Diagnosed with Stage 3 Breast Cancer during the first trimester of her pregnancy, Gillian Lichota mustered the courage to face an uncertain future. Now, the naturally adventurous young woman wants to help other women her age conquer their fears and rise above their breast cancer diagnosis by living a life rich in health, possibilities, and fulfillment.
Gillian Lichota is the kind of woman who leaves a lasting impression. It isn’t just because she’s beautiful and fit, or that she’s an adventurous marine research scientist who has traveled the globe studying the effects of climate change on vulnerable species and ecosystems, or that she promotes conservation efforts of the critically endangered African elephant. It also has everything to do with her grit and incredible courage in the face of adversity — and her bold intent on inspiring and empowering others to show the same.
Gillian Lichota, November 2015, on safari, the Serengeti, Tanzania
Gillian’s courage was tested when, during the early weeks of pregnancy, she noticed the sudden appearance of a rather large lump on her breast. Her initial reaction was to ignore it, attributing it to a side effect from the IVF drugs taken to conceive; she had “always led a healthy lifestyle. I eat well and play a lot of sports. And I am rarely sick.” In addition, she states that she comes from a long line of incredibly genetically healthy family members, with no history of breast cancer. But when the discovery of the lump was followed by a two-week period in which she felt a burning sensation in that area coupled with an odd dimpling formation, Gillian could no longer ignore it. Soon afterwards, she shared her concerns with her gynecologist, who immediately scheduled a breast ultrasound to examine the lump. Later that evening, driving home, she received a call. It was her doctor, asking her to pull over on the side of the road; she had some unsettling news.
Her doctor wanted Gillian to have a biopsy the following day. She complied and, still in her first trimester of pregnancy, learned that she had to make the most difficult decision of her life: undergo surgery to remove an aggressive form of Stage 3 pregnancy-related breast cancer and risk losing the fetus in the process, or choose against having surgery early in pregnancy and take the chance that the cancer would advance significantly. Gillian made a very personal decision that in order to be a mother she needed to be healthy, alive, and cancer free, and hence opted for the removal of the cancerous mass and lymphnodes and run the risk of losing the pregnancy.
WRACKED WITH FEAR AND UNCERTAINTY
As she was wheeled into her first surgery, armed with an aggressive treatment plan that would immediately follow, Gillian anxiously wrestled with the greatest fear and uncertainty of her life. She thought to herself: this seems like an impossible mountain to climb, difficult to see the summit. “How am I going to do this?”. It was then that she made a pact with herself: she was going to approach this ‘impossible mountain’ one step at a time, and at the three-year anniversary of her cancer diagnosis, she would find the biggest, most beautiful mountain and climb it, just because she could! She was going to choose to be the author of her disease, her wellness, and her future! The goal was lofty. So too was enduring all that would come between making and achieving it.
Gillian Lichota, June 2013, receiving chemotherapy at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, MD with her 3 month old son, Kailen, by her bedside
Gillian’s experience as a new mother was hardly like that of most, whose sole focus is adjusting to round-the-clock care of the new and helpless infant in their lives. Instead, just four weeks after delivering her son Kailen, Gillian underwent another rigorous three-month chemotherapy regime that left the former adrenaline-junkie-adventurer completely debilitated physically, emotionally, and mentally. As Gillian reflects on the initial months of her diagnosis, she acknowledges that she often felt adrift and depressed, particularly once all of the medical treatments ended. “Women diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 50 face a unique set of challenges that their older counterparts do not; these women must also consider issues of pregnancy, fertility, and familial obligations that come with having young children. Their careers are often interrupted right in the middle of their professional prime, adding financial strain to the emotional burden of the diagnosis itself. Few resources were geared toward helping women like myself with their transitional reset”. Gillian added that she “could not have endured the pregnancy, coupled with the surgeries, chemotherapy treatments, and that first year of motherhood without the incredible support of her husband, Boe, and her amazing community of friends”.
