When Ivy Miles reached the 14,000-foot summit in Colorado earlier this summer, the view just took her breath away.
As the mountainous landscape dwindled in the distance below, Miles could look back and see just how far she’d come.
But the physical terrain of the Rockies, challenging as it was, was a mere foothill compared to the feat of endurance she already had completed: beating breast cancer.
Miles, a Fort Atkinson yoga instructor, celebrated her three-year milestone of being cancer-free just a few months ago.
A history of breast cancer runs in Miles’ family. Her mother died of the disease in 2012 — the same aggressive form with which Miles later was diagnosed.
Miles always will remember her mother’s deathbed plea, exhorting her to advocate for women with cancer.
“It was two days before she passed,” Miles recalled.
She had been guiding her mother through yoga breathwork designed to relax her and minimize her pain.
Her mom pulled her close and said, “Now this is really important. You have to help women with cancer.”
Eager to put her mother’s concerns at rest, Miles assured her she would.
But that promise took second priority as she worked through her own sense of grief and loss at her mother’s passing.
Then, a year-and-a-half after her mother had died, Miles herself was diagnosed with the same cancer. She had been very vigilant about checking for signs, but this still snuck up on her.
Miles had been feeling something was wrong, but she wasn’t sure what. Divine intervention, she said, led her to go to the doctor to get her vague concerns checked out.
She was in the midst of refinancing her home, signing an entire slew of papers, when she realized her address had been typed wrong on the reports. Instead of her real street name, page after page read “Cancer Court.”
The bank representative assured her it was an unfortunate typo, but seeing that word in black and white provided all of the motivation Miles needed to send her to the doctor.
And lo and behold, when she went in, she was found to have five tumors, three in her breast and two that had spread to nearby lymph nodes.
With this news in hand, she went straight to the emergency room, where she was diagnosed with ER/PR/HER-2, a fast-growing type of hormone-receptive breast cancer that feeds off the estrogen and progesterone already in the body.
“They had me in the chemo chair within 10 days,” Miles said.
Although she was not happy to have the same type of cancer that claimed her mother, Miles said she did feel fortunate about all of the recent studies that allowed doctors to target this cancer better than ever before.
That was the end of December 2013.
Miles endured three months of chemotherapy, underwent a double mastectomy, and then received three more months of a different type of chemotherapy.
Additionally, she was prescribed a target drug for 13 months, for which a port was inserted.
She received radiation every day for six weeks, and then began reconstructive surgery.
Miles ran into a number of complications related to breast reconstruction. She endured three infections and the entire reconstuction job had to be redone using a different technique.
All in all, she underwent two-and-a-half years of treatments and surgeries. When all was said and done, the cancer was gone — but her prognosis still was not good.
Doctors warned her that there was a likelihood this type of cancer would return within three years.
However, Miles passed that three-year mark a few months ago and all is looking good.
Meanwhile, it has been a long road to regaining her strength and energy.
As an independent fitness and yoga instructor, she was hit particularly hard because if she wasn’t working, she wasn’t earning money. Yet, the physical demands of her job were far greater than they’d be for a desk-jockey.
“The treatments were so wicked, so depleting,” Miles recalled.
Yet, she was determined to give herself every advantage, committing to become as strong as she could be so she could better fight the cancer.
She started to read up on optimal nutrition for cancer patients, and she worked on her certification to do breast cancer therapy through yoga.
“That gave me purpose,” she said. “I had to learn how to help myself and others move through cancer.”
Previously, as a fitness and yoga instructor, she had focused primarily on people’s physical health. Her cancer experience made her much more cognizant of the mental, emotional and spiritual aspects to wellness and she became more holistic in her practice.
“When I was sick, I had to sit down and look at myself like one of my clients,” she said.
Finally, her years of treatment and recovery paid off and she began slowly to regain her physical strength.
And having beaten cancer gave her an emotional fortitude she had not had before.
Miles admits that she’d always been “terrified” of heights, but as she recovered from cancer, she determined she had the strength to climb a different kind of mountain.
