge Yet
Thompson's seriously impressive adventure to the summit of Mount Everest was two years ago now. She documented her incredible journey through Capturing Everest, an Emmy-nominated, immersive virtual reality documentary that debuted in May 2017. Today, she is cancer-free and has her eyes set on her most challenging goal yet: climbing K2, the second highest mountain in the world.
"K2 will be the biggest undertaking in my mountaineering career," Thompson says.
For those of you who might not be familiar with K2, it is a much more difficult and dangerous climb in comparison to Everest, in part because of its unpredictable weather. It also has a greater height from base to peak, making the climb more physically demanding. While 4,000 people have successfully scaled Everest, only 306 people have made it to the peak of K2.
"I know the demands of K2 and that's why I'm a total nerd when it comes to preparing," says Thompson, who recently partnered with SYSTANE Complete dry eye drops. "One of the first things to go for me during demanding climbs like this are my eyes-and knowing the weather on K2, it's imperative that I do everything in my power to keep my eyes from getting overly dry." (Did you know there's actually quite a bit you can learn about your overall health by looking at your eyes?)
On top of safeguarding her sight, Thompson has to prepare her body for the physical challenges it will face on the trip-something she is no stranger to. "I usually start training six months before a trip like this," she says. "I start by working on my cardiovascular capacity with low-intensity, high-volume work. For me, that means logging a lot of miles running both on trails and on the treadmill."
As she gets closer to the climb though, that's when Thompson starts focusing on building muscle. "Strength training becomes a major part of my routine a few months prior to a climb," she says. "That means lifting heavy weights and working on developing overall strength."
Then, in the weeks leading up to the climb, Thompson combines the two with the goal of maximizing her strength and endurance. "At this point, each workout will include at least a few hundred squats, lunges, and push-ups all with low weight," she says. "I'll also do several training climbs with weighted packs to help prep my body and mind for the actual thing."
Thompson is currently a week into her climb up K2. As it's one of the most unpredictable mountains on the planet, there's no telling what obstacles Thompson will face. But she hopes that if nothing else, her ambition to tackle such a treacherous peak will inspire women around the world to chase after their dreams and to never doubt their capabilities.
"My biggest goal with this adventure is to continue expanding my climbing experience and to learn more about myself spiritually," Thompson says. "Here's to hoping I'm able to succeed."
We have no doubt she will.