Gillian Lichota, November 2007, jumping from a cliff several meters high into a small pool of water, while canyoning, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand
SECOND CHANCES AND MAKING EVERY MOMENT COUNT
True to her word, Gillian chose to rise above her breast cancer diagnosis to embrace this second chance, and live a life rich in health, possibilities, and fulfillment. After completing countless medical treatments and surgeries, Gillian made a choice to use the fitness and wellness tools she tirelessly sought out to get healthy and feel good, exemplifying that wellness and illness can coexist on a continuum. Gillian became an example for other young women affected by breast cancer to follow. A self-motivated woman, Gillian trained and conditioned her body, mind, and spirit to meet the goals she set out to achieve. In the summer of 2015, Gillian summited Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, the highest free standing mountain in the world, reaching approximately 5,895 meters above sea level.
Gillian Lichota, September 2015, summit Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Although fear and exhaustion overcame her during the ascent—much like when she was first wheeled into the operating room during her first trimester of pregnancy—Gillian again fought her way through the daunting task before her to conquer and summit the mountain. “After six days of climbing for approximately nine hours a day, and under the bright light of the full moon, finally we were approaching the summit. As we climbed the glacier to reach the summit, the sun was beginning to rise over Africa and everything was illuminated; it was absolutely exquisite! It was -15 C with the wind chill; the air was so thin you had to reserve every bit of oxygen just to breathe; I was dizzy, completely exhausted and in pain; I hit a wall...but the beauty of it all was completely overwhelming,” Gillian recalls. At that point, says Gillian, her friend who was making the climb with her “read her the riot act” to keep moving and not give up. So, in spite of sheer exhaustion, pain and frostbitten fingers, Gillian made it to the top. Gillian recalls the moment she reached the summit to be the most cathartic moment of her life – a tear driven emotional release: “I rose to the challenge and did it. I made every moment count and never gave up. I closed one chapter of my life and opened another.”
THE iRISE IDEA TAKES FORM
It has been five years since Gillian was first diagnosed with Stage 3 Breast Cancer. However, in May, 2017, after a routine scan, Gillian once again faced the unthinkable: she was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer that spread to a small area of her lung. “I have two choices,” states Gillian with a calm assuredness and unwavering commitment. “I can wallow in my fears and sadness and allow breast cancer to completely ruin my life, getting me nowhere, OR I can rise above the diagnosis and use it as an opportunity to stay healthy - AND - inspire and empower other young women also affected by breast cancer to live a life rich in health, possibilities, and fulfillment. Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% what you do with it. I want to help other young women like myself reach their mind-body-spiritual goals. I want to exemplify that wellness and illness can coexist on a continuum.”
Now, Gillian intends to lead other like-minded young women affected by breast cancer on similar expeditions, treks, and retreats, and is working on a strategic plan to bring that to fruition. In the Fall of 2017 Gillian launched the iRise Above Foundation to benefit the health and wellness of young women affected by breast cancer before the age of 50. She also intends to be an inspiration for young women newly diagnosed with breast cancer to demonstrate that there is hope, and light at the end of the tunnel. “Before any of this happened, I had a great sense of adventure and I was physically fit. Being healthy, in mind, body, and spirit, was incredibly important to me. For most people, facing a physical challenge like climbing a mountain is new and daunting. Breast cancer robs a lot of women of their self-confidence and their belief that they can live a life rich in health, possibilities, and fulfillment. There is a natural fear associated with embarking on an unfamiliar mind-body-spirit journey that will culminate in an epic outdoor expedition. Each woman has her own unique story and her own unique journey. To do something like this, stepping outside of her comfort zone, helps in healing, empowerment, self-confidence, and fulfillment. I’m super excited about the future, and working with other women my age to achieve their mind-body-spirit goals so that they too may fully embrace life.”
THE BIRTH OF THE iRISE ABOVE FOUNDATION
What began as a personal goal for Gillian Lichota in 2013 at age 35, has evolved into a diverse goal-oriented, mind-body-spirit approach to health and wellness for young women affected by breast cancer.
