Overcoming the Odds: A Climber's Journey from Tumor Diagnosis to Scaling New Heights Blog Feature

By: Movement

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Overcoming the Odds: A Climber's Journey from Tumor Diagnosis to Scaling New Heights

Climbing isn't just a sport for many; it's a way of life, a source of mental solace, and a symbol of personal triumph. Meet Danielle du Preez, one of the Gateway instructors at Movement Santa Clara, whose remarkable journey from battling a rare bone tumor to returning to the climbing wall not only serves as an inspiration but also highlights the power of community and resilience. 

Danielle has been deeply passionate about climbing since her college days. However, in March 2022, her life took an unexpected turn when lower back pain forced her to hang up her climbing shoes. Every time she tried to return to climbing, the pain was excruciating, leading to concerns that it might be a herniated disc. Still, Danielle found solace in the climbing community while working at the Gateway summer camps, providing support and mentorship to young climbers. 


group of climbers


A Shocking Diagnosis: 

The turning point in Danielle's journey came when, on the last day of summer camp, she left the gym to get an MRI. What she expected to be a routine procedure took a shocking twist when the report revealed a spinal bone tumor the size of a small lime. This tumor had dissolved half of her L2 vertebra, compressing spinal nerves and the psoas muscle. 

Further tests revealed Danielle had an Aneurysmal Bone Cyst, an aggressively growing but fortunately benign bone tumor. This condition is so rare that few spine surgeons worldwide are experienced in treating them. It necessitated a specialized treatment approach and consultation with a double-board-certified spine surgeon and oncologist at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. 


A Bumpy Recovery & Seeking Alternative Solutions: 

At the time she traveled to the Mayo Clinic, Danielle was in constant pain and unable to walk without assistance. While she awaited her biopsy results, her doctors prepared her for the likelihood that she would need a series of extensive spine surgeries to remove the tumor. She was ready to commit to surgery, but a few weeks later, a change in insurance due to a new job led to a frustrating setback—Danielle would no longer be able to receive care at the Mayo Clinic. Her new team of doctors explained that surgery meant the removal of the entire L2 vertebra and a two-level lumbar fusion, which would have the potential to significantly affect the mobility of the back. 

Despite the challenges, Danielle was determined to return to climbing. After the biopsy, she explored non-surgical treatment options and consulted with experts worldwide. This research led to a unique treatment plan involving the injection of doxycycline into the tumor to stimulate healing. 

Danielle underwent the procedure in January of the following year, but complications arose when her spinal cord dura was punctured, leading to a severe spinal fluid leak. Hospitalization was necessary, and Danielle faced a week of bed rest. However, her spinal cord healed, and subsequent MRIs revealed a decrease in the tumor's size. 

Danielle Climbing

The Triumph of Return: 

In April, a year after her back pain journey began, Danielle received a follow-up CT scan that showed sufficient bony healing, enabling her to return to climbing. Her L2 vertebra was healing into an unusual shape, with several holes inside the bone, but it was strong enough to climb.  

When Danielle returned to the climbing wall after a full year of being unable to exercise, she faced the challenge of rebuilding her strength and her trust in her body’s ability to tolerate climbing. After 13 sessions, she achieved a significant milestone – her first pull-up post-recovery. Within just three months of her return, she sent her first V4 boulder problem, a remarkable achievement considering her journey. 

A Newfound Passion:

Through her recovery, Danielle discovered a renewed passion for climbing. She is not only pushing herself but also cheering on and inspiring fellow climbers to test their limits. Her incredible journey from diagnosis to recovery and return to climbing exemplifies the indomitable spirit of the climbing community. Her story highlights the power of determination and resilience and motivates climbers facing their own health struggles. In the climbing world, one person's victory is a victory for all, reminding us that we can achieve the unimaginable when we confront our fears and surpass perceived boundaries.