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Cancer Survivor Laura Evans Dies

Adventure: After nearly dying of breast cancer, she organized mountain ascents with other former patients. She succumbs to unrelated brain tumor.

October 20, 2000|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Laura Steele Evans, a breast cancer survivor who helped lead 16 other women who fought the disease in a trek up the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere--Argentina's Mt. Aconcagua--died Tuesday at her home in Ketchum, Idaho.

She was 51 and died of a brain tumor that was unrelated to the breast cancer she had successfully battled in 1990.

Evans' bout with breast cancer motivated her to form an unusual organization called Expedition Inspiration, which since 1995 has raised more than $2 million for breast cancer research and awareness programs through mountain treks and hikes.

The most recent hike, held Saturday in the Santa Monica Mountains, attracted nearly 800 participants and benefited two Los Angeles breast cancer centers.

"She touched thousands of people," said Peter Whittaker, the mountain climbing expert who helped her organize the Argentina trip and subsequent treks.

"That became her goal--to educate people, [to say] you don't have to just sit back, but attack life, be aggressive, optimistic and live life."

Before being diagnosed with breast cancer, Evans had been a successful designer of women's clothing and an outdoors enthusiast. In 1985 she scaled the 14,410-foot Mt. Rainier in Washington, a life-changing event that fueled a need for other extreme challenges.

She made a second climb to the top of Rainier, then was a member of a team that tackled an 18,000-foot peak in Nepal. In her late 30s and in prime health, she was feeling nearly invincible.

Then came her perilous slide.

In the spring of 1989, she discovered a lump in her breast. She went for a mammogram but it showed nothing alarming to her doctor, who told her not to worry.

But that December, a second lump appeared. She was rushed into surgery, which found cancer had spread to 11 lymph nodes. Her doctors gave her a 15% chance of long-term survival.

Afraid that conventional treatment--surgery to remove the lumps and cancerous nodes, followed by radiation and chemotherapy--would not be enough to halt the aggressive advance of her disease, she decided in 1990 to have a bone marrow transplant, a procedure that would include extremely high doses of chemotherapy and radiation. The treatment could kill her if the cancer didn't.

She settled on a doctor in San Francisco and commuted for three months from her home in Idaho for preliminary chemotherapy to shrink her tumor. An allergic reaction to one of the drugs caused rheumatoid arthritis so severe that she could not raise her hands above the elbow or sit to use the toilet.

When that phase of treatment was completed, she entered the hospital to have her bone marrow harvested. During the next six weeks, she was confined to a plastic tent in a sterile room while her immune system was suppressed in intensive chemotherapy.

She lost her hair, fingernails, toenails, taste buds and part of her memory. She was in excruciating pain. Pneumonia nearly killed her.

There was a moment when she felt herself drifting toward death, a moment she later recalled as beautiful because she was free of stress and worry.

Then she glanced out her tent and saw her mother, husband and friends hovering nearby.

"I felt," she said, "there was something else that I was meant to do." She willed herself back with visions of mountains to climb.

The pneumonia subsided, allowing her to undergo the marrow transplant. During her recovery, Evans had what she called an "on the edge" idea.

What if a group of women like her, survivors of breast cancer, got together to climb a really big mountain? They could prove that breast cancer can be beaten and that life can go on.

"Every single night I visualized my fists in the air, having climbed one of the highest mountains in the world," she said in 1998, "and that dream kept me going."

After she regained her health, in June 1992, she scaled Mt. Rainer again--this time with her husband, Roger. But that was merely a test run for her next target, the 19,340-foot Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Leading her on the trek was Peter Whittaker, whose father, mountaineering legend Lou Whittaker, had talked Evans into a first, failed attempt on Rainier back in 1983.

A week after climbing Kilimanjaro, she called Whittaker with the idea of climbing another mountain to help women with breast cancer.

They set their sights on Aconcagua, timing the expedition to coincide with the fifth anniversary of Evans' diagnosis.

They assembled a team of 43 that included 17 breast cancer survivors, of whom six would attempt the summit. The others would join them at base camp for the 36-mile hike back down the mountain.

They began the ascent on Jan. 22, 1995, under weather conditions that were not too inclement. Nonetheless, over the next several days, three of the six breast cancer survivors on the summit team dropped out because of illness or exhaustion. Evans feared she might not make it herself. With a PBS documentary film team trailing them, there was tremendous pressure on her to succeed.

But 12 days, 11 hours and 40 minutes after the expedition began, she and the two other survivors found themselves 22,835 feet high, having reached the summit.

The trek raised $2 million. Evans organized other climbs for breast cancer survivors that took her back to Kilimanjaro and Rainier, as well as to a peak in New Zealand that was too aptly named to pass up--Mt. Aspiring.

She started an annual walk through the Santa Monica Mountains called Take-a-Hike, which has raised nearly $500,000 to support clinical trials at the Revlon/UCLA Breast Center and the USC/Norris Lee Breast Center.

Evans never suffered a recurrence of breast cancer. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor last November.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by her mother, Eleanor Williams; two sisters, Martha Lutz and Elizabeth Norby; and a brother, Jeffrey Steele.

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