SPARTA. NJ — The students in Andrew Lowery’s Heroes and Heroines senior English class had a special visitor last week. Gillian Lichota from iRise Above Breast Cancer foundation met with Lowery’s students and students from Kate Brennan’s Women’s Studies class as well as Emily Scott’s AP Government in Politics students.
The story of how Lichota came to be in Sparta is almost as remarkable as Lichota herself. Almost. Lowery and his wife had stayed at an Air B&B when visiting their son, Sean at the University of Delaware this past spring. Not so remarkable.
Out of curiosity while driving home, Suzanne Lowery looked at the profile of the owners of the property at which they had stayed. They learned that Lichota was a breast cancer survivor. But that was only the beginning.
They learned she and her husband Boe Leslie, former professional hockey player, had started the iRise Foundation. The initiative is different from other cancer based organizations, however, much like the organization’s founders.
Lowery took Lichota’s story to his Heroes and Heroines class. They talked about how Lichota fit with the criteria the class had been developing as to “what makes a modern day hero.” According to Lowery, the class decided they wanted to do something to support the iRise Foundation.
When he reached out to Lichota to see what they could do, she turned the request around and asked if she could come to Sparta to speak with the students. Lichota and her husband and two children, Kailen and Laykelyn drove up and were staying at an Air B&B in Highland Lakes, just to speak with the Sparta High School students.
She began her remarks with a discussion of the word grit, including the idea that “it is a better predictor of achievement over IQ.”
She told the students she always envisioned herself as “a salmon, always traveling against the current.” She shared a bit about her childhood in Canada, showing by example that your history does not have to be a limitation to your future.
Lichota’s parents were divorced when she was four. Her mother had “progressive bipolar disorder and was very cruel,” and her father was a “raging alcoholic.” There was “no role model other than what I didn’t want to be.”
“My teachers and coaches rescued me,” LIchota said. She spent a lot of time in the stacks of the library “trying to stay away from my home life, using books to open my eyes to what things could be.”
Something as mundane as a resource from a fourth grade art project shaped who she would become, Lichota said. That was the first time she saw a National Geographic magazine. The first cover she saw was a woman holding an orangutan’s hand. Two others have stayed with her; a penguin wearing a geotracking vest and a diver getting ready to go beneath the sea ice.
“They blew my mind and inspired me,” Lichota said. “I said, ‘I can do that.’”
She embarked on her own journey, eventually going to some of the locations she read about, including holding the hand of an orangutan in Borneo. She learned to dive “in all sorts of environments,” earning her PADI license to dive all over the world.
“[Diving] is one of the few times you are forced to be in the moment,” she said.
She studies the migratory patterns of walruses using the same tracking devices she had seen on the penguin cover.
In January of 2006 she went to work for the “first ever Hero of the Environment, Sylvia Earle” in a study of the impact of global warming on the ice caps. She first “met” Earl “in National Geographic,” when Lichota was nine years old, pointing to Earl as having “influenced me the most to become a marine biologist.”
She told the students Marine Biology was her passion. She shared a story with the students about and encounter with her guidance counselor. He tried to dissuade her from the field by telling her she was “smart enough to be a doctor or a dentist or at the very least a science teacher.”
“But that was not my passion,” Lichota said. She told the students she could not wait to go back and tell him about how she was the only English speaking person in the first joint U.S. Russian naval expedition in the arctic.
She had earned the Headmasters’ Trophy for being the top of her class academically. The award came with a full scholarship to any university of her choice. So she became a marine biologist.
“Don’t give up on your passion,” Lichota said. “Don’t’ give up on your dreams.”
After university she took a year to solo back pack. “I love travel. I love submerging myself in other cultures,” Lichota said. “I encourage you to travel. Step out of your comfort zone.”
During that year Lichota said she became” more accepting of herself, learned to listen more and talk less and was humbled.” She returned wanting to give back, though she did not know what was next. She was “literally popping at the seams with passion,” wanting to inspire others to “be the change they want to see.”
Next for Lichota turned out to be jobs at the Smithsonian and NOAA in Washington D.C. as a researcher. She would work there for “about 20 years,” continuing to travel.
