Growing up in scenic Idaho with three older brothers, Cindy Holder Poole, 55, was raised to live life to the fullest. Family time meant hiking, camping, skiing, or simply walking in the great outdoors, which created a tight-knit family with deep and personal bonds.
“Nature is a great hobby and healer for just about any condition,” Poole said.
Raising three boys of her own, including one with muscular dystrophy, Poole and her husband, Bill, both worked in air traffic control in the busy Southern California region. Communicating with pilots, hundreds of miles away in a closed room was the opposite of being in her beloved outdoors. Poole didn’t spend as much time in nature as she would have liked. She admired her brother, Ron Holder, who recovered from thyroid cancer treatments by isolating himself with fishing and hiking adventures.
“He would always send us the most beautiful photos that reminded me of our adventures growing up,” she said.
In her 30s, Cindy was diagnosed with systemic lupus, an inflammatory disease that causes the immune system to attack its own tissues.
“Lupus is not curable but it can be managed with diet, meditation, and medication. It is what you must do to remain functional.” But for Poole, it ended her aviation career at age 40.
Years later she was experiencing a dry cough and severe stomach pains, symptoms that landed her in the emergency room several times.
“Three doctors diagnosed me with gastritis and IBD, gave me pain medication, told me to eat more fiber and probiotics, and then sent me home.” She continued to suffer.
In 2018, she sought treatment at Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles and was diagnosed with stage four neuroendocrine tumors, a rare form of cancer.
“I was in total shock. I called my brother, Ron, and the next day he was with me in California, cheering me up,” she said.
Wanting to curl up in a ball of self-pity, she took her brother’s advice and decided she would only allow herself one week of mourning. Bored of feeling sorry for herself, she was ready to move forward before the week ended. “To me, stage four was not a death sentence but a wake-up call to start living my authentic life,” Poole said. A severe medical crisis has a way of instantly redefining life’s priorities.
Her gallbladder, appendix, two feet of intestines, her right colon, and a large part of her mesentery were removed. Her liver was considered inoperable due to the overabundance of tumors growing inside.
“Lying there, I just had this huge compelling desire to be out in nature,” she said. She began walking on the day of her surgery. By the time of her release, she was walking 1 1/2 miles up and down the hallways. Four months after her surgery, she hiked her first of many milestones, Turtle Head Peak in Red Rock National Conservation Area in Las Vegas.
Hiking became her therapy. She researched trails, people, equipment, and clothes to prepare for her next adventure. Using social media, she made wonderful hiking friends, trained with a coach, and with the help of her medical care team, was able to hike the Tour du Mont Blanc in Europe, a 110-mile hike that traverses France, Switzerland, and Italy.
“My girlfriend planned this trip as a bucket list item. It was incredible. Eight months post-surgery and I was hiking huge elevation gains,” Poole said.
After hearing and sharing incredible stories with people from around the world, Poole began @ZebraHiking, a blog on Instagram, dedicated to help, uplift, and inspire others suffering from cancer or chronic illness.
“The reality is that many of us deal with some degree of pain on a daily basis. It’s hard to enjoy life and the activities we love when we feel pain all the time or have to use a bathroom 12 times a day,” she said. She learned about hashtags and shared how to deal with problems such as having chronic diarrhea on a hiking trail.
Another reminder of the fragility of life came when she got a call about her brother. He had died in a hang-gliding accident only six months after her surgery.
“Seeing his body, all I wanted to do was run in the mountains, to be with nature,” she said. That evening, she hiked up Adams Creek in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, close to the area where her brother had spent his last day. Even though he has passed on, he is still an inspiration on her journey.
“My brother had been cancer-free for six years. It was heartbreaking but it helped to know that he lived life to the fullest. He gave back to others on a daily basis and he died doing something he loved.”
Her mother, Laurel Barsalou, is also an inspiration. “My mom is 89 and golfs 18 holes three days a week. She is living life to the fullest every day.”
Having a strong support system and staying busy helps Cindy stay strong and positive. Together with her best friend and business partner, Nadia Dickinson, they were awarded Kestra Financial’s 2020 Humanitarian Award for their community service.
“Nadia has been there every step of the way in my cancer journey,” she said.
She also explained that areas of the brain can be influenced by thought. “The way we perceive our pain can change the way we feel it, either emotionally, spiritually, or physically,” she said.
While hiking the Grand Canyon, she came across two young doctors and struck up a conversation. One was a radiologist and the other an emergency room doctor fresh out of medical school.
“They didn’t know about my type of cancer, so I educated them and we still keep in touch. I don’t think neuroendocrine is as rare as people think, I just think people are not diagnosed properly.” Recently Poole was also been diagnosed with breast cancer, and more tumors have been found around her liver and pancreas.
“I’m just very thankful for new treatments that are now available. I started the blog to help and encourage others, and now others are encouraging me.”
She looks forward to many more hikes and making new friends along her journey. “With life being an uncertainty for all of us, being flexible, living authentically and according to values that we choose is my recipe for success.”
Linda KC Reynolds began her photography career in the U.S. Air Force. After serving six years, she worked full-time for Northrop Grumman on the B-2 stealth bomber and now freelances for various aerospace companies and other venues. She is passionate about free speech, musical production, and sharing peoples’ stories.