It’s scary, it’s risky, but Marybeth Dingledy keeps climbing mountains. She’s been to the top of Mount Baker and Rainier, climbed an 18,000-foot volcano in Mexico, and this summer plans to conquer Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro.
Her trek up the Tanzanian peak in August will be Dingledy’s fourth effort with the Climb to Fight Breast Cancer, which benefits Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She keeps climbing because every day she lives with something more frightening than any icy peak.
“I don’t know if I would do this if I weren’t doing it to raise money to fight cancer,” said Dingledy, 39, an attorney with the Snohomish County Public Defender Association.
In 2003, she learned that her chances of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer are much higher than for most women. Dingledy inherited an altered BRCA2 gene.
What looks like a brew of alphabet soup is, according to the National Cancer Institute, a gene on chromosome 13 that normally helps suppress cell growth. A person with a mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene has a high risk of getting breast, ovarian or prostate cancer.
“I have the genetics, but do not yet have cancer,” the Bothell woman said. “It’s on my dad’s side. My dad’s mother died of breast cancer before I was born. Two of my dad’s three sisters have had breast cancer. They are survivors, doing well.”
Because of her genetics, Dingledy is faced with grave ramifications and decisions. How grave?
“I have an 80 percent lifetime risk, or higher, of getting breast cancer, and a 20 percent chance of ovarian cancer,” Dingledy said.
Five years ago, after learning she had the gene, Dingledy visited a Seattle Cancer Care Alliance hereditary breast and ovarian cancer clinic. Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is part of the alliance. Back then, doctors advised Dingledy to have her breasts and ovaries removed by age 40 to reduce her risks. She hasn’t had those surgeries, although she’ll turn 40 in May.
At the clinic this month, she learned that the recommendations had changed. Doctors are now advising her that the top priority is removal of her ovaries — by or before age 45. Dingledy, who doesn’t have children, said that removal of her ovaries would lessen the risks of both types of cancer. Advances in breast cancer screening, she said, have made a double mastectomy an optional but not critical step.
She has a mammogram or magnetic resonance imaging, an MRI, every six months. Shouldering a worry that’s part of her body has given Dingledy a seize-the-day approach to life. “It doesn’t make me feel sorry for myself,” she said. Instead, it pushes her to scale mountains and raise cash for a cause close to her heart.
“This will be my fourth climb for the Hutch,” she said. “I climbed Baker in 2006, Rainier in ‘07, and two volcanoes in Mexico in October and November of 2008.” So far, she has raised more than $30,000 for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and is working to raise another $10,000 with this summer’s climb.
“I really feel I have contributed. And when I raise money for the Hutch I’m benefiting myself,” said Dingledy. “I hate asking people for money,” she added.
Christi Loso, a spokeswoman for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said climbs in 2008 raised more than $800,000. “Whether it’s a breast cancer patient climbing or someone climbing in honor of a friend or loved one, there are tangible results in the laboratory and clinics,” Loso said.
Dingledy sent letters to potential supporters explaining her situation. “It helps people understand why I’m climbing. I don’t need to keep it a secret,” she said. “I hope maybe this helps people get tested, live their lives, be happy.”
Last year in Mexico, she was higher than she’d ever been atop Pico de Orizaba, elevation more than 18,000 feet. Mount Kilimanjaro is upwards of 19,000 feet.
“It’s risky and scary,” said Dingledy, who recalled a terrifying moment on the Mexico climb when her crampon was hanging off her foot. She held on to the crater rim while another climber fixed it. “If you fall, you die,” she said.
“I never would have started climbing if I didn’t have this gene,” she said. “It’s part of my life now. I wouldn’t have done all these things if I didn’t have it. And the views are pretty amazing.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, email@example.com.
boost cancer fight
To learn about the Climb to Fight Breast Cancer, which benefits the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, or to donate: www.fhcrc.org/about/ne/events/climb/index.html
For National Cancer Institute information about genes linked to higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer: www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/BRCA