Lichota said she met the man of her dreams. “He got under my skin, challenged me. I was no princess who needed saving,” Lichota said. They got married. They got pregnant “after struggling with infertility” losing her first pregnancy before being pregnant with their first child.
Then in the second trimester she was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. She told the students the thought she had at that point was “this is super inconvenient for my life.”
Lichota told the students she embraced the phrase Sparta High School students had adopted with helping one of their fellow students who was battling cancer, “Be the Buffalo,” face the storm.
“I faced the storm head on for two years of radiation and multiple surgeries, including a mastectomy and chemotherapy while she was pregnant, to “save my life.”
“It was quite a juxtaposition; trying to nurture a new baby while trying to kill cancer,” Lichota said. Her mind and body had changed. She had to return to health and wellness. She set a goal to condition her body, mind and spirit to summit Mount Kilimanjaro, to “close one chapter of my life and open another.”
“The most cathartic moment was at the summit, after a six day accent,” Lichota said. “Sometimes the harder we fall, the farther we rise.”
During this time her oncologist reached out to her, asking her to meet with other young cancer patients. The average age of a breast-cancer patient is 62. Lichota said many of the issues that face young cancer patients are not considered or adequately addressed because it is more common to have cancer at an older age.
Some issues, she pointed out, include fertility, intimacy, child rearing. “You are modified when you have breast cancer … You kinda feel old and super tired.”
About a year ago Lichota found out she had metastatic breast cancer. “I was utterly depressed,” she said.
She told the students she spent three weeks in “a very dark place.”
“I needed to work through the anger and sadness and ‘why me,’” she said. She told the students about a call she got from a friend at that point, asking her to go to the pool.
“I went to the pool and swam one kilometer in 23 minutes,” Lichota said. “I got out of the pool and I felt better. I decided I really want to change the paradigm of what it means to have had and have breast cancer. I wanted women to be empowered and inspired to help themselves.”
It was then they founded iRise Above foundation, “to help young women diagnosed with breast cancer.
This foundation differs from other breast cancer related foundations in that they “surround women with wellness options to build mind, body and spirit. We’re here to help.”
While early detection is much improved, with longer life expectancy, Lichota said, but there are not a lot of resources. With the foundation, they strive to “fill in the gaps.”
“We look to surround women, where ever they are in North America, with targeted support and at the end go on an epic adventure,” Lichota said. “It is about the journey more than the end.”
The foundation has partnered with large organizations including Johns Hopkins Medical Center and Underarmour.
“Cancer does not define me,” Lichota said. “I have taken rich experiences and passion for the natural world and for travel and married them to help women with breast cancer.”
She told the students “life is ten percent what happens to you and 90 percent what you do with it. We have choices. One person can change the world. Be the change you want to see.”
She closed by reminding the students to “follow your passion, that is where you will find your calling. That is where you will feel truly alive.”
Lowery said the class was still working on ideas to support the iRise Above Foundation. One promising initiative, suggested by students was a yoga-thon, though they are working on the details.
Students asked questions about her favorite animals- elephants and killer whales, the most beautiful place she been — “my heart is in Africa,” and her next goal — In November the family is headed to Patagonia with a two week trek through Argentina and Chili. In January, working with New Zealand partner Active Adventures developing “environmentally and socially friendly” trips, they will cycle on the South Islands and hike on the Milford track, kayak and Bungee in Queensland.” In April they will base camp at Mount Everest and then back to Kilimanjaro.
Those comments drew murmurs from the students. Lichota suggested student who were interested could look into the iVolunteer program through the foundation. Lowery suggested any students going to college next fall in the Washington D.C. area who were interested in the iRise Above foundation reach out to Lichota.
“They are getting bigger,” Lowery said. “There may be internships available.”
Answering a question about unfinished work as a marine biologist, Lichota said “cancer is a real blow because it made me really tired so I had to step back. I would have loved to do more in the arctic.”
The final question from a student was about the most dangerous experience. After relating the encounter with a bull elephant she told the students “I believe in trusting your instincts. If you think it’s going to happen, it probably will.”