What does it take to climb the highest mountain in the continents of Africa, South America and Europe? Guts, grit and gumption! Packed in a 150 centimetre frame, Renée Aziz Ahmad is, in a nutshell the epitome of determination. Her cancer journey has been, for want of a better word, colourful.
Engineer, Outdoor Enthusiast, Sister, Friend
Renée was very much your “Average Jane”. A degree in Civil Engineering was her foothold to a career in highway design; eventually progressing into a senior managerial position in maintenance and development. Like most of us, work and ensuing responsibilities kept her busy in her thirties. In the year 2000, Renée thought it a novel idea to welcome the millennium with one great mountain adventure: to climb Mount Kinabalu.
“I wouldn’t say that it had sparked any desire to climb other mountains,” she cheekily recalls when asked about her first mountain expedition.RENÉE AZIZ AHMAD, quashing the expectation it had inspired her in any way!
The Breast Cancer Diagnosis
A year later Renée faced another uphill climb. She was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in 2001. Yet it wasn’t as if the world had collapsed around her. Renée remained composed and sought the necessary progression of treatment.
“I believe in taking one small step at a time rather than be overwhelmed by the entire situation. I concentrated on getting through each of the eight cycles of chemotherapy. My goal was to remain focused on completing the whole course with as few problems as possible,” Renée recalled.
As if coping with chemotherapy and radiotherapy was not enough, regaining her life and physical self was yet another battle.
“I had gained a tremendous amount of weight. Eventually it turned out to be an even bigger issue than losing my breast through mastectomy,” she said in that unmistakable Renée humour.
The First Expedition: Setting The Groundwork For Her Cancer Awareness Campaign
Had it not been for the UEM Mount Kilimanjaro Expedition in 2005, Renée would probably have taken a great deal longer to battle with her weight. Her colleagues then, Zulkifli Kamarolzaman and Khairul Ariffin Ibrahim (or Kabie for short) invited her to join their adventure. They had set their sights on conquering Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania. At 5,895 metres, this is the highest mountain in Africa.
Renée engaged a personal trainer to keep her on an intensive training programme and only then did her gym sessions literally take shape!
“I guess I needed that focused goal. Subsequent weight loss was incidental! I worked on gaining strength to undertake the trekking with a weighted load,” she recalled.
The UEM Mount Kilimanjaro Expedition was the first of many journeys towards her cancer awareness campaign. This is her cause. This is her story, Renée is all about supporting and encouraging cancer survivors and patients.
Cancer Does Not Spell The End
“To me, if you’re going to worry about how long you have, you’ll miss out a lot of things in life. Do whatever you can to live the life you have,” Renée adamantly believes.
“Sitting atop Mount Kilimanjaro, I felt as if I could do just about anything. I held a momentary sense of being invincible! Energised, exhilarated and invigorated,” Renée smiled, momentarily reminiscing her moment on the African peak.
“Mum passed away just days before I left for Mount Kilimanjaro. You can imagine then that it was an emotional journey for me in every sense of the word.”Renée Aziz Ahmad, after she conquered mount Kilimanjaro
The Next Plan Of Action
Renée found herself asking, what was next? Where do we go from here?
“Aconcagua seemed a natural progression! A book entitled, ‘Climb Against The Odds: Celebrating Survival On The Mountains’ by The Breast Cancer Fund with Mary Papenfuss became my source of inspiration. My friend Kabie then helped me prepare a proposal to the Pride Foundation (now known as the Breast Cancer Foundation) for the Climb With Pride Aconcagua Expedition. The expedition was scheduled for January 2007,” she recounted.
The challenge is in overcoming acute mountain sickness (AMS). This was the cause of many failed attempts on the mountain. Unfortunately this was experienced by Renée and six-member team comprising Khairul Ariffin Ibrahim, Captain Zabil Ihram Zainol, Shereen Effendy Lee, Harun Rahman, Brad Clement and Stephanie Chok. The base camp at Plaza Argentina is at 4,200 metres; already an elevation that was as high as Mount Kinabalu. Unfortunately the team could only train up to that altitude as there were insufficient funds for them to seek higher climbs.
The Ascent To Mount Aconcagua Explained
“I only got to base camp at Plaza Argentina. The guides felt that I would not make good time to get through safely. They were incredibly experienced and they knew what was best for you. Of course I had a short cry of disappointment.”
Renée smiled with a twinkle in her eyes, with a look that said, “You should know me better than to expect me not to!”
She then explained the route that was planned.
“From Plaza Argentina, climbers move progressively higher up the mountain through a series of three camps. The elevation at Camp Three is 5,974 metres. This is the base where climbers begin their push for the summit. They will have to trek through the Canaleta, a steep rock-strewn gulley often covered in thick snow and ice.”
“This is the Normal Route or Ruta Normal. There are other more technical routes. For our expedition we chose the Normal Route combined with a traverse that comes down through Plaza de Mulas and out through the Horcones Valley and Plaza Confluencia,” Renée said.
“The summit push is long and arduous. It entails an elevation gain of almost 1,000 metres to reach the summit at 6,961 metres. This is the highest point in the southern hemisphere,” she added.
Success Is Not Just At The Summit
Only two of the team members experienced the traverse and Plaza de Mulas. The rest of the team went back to Los Penitentes through the Vacas Valley. They were driven to Plaza Confluencia, spending a night there as they waited for Captain Zabil and Stephanie to rejoin the team.
“I believe it is a harder and braver thing to stop and recognise that you have reached your limit. It doesn’t matter if you don’t summit, even if you are just an hour away. More importantly you have come away from the adventure safely.”
Mission Accomplished… A Documentary On Cancer Awareness
Disappointed yet proud. Attempting to conquer Mount Aconcagua is a feat in itself. The team’s primary objective to create cancer awareness was achieved. A two-hour documentary, Climb With Pride Aconcagua Expedition was aired by ASTRO television. It was a collaboration of footage from team members Brad Clement and Harun Rahman of Nuvista Media. Brad is a filmmaker at Spindrift Films and had joined the team from Boulder, Colorado USA. That they also garnered media coverage in Argentina was indeed a bonus.
What Would You Do If You Got Hit With A Second Diagnosis Of Cancer?
Just as Renée was soaking up her double success of conquering both cancer and Aconcagua, she was thrown another curve ball. It was a second diagnosis of cancer. Unfortunately for Renée, lightning did strike twice, a stern reminder that with cancer, there is every likelihood of a recurrence. Reality is often less predictable than a mathematically derived odds.
Does this spell the end of Renée’s journey? Will she throw in the towel and simply play the hand that life had dealt her? Or will she fight back and triumph again for the second time? Stay with us for the next episode, where we will dive into Renée’s battle with cancer… again…
The Breast Cancer Foundation is a ready source of support for survivors and patients to continue to live their best life. Do visit their website for more information.