At 22, Serena Bonneville has already tackled significant obstacles in her young life – namely, a cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy.
Now celebrating just over three years of being cancer-free, the White Rock woman has added a mountain to the list, after being selected as one of 11 youth survivors to embark on a therapeutic-adventure expedition in the Gaspésie region of Quebec.
“Knowing what it feels like to be dying has taught me what it means to be alive. And oddly I’m so thankful,” Bonneville says in an Instagram post that features a photo of her on the mountain earlier this month.
“Cheers to 3 years cancer free.”
The youth, along with a medical team and local guides, ascended Mont Vallieres-de-St-Réal. With an elevation gain of nearly 950 metres, reaching the top was a powerful accomplishment, Bonneville said. Barely six years ago, prior to her diagnosis with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, she couldn’t climb the stairs at her family’s home without getting winded.
“Comparing it to where I was at five years ago… I probably never would’ve expected myself to be doing something like that. It would’ve seemed like not real that I would be able to accomplish something like that,” Bonneville told Peace Arch News Thursday.
“At the time when I was sick, my muscles were – I pretty much lost all of them. My cardio, everything, my heart, everything, was kind of on the back burner.
“Any physical push to my body seemed kind of surreal, so doing a trip like this kind of reminded me of what ability I’ve gained back ever since.
“So it was a pretty emotional feeling, kind of, getting to the top of that mountain and having pushed myself in a way that I hadn’t in so long.”
Organized by On the Tip of the Toes Foundation, the March 9-16 expedition to Quebec and other journeys aim to “offer participants the opportunity to change the environment and interact with other young people with cancer who, like them, go through the same ordeal,” foundation director Jean-Charles Fortin says in a news release.
“These youths return home changed, ready for a fresh start, and strengthened by a source of motivation that will accompany them throughout their lives.”
Bonneville, who graduated from Southridge School in South Surrey, said the trek wasn’t without hiccups. Only a handful of the youth who participated reached the summit, with others opting for “their own personal summit,” she said.
For Bonneville, the moment of hesitation came near the crest.
“Going up, I felt pretty secure and fine,” she said. “(Then) I kind of looked down beside me, it was pretty steep.
“The only thing going through my head was that, ‘oh my gosh, I have to go back down this.’ I can’t stop thinking about, there’s no way I’m going to get back down without sliding.”
Bonneville said she confided her concerns in one of the expedition leaders, then learned at the summit that she wasn’t alone in her nervousness; that other participants felt the same way.
To help allay the fears, the uneasy youth were paired with a more confident buddy – a move Bonneville said “made all the difference” for her.
“It was kind of more of a mental game, and that kind of allowed me to overcome sort of the physical limits, which was a pretty amazing feeling, ” she said.
“It was definitely all in my head.”
In the years since her diagnosis, Bonneville has told her story time and again, including through a blog she started on the day she was diagnosed, Breeding Optimism. The journal reached tens of thousands of people before she brought it to a “poetic” close in February 2016, shortly after her three-year “cancerversary.”
But it’s still there when she needs it.
“Whenever I get stressed out about things, like with school or work, I actually sometimes take a peek back at some of the things I had written and it kind of makes me wake up and shakes me up and says, I have nothing to be worried about.
“It’s pretty grounding to be reminded of that.”
And while she’s busy finishing a degree in communications at SFU and working with Metro Vancouver’s sustainability program, Bonneville said she hasn’t tired of taking time out to share her cancer story, and everything she went through to get to where she is now.
“Now that I’m sort of done with that part of my life and on the other side, it’s actually incredibly therapeutic for me to talk about it,” she said. “It’s put me in a place now that I never would’ve been, and in a good way.
“In the weirdest way, I’m actually pretty thankful. It sounds odd, but knowing how bad it can get has given me an appreciation for how good things are. I really like to talk about that. Especially when there’s cancer patients or recently diagnosed patients in the room, telling them how good the other side is, I find that really rewarding.”