holly kapherr and husband in utah

The article’s author, Holly Kapherr, with her husband on the slopes in Utah. (Photo: Holly Kapherr)

Health + Fitness

How Learning to Ski Got Me Back on My Feet After Breast Cancer Treatment

One of my favorite conversation starters is to tell people that I spent three years at college in Utah and never learned to ski. It’s cold and wet. I’m a Floridian. Thank you, next.

But when I was diagnosed with Stage 1A breast cancer in 2018, I began reconsidering the things I’d never done and started making a mental list of the ones I wanted to try. Skiing was at the top. Faced with the finiteness of life, I vowed to embrace every possible moment — even the daunting ones.

And now, here I was: Hopping off the ski lift in Park City, Utah, at the top of the green-circle hill with my ski instructor — gearing up for my first lesson. The chair served me a little slap on the booty, urging me forward, as the mechanism spun it around to catch the next passenger. This time, the risk felt different. My life had changed forever prior to this trip. I wondered if my body could handle this kind of physical challenge after all it had been through.

Still, travel has always brought out the risk-taker in me. After all, I figured, what could go wrong? (Don’t answer that.)

A Reckoning

In Fiji, I was the first in our group to jump from the creaky, rusted-out ladder into the dark blue lagoon within the Sawa-I-Lau Caves and swim with our guide through the short underwater tunnel leading to a lightless, domed grotto within.

While visiting a Central American rainforest, I launched myself off an elevated wooden deck and down the longest zip line in Costa Rica. Sure, I’ll pay a random dude in St. Kitts five bucks to let his diapered, dubiously domesticated howler monkey sit on my head so local kids can gather and giggle at the silly American girl. Ride a bamboo raft held together with bungee ropes on a river in Jamaica? Sign me up.

Prior to my diagnosis, I was a healthy 34-year-old nonsmoker, healthy eater, moderate drinker, exercise lover who rarely went to the doctor except for the odd sinus infection. After my treatment — six rounds of chemotherapy and 19 rounds of radiation, plus surgery — I barely recognized myself. No eyebrows or eyelashes. Swollen, battered body. Broken heart.

I finished treatment in December. After six months of sitting on the couch, recovering from the side effects, I’d lost all muscle tone. I’d gained 30 pounds in just a few weeks from the steroids meant to calm the nausea and inflammation. I could barely get up off the floor from a seated position without help. But I was anxious to get back to my work as a travel writer, so when the opportunity came to visit Park City, I took it.

My body was still healing, and I’d only been to a few rehabilitation sessions with my personal trainer, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.

And I did. But it sucked — at first.

The  Challenge

On January 19, we took our first steps into the freshly fallen powder at Deer Valley Resort. The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend was in full swing, so the slopes were bustling. We started our first ski lesson, and within moments I felt a pang of regret. Skiing is hard. It required muscle strength I no longer possessed.

people skiing down a mountain slope in utah
Finding resolve on Utah’s slopes. (Photo: Holly Kapherr)

We practiced on flat snow for a few lengths before heading to the bunny slopes, filled with five-year-olds lining up for the “magic carpet.” My ankles, still bloated and swollen with water retention from medical inflammation and the long flight from Orlando, were screaming. Ski boots aren’t comfortable under normal circumstances, but as I plopped myself into the snow to watch my husband, Cliff (also a new skier), weave through the wobbly kids, I squeezed out a few tears and wished we were on the beach in St. Lucia instead.

My husband took to the sport like a penguin — effortlessly navigating other skiers, bobbing and weaving, finishing day one on the blue-square hills. Meanwhile, I groaned with relief after taking off my ski boots in the locker room, desperate to peel back the layers of clothing holding in my hot flashes — another side effect of chemically induced menopause to preserve my fertility during chemo.

What was I thinking? How do people think this is fun? I thought to myself as I settled into a seat at the bar with a glass of cabernet, anxious to wrap things up, turn in our gear (preferably forever) and get into a hot shower.

But on day two, the Park City tourism board booked us for a private lesson at Park City Mountain, the largest ski resort in the country. I buckled my boots, grabbed my poles and skis, and trudged — palpably unhappy — to where our instructor waited.

‘Okay, Maybe I Can Do This’

Before we even reached the spot where our lesson would begin, I felt defeated and exhausted. I hated skiing. I hated the snow. I hated the boots. I hated carrying around all the gear. I hated everything. I sat down on a bench and sobbed.

Cliff waited patiently while I completely and publicly melted down, softly encouraging me to get it together and start today fresh. Eventually, we took some deep breaths together. I mentally calculated the total price of the private lesson and how many dollars per minute I’d have to stay in my skis to make it worth it. I got up and moved forward.

Our instructor, a retired chemical engineer from Vermont, looked at us and asked how long we’d been skiing. “One day,” we said.

“Great! Let’s go,” he said. No bunny slope, no magic carpet metaphors, just wide-open white slope dotted with distant evergreens.

I skied further and faster in the five minutes it took to get to the ski lift than I had the entire previous day. The muscle memory in my legs, feet and arms recalled the previous day’s lesson, and the movements started to feel more natural. The cold air whipped around my neck and cooled the sweat beads forming from an impending hot flash. Okay, maybe I can do this, I thought.

couple on ski lift
Rising to the challenge. (Photo: Getty Images)

Once we settled into the ski lift to the green-circle hill, I relaxed and took in the vista. The Wasatch Range rose and fell in front of an ultramarine backdrop punctuated by puffy cumulus clouds. Pure white ski trails twisted through charcoal forests like a road map. Under our dangling legs, stunt skiers performed impossible flips and twists as they floated off a ramp and into the frosty air.

I said a quiet whoa-whoa-whoa to myself, as we left the lift and skied over to the top of a long, broad hill with a gentle grade. The vast whiteness lay ahead, but my body filled with adrenaline from the stunning lift views and the awe of our surroundings. I remembered the feelings of excitement and anticipation that travel brought me in the past — taking me out of my comfort zone and into a new version of myself.

I wasn’t the same person I was before my diagnosis; I was still reeling from the special brand of trauma cancer affords. But in that moment before I pushed off from the top of the hill, I felt the fear fall away and decided to go for it, just as I’d done dozens of times before in the face of new travel experiences.

My legs and arms propelled my body forward as our instructor called out gentle reminders to breathe, keep my head up and knees bent, and shift my weight right and left to turn and maneuver.

With every movement, the gratitude I felt for my body swelled. Even after being pumped full of life-saving poisons, shot with radioactive light beams, and fighting infection from new cancer cells, it could still learn and perform. Just a few weeks before, walking down the driveway to the mailbox left me winded. I had to nap after the exertion of taking a shower.

“I’m so proud of you,” Cliff said, as we took off our jackets at the end of our lesson, stuffed them into our lockers, and headed to the bar for well-earned burgers and spiked milkshakes.

I responded, “I’m so proud of me, too.”