Transformational journey takes AZ employee, cancer survivor to Machu Picchu


Meredith Hemler

1 April 2015

On the tenth anniversary of being cancer free, Kelly Donato set off on a ten day journey that would challenge her physically, emotionally and prove to herself that she could accomplish far more than she would have thought possible.

Kelly lives in Des Moines, Iowa with her husband of 26 years and three children, ages 13, 21 and 25, and holds the role of Institutional Director for North Central Region at AstraZeneca. In 2004, after undergoing a procedure to remove what she thought was a benign cyst from her face cheek, she received a sarcoma diagnosis. Sarcoma is a rare form of cancer, with only about 12,000 people diagnosed annually in the U.S., and typically appears in the form of tumors in connective tissue throughout the body. Kelly underwent surgery to have the sarcoma in her face, as well as additional sarcoma found in her lung, removed.

In 2014 she got involved with Above and Beyond Cancer, a non-profit organization based in Des Moines that organizes annual transformation journeys that unite a group of individuals affected by cancer for trips around the world to complete challenging hikes, including Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Everest Base Camp. After being accepted for the 2014 trek to Machu Picchu in Peru, Kelly got to work preparing, which involved training three times a week with Above and Beyond Cancer, running, hiking, weight training, and stair climbing – often 26 floors up and down, several times in a single session. She also got accustomed to carrying about 11 pounds of supplies with her, just as she would do as she climbed Machu Picchu. By reaching out to friends, family and local businesses, Kelly raised over $7,000 to cover the cost of the trip, as well as additional funds for the organization’s mission.

Kelly had been told in 2004 she wouldn’t be considered a sarcoma survivor until she was cancer free for ten years, and the six months of preparation led to the day she left Des Moines to take on this challenge, exactly ten years after beating cancer.

The group on the 2014 transformational journey was comprised of 31 cancer survivors, caregivers and advocates, three guides, and eight to ten porters who carried additional supplies and prepared food throughout the trip. Water had to be boiled each morning to make it safe for consumption, and their diet consisted of high protein foods and healthy fats, often including local Peruvian items.

Before departing on the hike, the group visited a local oncology treatment center in Cusco, where their perspective on cancer treatment was widened. The center employed two oncologists who served the 600,000 people of Cusco, and patients requiring advanced treatments had to travel 20 hours by car to Lima for their treatments. To the people of Cusco a cancer diagnosis often feels like an automatic death sentence, and the Above and Beyond Cancer group were able to serve as examples of not only surviving cancer, but thriving afterwards and taking on the daunting Machu Picchu climb. A portion of the money raised by the group was donated to the oncology facility during their visit.

Kelly recalled the first day of the hike was 60 degrees and overnight the temperature dropped to the 20s. They could experience sun, rain, fog, and snow – it seemed like all four seasons – in a single day during their ascent. They dressed in layers and kept spare dry clothes handy. Kelly experienced several of what she called transformational moments, when she truly believed she could not continue another step, until she did – because the only option was to keep going. The trip changed the way she thought about overcoming obstacles and, like with a patient’s journey through cancer, she learned to take each step one at a time until she reached her goal.

The hikers brought homemade prayer flags, one for each individual they wanted to honor when they reached the highest point of the journey. This included cancer survivors, those lost to cancer, and those still battling it – as well as others who have supported them along the way. In that reflective space, 16,000 feet high, they held a ceremony to honor their journey, through cancer, through life and up that mountain. Kelly brought 40 flags, and when she returned home she gave each flag to the individual it had represented in Peru.

It is Kelly’s hope that others – both who have and haven’t been affected by cancer – are inspired by what individuals involved with Above and Beyond Cancer achieve, adopt a healthier, more active lifestyle, and take on greater challenges than they thought were possible. Applications are currently being accepted for the 2015 transformational journey. Learn more at Above and Beyond Cancer.