My eyes are closed and I’m visualizing the snow drenched line that weaves against the mountain below my feet. My inner voice whispers, “Left turn, right turn, look back, avoid slough…” I take a deep exhale. I can feel the heartbeat of the mountains. They are powerful. Massive. But through the intensity, I feel calm. My radio startles me, “Filmers are ready when you are, have fun Kimmy!” I shut my eyes one more time to double check that I know exactly how I’m going to navigate my way down this towering Alaskan peak, safely. I’m familiar with the snowpack because of the numerous AIARE avalanche courses I’ve taken. I feel prepared. I reach down to check my binding straps. I adjust my gloves, my backpack, and wiggle my goggles just slightly. I radio back, “Dropping in 5 seconds…,” then I silently count 5, 4, 3, 2… with a deep breath, I say… “Dropping.” As I initiate my turns, I feel connected, in control, safe, and just where I’m supposed to be.
The mountains are my happy place.
This visualization and self-check process is one that I have experienced hundreds, if not thousands of times throughout my snowboarding career. Visualizing. Breathing. Connecting to the present moment. The flow moment. Trusting the process. And more than anything checking myself to make sure I know what to expect while I’m riding big mountains.
In late November 2021, I was standing in the bathroom, topless, doing a self-check breast exam in the mirror. My husband, Chris Benchetler, was standing next to me. Gently pressing on my breast and into my right armpit, when suddenly, I felt a pea-sized hard bump under my right arm. I had my husband feel the bump, and immediately we both knew I needed to call my doctor. I knew what my breasts were supposed to feel like, and this bump sent an alarm through my body that something wasn’t right.
My right breast had always been bigger, and early in my postpartum journey with our second baby, I had clogged milk ducts in my right breast. I had developed a dense fibrous bump on the right edge of my right boob seven months prior to this moment in the mirror, but I just equated this bump as part of my boob’s dense tissue since it is common that breastfeeding changes breast density. This bump didn’t feel like what I’ve been taught to examine for breast cancer. Even through my advocacy as a Boarding for Breast Cancer ambassador, I had made this mass an exception. But I knew the bump in my armpit was new because of my habit with routine self-checks.
My doctor sensed my urgency and told me to come in the next day. Ironically, Dr. Olson, a breast surgeon from Scripps MD Anderson Cancer Center in La Jolla, CA, was working in Bishop, CA, and my doctor was able to get me onto her schedule. I had a mammogram and an ultrasound and then Dr. Olson saw me for a physical exam and was confident that what she was seeing was Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC). The biggest indicators being: my breast was slightly red, enlarged, had a noticeable mass, swollen lymph node, and when she gently squeezed the skin of my breast it dimpled like an orange peel. The following day I had multiple biopsies and we received the results from pathology confirming my diagnosis of stage III IBC.
In three days my life path did a full 180. I’m a healthy, active, 38-year-old, who is very conscious of what I put into my body. Cancer did not care. I was quickly expedited into an aggressive treatment plan including six rounds of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy surgery, and 30 rounds of radiation.
As I mentioned earlier, the mountains have always been my happy place, but with the fast pace that I needed to get treatments, I hardly had the time or energy to be on my snowboard last season. I could feel the depression creep in.
I was not myself.
My husband could tell I desperately needed to be reunited with my snowboard and the mountains before the season was over, as a mental boost before heading into surgery and radiation. He secretly teamed up with Donna Carpenter, the Burton crew, and Jeff Pensiero, the owner of Baldface Lodge, to pull off the ultimate surprise.
After finishing chemotherapy at the end of March of 2022, my family and I, along with my mother-in-law, were transported to Baldface Lodge in British Columbia. I was in shock and so elated when I realized we were going to this dreamy winter wonderland. The day we arrived it was snowing, big fat white flakes. Both of my kids were in front of me on the couch looking out at a magical wonderland of snow-covered trees. As we walked into the dining room, we were surrounded by friendly faces and teammates Danny Davis, Kelly Clark, Anna Gasser, Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, Mark McMorris, and Ayumu Hirano, among many other incredibly talented snowboarders and members of the Burton crew.
This trip was a celebration for the Olympic athletes, and somehow by the grace of the Burton family and support of Jeff Pensiero, we scored these revitalizing seats along with them. As soon as I strapped in, I felt an electric and fulfilling energy pour through my body and mind. I was where I longed to be, and it was dumping. Powder runs in April, at this peaceful environment tucked away in the interior of British Columbia was just the escape I needed. When we returned home, I was full of energy and got the mental boost I needed to finish my treatments.
Flash forward 10 months since my diagnosis, I now know that self-check breast exam saved my life! And at the same time, the mountains and that trip to Baldface showed me how important connecting with nature can be for healing. I am done with treatments for now and am inspired by the healing support I’ve gotten from my family, Burton, and nature. So much so, that Chris and I have decided to start a foundation to help people going through similar situations heal by reconnecting with nature. Learn more about the Benchetler Fasani Foundation and get involved.
And today, if you are struggling or need to heal, take yourself out in nature and reconnect. There is nothing better for the body and soul. Last but not least, check yourself on the mountains and at home.