Carl Hager felt intense relief and joy at the sight of his wife smiling as they hiked among cloud-covered granite cliffs and glaciers.
The change was like watching a rose blossom, he said. His wife, Marion, has been battling breast cancer and dealing with the effects of chemotherapy.
The helicopter-assisted hiking tour in Calgary, Alberta, was exactly what they needed.
"The biggest thing was that she felt good, being in the fresh air," Carl Hager said. "It was an exhilarating thing for her."
Thanks to the couple’s transforming experience, staff at a Scottsdale treatment center are offering a similar trip for other cancer patients.
After they returned, Marion Hager related her adventure to Sherry Zumbrunnen, a holistic nurse at the Virginia G. Piper Cancer Center at Scottsdale Healthcare. Hager had met other cancer patients also taking the tour as therapy and Zumbrunnen, an avid hiker, thought Hager was on to something.
So this year, the center is offering a heli-hiking tour in Calgary from Aug. 31 to Sept. 5. The trip, limited to 20 people, is open to cancer patients, their families and the public.
Heli-hiking tours are not cheap — the Hager’s trip cost more than $5,000. The trip offered by the cancer center is $2,055 per person based on double occupancy. Included are hotel fees, helicopter transportation and meals. Airfare and insurance are not included.
Buying one of the slots will also raise money for the hospital’s Patient Assistant Fund.
A contribution of $100 per person will be made to the fund by the travel agent and helicopter company servicing the tour.
Hikers will be flown via helicopter for brief outings to various national parks and other locations.
Zumbrunnen will be the primary guide for the trip and plans to explain local geology, wildlife and folklore to the hikers. She is an able hiker who trekked the Himalayas in 1999.
Depending on the situation, the trip might be the best investment a patient could make, she said.
The emotional darkness a person experiences when facing cancer can be overwhelming, and such an experience can make a person feel human again, Zumbrunnen said.
"It might be a time in somebody’s life, especially if they have cancer . . . that if they have the funds, it might be of benefit to them," Zumbrunnen said.
Marion Hager said the hikes will be tailor-made for each person according to age, condition and ability. Individuals who cannot do strenuous climbing will be flown to level hiking areas while others may be dropped off for hikes in steep or moderately steep areas.
She said chemotherapy has advanced over the years and doesn’t take as severe a toll on the body as it used to. As a result many patients, but not all, can be modestly active during treatment or engage in spirit-lifting outdoor activities.
"I wasn’t feeling the greatest, but I wasn’t feeling the worst either," Hager said. "The fact that I could go out there and do that made me feel so good."