Dr. Favia Dubyk Lives to Climb
After a grapefruit-size cancerous tumor nearly killed her, the physician committed to spending as much time as possible doing what she loves most
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Dr. Favia Dubyk shared her story with producer Stepfanie Aguilar for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It was edited for length and clarity.
When you’re in survival mode, you’re not really thinking about much. I lived second by second. I was like, I survived this second, let’s survive the next second.
I see myself as an athlete first and foremost, but I’m also a physician. I’m pretty energetic. I smile a lot. I smile even when I’m terrified. So people think I’m always having a good time even though I’m not.
I was a second year med student in Cleveland, Ohio. I exercised six days a week, rock climbed six days a week, and my life pretty much revolved around going to the gym.
When I started not feeling that great, I just thought, “Oh, I’m really stressed because I’m taking boards.” But then after boards, the symptoms didn’t improve, they were worsening.
I actually had to stop climbing because it made me too weak. I started getting more injuries that I didn’t get before. Then eventually, I couldn’t raise my arms up. If I raised my arms, my oxygen was shut off. So, I would try to even warm up and I’d be struggling to breathe. And people would ask, “Are you okay?” And I’m like, “I don’t know.” I can’t even get on the wall without feeling like I’m about to die.
There was actually a commercial on TV for the Cleveland Clinic that said next day appointments. So I made a ton of next day appointments, with every single doctor I could think to call. And they did an x-ray, and found a 13-centimeter mass in my chest. The size of a very large grapefruit. And I’m a small person.
Once we found the mass, which was devastating, I was put in a small room. All the doctors did a funeral procession into the room I was in. When they came in looking all sad and depressed, I knew that it wasn’t good news. They told me, “Well you have cancer, but we don’t know what type. You need to have a biopsy.”
It took several biopsies, and after every surgery I had life threatening side effects. My lungs collapsed, or fluid developed all around my heart. Just trying to get the diagnosis nearly killed me.
After spending a month in the hospital, the pathologist finally came up with a diagnosis of advanced stage Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I was on chemo for six months, but I was in the hospital before that, and I was bedridden during that whole time. I couldn’t feed myself, really. My boyfriend, now husband, had to take care of me. I was so weak because they cut my chest, so I couldn’t use my arms. And with the port in my leg, I couldn’t use my leg. So I only had one functioning limb. I felt like I was lost, because I thought, “Who am I without being able to do sports?” And I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to go back to being an athlete.
I just kind of gave up and I was like, “Just kill me. There’s no point in living.”
I told my husband, then boyfriend, to just end it. And he said, “Nope, not gonna do that.” And I’m very thankful he didn’t. But I had to think of a reason to go on. I was like, “Well, what do you love in life? Well, I really, really love climbing. And if I get through this, I want to climb to my heart’s content.”
After I did my recovery, it changed the way I made my decisions in life. My decision protocol became more, “Will this help me become a better climber? Yes or no?”
When I first returned to the climbing gym, eight months later, after I finished my treatment, I couldn’t climb because I was so weak that it took me months to be able to climb a V0. Just for reference, a V0 is set for anyone off the street to be able to come and climb. And that was very disappointing. I came back to climbing and I actually couldn’t even do the single easiest climb there.
But I came back, and I came back again. And I remember the point when I finally got up the V0. Getting to the top I was so happy. It meant that I could finally climb again. I even chose my residency based on climbing. I was looking for residencies that were in locations that had really accessible outdoor climbing. When I was in residency, people would ask, “Why do you climb so much?” Because we would work a hundred hours a week, sometimes 120 hours a week. They’d say, “How are you still training when you’re working so many hours?” And I would say this is what keeps me going. This is why I get out of bed. Climbing is me.
All I wanted to do was to return to my previous fitness level. I focused on training to climb my pre-cancer project. It was a V5 at Cooper’s Rock, called Helicopter.
I trained and trained for that, and about a year later, I climbed Helicopter in my wedding dress. Because I really, really loved my wedding dress and I just didn’t know any other way to use it. I thought it would make for beautiful pictures. I got on it and I sent it, and I could not believe that one year after I started climbing, I was actually stronger than I was pre-cancer. I could not do this before. I can do it now.
Every year that we are married I climb the grade the years we’ve been married in my wedding dress. Last year I climbed to V8 in my wedding dress. This year I have to climb a V9. I’m hoping that we stay married long enough for me to figure out a new system, because eventually I’m going to run out of grades.
Live every single day as if you don’t have a tomorrow, because you may not have a tomorrow, a lot sooner than your peers. And that’s how I’ve lived my life. It’s a little bit exhausting, but I have packed so much into every single day that if I got cancer tomorrow or got hit by a bus, I would know that I have lived life to the fullest, that I have probably lived three lives already.
Dr. Favia Dubyk is a professional rock climber, physician and cancer survivor. She has competed in America Ninja Warrior twice. Learn more about her on her website, drfavia.com. You can also follow her on Instagram @felinefavia.