Gillian envisioned a non-profit foundation to benefit the health and wellness of young women affected by breast cancer under the age of 50, created by women for women, that would be just as outstanding as each woman it served; a program designed to inspire, empower, challenge, and support each woman as she progressed through her "transitional reset", towards a goal of optimal health and wellness. Currently, gaps exist in the availability of targeted health and wellness resources and emotional support for this vulnerable population. Recognizing these deficiencies through first hand experience, iRise Above provides innovative solutions to help restore the quality of life among this underserved group of women. Women affected by breast cancer walk an unimaginably difficult and terrifying journey to overcome the ugly disease - they deserve to walk a different kind of journey and work toward a positive goal that will exhilarate their mind, body, and spirit, transforming their path forward - forever.
A life-sized artist's rendering of Gillian Lichota, appearing at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, will appear in the soon-to-open
Under Armour Breast Health Innovation Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore, MD in 2018.
Gillian Lichota, Founder & Executive Director, iRise Above Foundation
I AM NOT A "SURVIVOR", IT DOES NOT DEFINE ME!
Breast cancer is often associated with fragility, destiny, randomness, feminity and for many it becomes a lifelong label that they don’t necessarily like. Every time they look in the mirror they see the scars, the radiation tattoos, maybe the shorter hair. They feel branded. Breast cancer can also make women feel older, not only because it exhausts and takes a physical toll but also because it is an 'older woman’ disease (average age of diagnosis is 62). iRise Above believes that breast cancer does not define a woman - she can rise above and challenge old paradigms of what it means to have had breast cancer - and therefore does not support the use of the 'survivor' brand.
The vision of iRise Above is to enable young women who have had breast cancer to thrive in mind, body and spirit. The core mission of iRise Above is to surround young women with targeted health and wellness resources so they may rise above the residual effects of their breast cancer and ultimately complete a mind-body-spirit expedition. iRise Above believes that women can choose wellness and rise above their diagnosis and challenge old paradigms of what it means to have had breast cancer.
SMALL GROUP OF OTHERS WITH LIKE EXPERIENCES
iRise Above invites participants to be part of a tribe of young women, brought together by breast cancer, and bound together to rise above through a sisterhood of strength and courage.
Participants will be part of a small cohort of other like-minded women under 50 who share a common bond: they have won their fight with cancer. For the initial program, iRise Above will plan to keep this group small—under 20—who will pilot and launch the program. While the team will be made up of women throughout the U.S. and Canada, they will be connected electronically to tools, resources, support and counsel with the Founder, and twice they will gather for networking, shared experiences, and learning — and a journey like no other.
Women will participate in a targeted state-of-the-art triad to health and wellness program that will invigorate mind, body, and spirit. The iRise Above health and wellness pathways are designed to challenge participants mentally and physically, demonstrating that nutrition, fitness, and growth mindset are fundamental to leading a full and enriching life with - and beyond - cancer.
Thoughtfully selected expert advisors in the areas of physical fitness, nutrition, mindfulness and meditation, spirituality and yoga, and complementary therapies and treatments, will offer online support and assist in finding quality care for any participant in any location, during every stage of their transformational journey. iRise Above will provide monitoring tools to track health and wellness to help participants monitor and improve all aspects of their health and wellness.
As an ongoing measure of support, iRise Above will provide opportunities for women across North America to work through their respective pathways collaboratively. The transformational journey will culminate with a rigorous outdoor expedition, trek, or retreat to celebrate the closing of one chapter in each woman's life, and the opening of another. All participants will subsequently serve as mentors for the next group of women embarking on their journey’s above.
iRise Above’s overarching philosophy of "iRise Above, Give Beyond" is that intentional giving, whether it’s time, money, or resources, is influential and has a lasting, profound effect. Having the privilege to travel whilst participating in the outdoor expeditions means participants automatically become representatives of the foundation and ultimately, its vision. Hence, while serving in this capacity, the women will commit to a charitable donation goal, where the proceeds will be used to help meet a predetermined need of the locale visited for the expedition. Additionally, in the spirit of the iRise Above four pillars of success, and as a gesture of socially responsible tourism, participants will engage in some form of community service in the location they visit.