“I thought I’d start slowly — maybe just do a beginner climb right away,” Miles said.
“I’d never done anything like that before. Part of this was about releasing the fear I had of heights — I’d been working on letting that go.”
Both of Miles’ children live out west and love hiking, climbing and generally exploring nature.
So Miles brought up the idea of climbing a “14-er” (peak with an elevation at or above 14,000 feet) to her daughter, Alyssa.
She was thinking more along the lines of “someday” than “immediately.”
However, it wasn’t long before her daughter invited her on a Class II climb on Mount Democrat, with an elevation of 14,155 feet, and Miles took her daughter up on the challenge.
“It was a difficult climb,” Miles said. “I didn’t know the terrain, and it was covered with scree (a mass of loose stones that cover a slope) and talus (larger rocks that accumulate at the bottom of a slope).”
Miles said her daughter is very fit and was set to take the climb at a good clip, but for Miles, slow and steady was the way to go.
The climb was immensely challenging, but she took it foot by foot, yard by yard, until all of a sudden she was at the summit. She had been so focused that her fear of heights hadn’t even caught up with her.
Then, when she did think about how high up she was, she thought, “Compared to what I’ve been through, this is nothing.”
At the summit, the family paused to take in the immense scope of the climb they’d already made. The mountains unfolded around their feet like crinkled paper, the paths they’d traversed early on no more than tiny lines on maps, some hidden all together.
They could see from horizon to horizon, the peaks on all sides flattened and minimized by distance. It almost felt like flying.
“It was such a wonderful representation of how far I’ve come,” Miles said.
The way down presented its own challenges. For one, climbing down is harder on the knees than an uphill climb, and heading down, it’s easier to slip and pitch over.
At one point, that’s just what happened to Miles. She lost her footing on the scree, and the pack of water and other supplies she was carrying on her back shifted, throwing her forward and down.
“I tumbled down on the rocks, but I was still OK with it,” she said. “I was more afraid of knocking the rocks into someone else.”
Once she stabilized, she took a break to catch her breath again, then continued on. No great fear weighed her down. It felt manageable.
“The whole trip was my way of finding inspiration,” Miles said.
“I work with so many women who have been told they can’t do this or that,” Miles said. “That’s not true. There is always a way to give yourself the tools to achieve what you want to — not just to exist, but to thrive, with love and purpose.”
Another way Miles has found purpose since her own breast cancer experience was by returning to her mother’s advice and becoming an advocate for others.
She started a “Pink Warrior” program through her yoga studio that seeks to address the needs of women with breast cancer ... not just their physical needs, through exercise and nutrition, but whatever tools they need to thrive.
She has made herself available to her “pink warriors” 24/7, as she knows just having someone to talk to is key for putting fears at rest.
The program is supported by funds generated by the Karma program at the Fort Atkinson Farmers Market and through the sale of mala necklaces she makes herself.
“Healing takes a long time,” Miles said. “It’s like going up that mountain. You have to take it slow, breathe, and carry on, knowing that if you stay on this path, you will get stronger.”
Speaking of cancer, Miles said, “I didn’t expect to have to climb that mountain, but I could. I had to find the strength within myself.”
Miles said that having cancer has given her a different perspective on life as a whole.
Certain issues that seemed big at one time (like her fear of heights) have shrunk down to size, while what’s truly important in life (friends, family, and finding joy in everyday experience) has risen to its rightful place.
Along the way, Miles said, she has been so grateful to her wonderful support system — her husband Brant; her children, Alyssa and Nathan; the colleagues who supported her during her illness, like Dr. Sheila Kozler of Thrive Psychology, who organized a fundraiser to help Miles get through her double mastectomy; and her clients at Ivy’s Holistic Arts, who have been so supportive throughout and have become like a second family.
“I feel like I have really found the right place for me,” she said. “The community of Fort Atkinson has been really wonderful, and I want to give back to the community that has supported me so well.”