Cancer Spells The End For Most, But Not For Renée Aziz Ahmad (Part 1 Of 2)

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.

Renée Aziz Ahmad, a cancer patient who does not allow the disease get the better of her.
Renée Aziz Ahmad, a picture of her cool, calm and collected self.
Image from Renée‘s personal album.

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.

At the peak of Mount Kinabalu.
Renée at the summit of Mount Kinabalu in 2000. It was the first mountain she had climbed.
Image courtesy of Renée and friends.

“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!

Renée's training regime after her chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments for cancer.
Strengthening sessions at the gym were crucial to enable Renée negotiate the challenges of mountain climbing.
Image courtesy of Renée and friends.

“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.

The experiences encountered at the expedition, as well as her struggles in overcoming cancer became the ideal first-hand source for motivational talks that were held at UEM and Toastmasters Club.

At the top of the Barranco Wall on the south side of Mount Kilimanjaro. Renée first expedition to raise cancer awareness.
At the top of the Barranco Wall on the south side of Mount Kilimanjaro. Renée was on her way to conquering the mountain in her campaign to create breast cancer awareness.
Image courtesy of Renée and friends.

“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.

On Africa's highest point, Renée summitted Mount Kilimanjaro in her quest to raise cancer awareness.
Pleased as punch! Renée at the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, a summit that held so much meaning for her.
Image courtesy of Renée and friends.

“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.

Mount Aconcagua in Argentina is the highest peak in the Americas Andes range is majestic at 6,961 metres, This is Renée's second expedition to raise cancer awareness.
A view of the highest point in the southern hemisphere, Mount Aconcagua.
Image courtesy of Renée and friends.

Mount Aconcagua in Argentina is the highest peak in the Americas Andes range. Majestic at 6,961 metres, it is a non-technical climb, an ascent that does not require ropes, axes and pins.

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.

Outside the tent at the foothills of Mount Aconcagua.
Renée standing at her camp, en route to her attempt in conquering Mount Aconcagua, kept the Malaysian flag flying high.
Image courtesy of Renée and friends.

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 base camp at Plaza Argentina
The route we took for Aconcagua starts in the Vacas Valley or Valley of the Cows. From here it’s three days walking to the base camp at Plaza Argentina at 4,200 metres. En route to base camp we passed through the Relinchos Valley where we had to wade across an ice cold river in our bare feet!
Image courtesy of Renée and friends.

“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.

Team members Captain Zabil Ihram Zainol and Stephanie Chok were the two who managed to climb higher than the rest on the Climb With Pride Aconcagua team, an expedition to raise cancer awareness.
Captain Zabil, left, and Stephanie, right; the two who attempted to go beyond Plaza Argentina.
Image courtesy of Renée and friends.

“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.”

Shereen and Renée at Plaza Francia, a glacier at Mount Aconcagua
A glacier at Mount Aconcagua, Plaza Francia. Shereen, left, and Renée, right, walked from Plaza Confluencia while waiting for the summit team to descend from Plaza de Mulas.
Image courtesy of Renée and friends.
Renée stands proud with Mount Aconcagua at the background, her team may not have reached the summit but the they succeeded in raising cancer awareness with a documentary and media coverage.
Renée stands proud with Mount Aconcagua in the background. “I was not allowed to summit but I am okay with that. I knew full well that it is for my own good. It is always about safety,” she said quite a-matter-of-factly.
Image courtesy of Renée and friends.

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.

A group photo of the Climb With Pride, Aconcagua team to raise cancer awareness.
From left to right: Andreas, their local guide, Shereen, Kabie, Stephanie, Renée and Carlos, their local guide.
Sitting: Captain Zabil. Another team member, Harun is not in the photo.
Image courtesy of Renée and friends.

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.

About Azlina ALI

Veteran journalist, wife, mother, with an ever burning passion to write and tell stories. Then throw in a dose of healthy diet and an active lifestyle, Azlina is a force to be reckoned with. She's a lean, mean storytelling machine.

6 Replies to “Cancer Spells The End For Most, But Not For Renée Aziz Ahmad (Part 1 Of 2)”

  1. I am Tahira I went to school with Renee in form 4 and 5 at Methodist girls school we did o levels we both had homes in federal hill my email is I would love for Renee to email me if she remembers me. We sat next to each other in class.I am so proud of her and happy to see her

  2. Pingback: Unfolding Renée's Cancer Journey (Part 2 Of 2) - Espoletta

  3. Such a lovely story of an amazing woman, her strength, determination and positivity. Always and inspiration Rene’e

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