“You have stage three breast cancer.” The shock hit Megan Pischke hard and fast as the words poured out of her doctor’s mouth—it just didn’t make sense. As a professional snowboarder, she was healthy and active, with a clean diet and rigorous training schedule. As a 10-year volunteer for the B4BC (Boarding for Breast Cancer) organization, she knew almost everything there was to know about breast cancer prevention. Yet there it was, a diagnosis that an estimated one in eight women will receive in her lifetime.
Pischke was diagnosed in 2012, ironically just one month after hosting a B4BC wellness retreat, and invited B4BC to film her experience from the first day of chemotherapy to her recovery for a feature film that will debut in January at the Winter X-Games in Aspen, Colorado. “Chasing Sunshine” is a rare look at what cancer treatment really looks like, following Pischke as she pursues both Western and non-traditional cancer care methods including cold cap therapy, which allowed her to keep her hair during treatment. Here, Pischke tells us what it was like when the cameras were rolling, and why she hopes this film will be seen by every young women in action sports.
You had worked with B4BC just a month before being diagnosed yourself—was working with them the catalyst to finding your own breast cancer or was that connection more coincidental?
I had a little bit of a soapbox with my pro snowboard career and always tried to share the importance of education and knowing your body. I really prided myself in that. I had just done my first surf retreat in Encinitas, California, and I was thrilled because I love surfing so much. So when I was diagnosed, it was a trip. But I had definitely taken my own advice—I had a lump in my breast that had been there for many years. I had had it ultrasounded throughout two pregnancies, but after I lost the baby weight after the second, I was like, “Wow, this lump is quite a bit bigger.”
Did you ever think you might be at risk for breast cancer?
No, actually, not at all, that was the furthest thing from my mind. I’m one of those people, maybe a bit naïve, in that I didn’t want to believe it was going to happen to me. I did have a grandmother on my father’s side who had breast and lung cancer. She was a smoker for so many years, so I attributed her cancer to that instead of putting that card in my deck.
After that initial shock of being diagnosed, what was the first thing you decided to do?
Oh, gosh. I honestly couldn’t see anything but that second. I was just like, “Holy sh*t, I’ve got two children. I need to live for them.” I definitely felt really armed and educated, that’s true, but when you find out you have stage three cancer, all of the sudden you’re having all of these statistics and numbers thrown at you. I was like, “No way, I refuse to believe that. I refuse to believe I’m not going to make it through this.” I cried a lot; it was honestly like a week later that I got out of the fog of fear and panic, and it was like I woke up. I said, “I can do this. I’ve trained for this moment my entire life.”
You ended up pursuing a mixture of traditional and non-traditional methods—can you tell me about some of them?
The stuff I was doing was complementing the Western approach, the chemotherapy and radiation and surgeries. I wanted to do all that; I believed in that. It was funny because I kept thinking, “I have stage three cancer, but I feel f*cking awesome!” But I knew this would break me down, so I wanted to do what I could to keep my immune system up, my spirits up, and my hopes up. I had a lot of things pushed at me, and pushed by the wayside by a regular oncologist who just didn’t believe in them. But reoccurance of breast cancer is ridiculously high, and I don’t ever want to be there again. So I rethought things like my diet—when you get done surgery, the hospital gives you Jello, salty broth, and crackers. That’s just zero vitamins and minerals to help your body heal. I did Vitamin C IVs, which are controversial, but I feel it really helped my immune system with having two little kids bringing home germs from kindergarten.
I didn’t even know that was an option, to be honest.
I didn’t either! I got needles and herbs from a Chinese doctor who really helped with the side effects, the nausea and constipation. It was overwhelming; there’s so much out there, but I listened to my doctors and picked and chose from people I trusted and had known for years. People saw me and were like, “I thought for sure you’d be going to the Amazon, drinking that special drink that they make there!”
Why did you decide to let B4BC film your entire journey and did you ever have a moment where you thought, OK, I want this to be private?
Well, it was just one guy and his camera, and he’s a good family friend. I started off just wanting to film the cold cap therapy I was doing, because no one had done it at this research center I was at. I wanted to film a bit on whether or not it worked for B4BC’s website, trying to keep my hair for chemotherapy. Then our friend started working for a production company and got this new camera, so he’d follow me around on my morning runs, chasing me around the woods practicing with the camera. All of the sudden we were capturing me just being me, going paddleboarding before my treatments and the imagery was so powerful and beautiful. It just went from there. There was no big intention; I never set out to make a movie because, you’re right, it’s insanely personal.
So why release it?
I would have people come up to me and say that they had a sister just like me, super healthy, and she didn’t make it. I would thank them for sharing that story but be sick with worry later. But that’s not my story. I decided I wanted to make my own story here. I don’t know how my story’s going to end up, and it’s hard to say that cancer is a good story or a gift, but I’ve had a lot of really, really incredible things happen to me because of it.
I know someone asked you this question about what life lesson this experience taught you and you didn’t have an answer, which I totally get since after a disease you aren’t just magically wise and all-knowing. So maybe instead I’ll ask you this: How are you feeling right now?
I feel really grounded and really happy. I’m totally ready to just own this story that’s going out to the world and move on with my life a little bit. I can’t close the door on it, but I’m comfortable with it. It doesn’t scare me anymore.
Watch the nine-minute special preview of the film now for a look at Pischke’s first day of chemotherapy:
Megan is partnering with the North Face to launch the Chasing Sunshine Project, which provides valuable content and wellness experiences that seek to improve the quality of life of everyone touched by breast cancer. To donate or find out more about “Chasing Sunshine,” check out chasingsunshineproject.org. Learn more about breast self-exams and preventing breast cancer at B4BC.org.
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