An inspirational journey to the top of Africa: Ann Dowley Spillane embracing a life of challenge with a dream team and fighting cancer.
“Heart pounding and lungs screaming - Purple Mountain was the finish of me - but it was also the beginning”… Anne Dowley Spillane couldn’t make it to the top of Purple Mountain when she travelled down to Killarney, County Kerry, for a training weekend with the ‘Dream Team’. The team of eleven hardy souls were heading to Kilimanjaro later in the year, to raise funds and awareness for The Girls Club, a cancer support group and drop-in-centre, run by volunteers in Cork.
After being diagnosed with inoperable cervical cancer in 2010; Anne had never intended climbing Kilimanjaro with the rest of the team but she was going along as part of the support crew and had turned up to support them during their training in Kerry. However something happened when she was forced to turn back on the beautiful but steep ‘Purple Mountain’ - named for the lavender hue of its rocky slopes. Hobbling back down into the Gap of Dunloe while the rest of the team pushed ahead up the mountain, Ann decided to walk The Gap. Striding out past the lakes and through the Black Valley, sweating in the heat of the sun; a stubborn determination kicked in. She refused help from the passing Jarveys driving their horse-and-traps and kept on walking, right to the end of the valley and back. On this day, the Black Valley was Anne’s Purple Mountain, it was her Kilimanjaro, it was her Everest; and she made it.
Ann has that fighting spirit. Anyone touched by Cancer can imagine what life has become since her diagnosis; Chemo, Radiotherapy and Brachytherapy or ‘internal radiotherapy’. The tumour had affected the nerves in her leg, hip and back and she walked with the help of a stick and morphine. At one point Ann begged for her leg to be amputated. It wasn’t; and Ann never gave up – the way she tells it? “I got cancer, but cancer never got me”.
Ann talks about the power of the mind and admits to running away from fear by being busy. She set up the Girls Club to offer support, shelter and a place to ‘be’ for other women affected by cancer – knowing intimately the experience of that touch. “Cancer takes everything” says Ann; “It takes your hair, your boobs, your childbearing years, your career, your income, your means to make a living. It violates your body and your mind. It makes you live with fear and it’s not just you. When you are diagnosed with cancer, your whole family gets cancer, it violates the whole family.”
The Girls Club brings joy and laughter, but volunteering to help run it is by no means easy or painless. “You love people, you hold their hand while they suffer and often, you lose them”. Ann talks about former members as ‘flying high on the bravest wings’ and believes they will be flying along with the Dream Team on Kilimanjaro. They are bringing the hopes and dreams and fears and love of many, many people with them.
After walking the ‘Gap of Dunloe’ Ann felt sick and went for a check-up and tests, fearing the worst. The test results brought a shock – she was cured – there was no trace of cancer. Stunned, Ann struggled to absorb the news. Fear had become a habit and her mind raced. It didn’t take long for her thoughts to turn towards the heavens and Kilimanjaro. In a few months the Dream Team would be making their expedition to Africa and the fighter in Ann decided to launch another battle and go with them, not just as part of the support group, but all the way to the summit.
For those who have climbed mountains and for those who haven’t, the scale of what Ann was embarking on seemed impossible – to fail at climbing Purple Mountain and aspire to climbing Kilimanjaro just a few months later defies physics and reason. But Ann has faced impossible odds before.
March, June and July of this year saw the team in gyms and out on the hills. “I thought TRX was a dinosaur before I joined the gym” says Ann, as she kicked off a 6 day a week training regime which included spinning sessions and the ‘dinosaur’ TRX. She changed to a healthy diet, went gluten-free, swapped cakes for salad, discovered juicing and lost a whopping 22lb in a remarkably short period of time. She walked everywhere, trained on the Galtee Mountains and went hiking in the hills at night with her dog. Walking with the rest of the team was stressful at first. “I’m afraid of holding them up and slowing them down” says Ann, with the dread of every ‘newbie’ starting on a new challenge for the first time. Anne is frequently tough on herself and talks about ‘kicking herself in the ass’ and ‘getting on with it’. Walking at height doesn’t come easy to her either: “With Morphine patches holding you together, you’re so stoned you fear you could fall” she comments wryly. Ann has a wicked sense of humour and the ability to laugh at cancer appears to be knitted deeply into the fibre of the Girls Club, which is as much about fun as survival.
A trip back to Pat Falvey’s Mountain Lodge in Killarney sees Ann reach the summit of Purple Mountain. Over to Mangerton Mountain and she vomits the whole way up but makes it to the top. Then there’s Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest mountain. “Jesus” says Ann, “My worst nightmare right there. I read about the Devil’s Ladder, I Googled the Devil’s Ladder, I talked about the Devil’s Ladder and I dreamed about the damned Devil’s Ladder.” Finally the day came to meet it. Ann’s cousin took her up. “I thought about my Girls and silently cried ‘guys I need your wings’. It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done. Each step was painful and the pace was fast. But we made progress; moving higher and higher and I met lovely people along the way. The sun was shining brightly, it was truly an amazing day and finally in the distance, I spotted the cross that marks the summit. I knew I was going to make it. The sight of that cross had so many different meanings for me. Reaching the top I kneeled down and kissed the ground and said many things to many people, quietly in my mind. I rang my mum, my husband and my son in Australia, before galloping down ‘The Devil’s Ladder’. Cancer down – Devil down – Kilimanjaro ahead”.
“I don’t know” says Ann when you ask her what she thinks of the challenge ahead. “I’ve had nightmares about it. I keep doubting myself, but I don’t do failing well. I’m not good at giving in. I’ve done chemo, done sickness, done agony. I don’t know if I’ll be able to say I’ve done Kili. I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I’m going, and I’m fighting, and everyone with me has battled to be here too. They’ve all been touched by cancer and they’ve all made massive sacrifices. Their own families have been put on hold while they worked full-time, trained hard and still managed to fundraise. When we get to the summit we will place a plaque with the names of our loved ones who have passed. That will be the hardest moment.” Will they make it? “We’ve already made it” says Ann. “We’ve supported each other, formed new friendships, laughed, cried and raised thousands for the club. The journey to get here was as important as the journey ahead. In my eyes, the Dream Team are already winners, so let the next journey begin.”
See full trip report and see how Ann and the team made a dream a reality.
Kilimanjaro 2014 - The Dream Team: Michael Healy, Leone Levis, Noirin Doyle, Eilish O’Boyle, Laura Murray, Eimear O’Sullivan, Samantha Heaton, Grace Moloney, Karen Cronin, Denise Cullinane, Eimear O Grady, Anne Dowley Spillane. Raising funds for The Girls Club, Cork (cancer support service).www.thegirlsclubcork.ie
Expedition Leader: Pat Falvey