In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

October 11, 2018

Amid Cancer Battle, Husband and Wife Embark on the Hike of a Lifetime

By In the Loop

Connie Robinson was diagnosed with a slow-growing form of cancer in 2009 and sought treatment at Mayo Clinic's Arizona campus, where her passion for hiking only grew.

Looking at her, you'd never know Connie Robinson is sick. And she certainly wouldn't tell you she was. "I don't feel like anything's wrong with me and I never have," the 70-year-old recent retiree tells us.

Yet back in 2009, Connie was sitting in a hospital room in Ohio when a doctor diagnosed her with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a slow-growing form of cancer that affects the body’s lymphocyte white blood cells. It was a diagnosis Connie never saw coming. "Outside of some new lumps and bumps, I had no symptoms at all," she says.

Asked where she'd like to begin her treatment plan following her diagnosis, Connie didn't hesitate. She and her husband, Frank, visited Arizona each year for vacation and Mayo Clinic seemed like the right fit, especially after meeting with Jose Leis, M.D., Ph.D. "His specialty is exactly my kind of leukemia and that was a gift in itself," Connie says. "That was probably the biggest peace of mind for me going into my treatment, and it really made me feel like he was the best doctor for me. Plus, he's an avid hiker and backpacker, so we have lots to talk about."

Including the 800-mile trek down the entire state of Arizona that Connie and her husband were planning to tackle. "We started hiking about 12 years ago and just love it," Connie says. "We were familiar with the Arizona Trail from the time we started vacationing in Arizona," she tells us. "It's been something that's always fascinated us — an 800-mile trail that goes from Utah all the way to Mexico."

So last year, while Connie's body was continuing to fight the cancer that had once gone into remission but has since returned, they began training. "Our plan was to leave in August, which we did, and then end up in Phoenix 400 miles later, take a week off and hike the last 400 miles," Connie says. "But it didn't quite work out that way."

While Connie tells us she "had no problems" during the 220 miles or so of ground they covered — including rim to rim of the Grand Canyon — her husband didn't fare the same. "He struggled right from the beginning, and after we did the first 100 miles, he said, 'I'm done,'" Connie says. "I talked him into doing the second 100 miles, but after that, he was just physically and mentally beat down, and I couldn't go on alone."

Rather than toss in their sweat-stained towels, they regrouped and now have a new plan. "We're definitely going to finish it before the end of the year," Connie tells us. "But we're now going to do the rest in smaller, week-long 100-mile chunks."

All while continuing to fight a disease that’s tried its best to keep Connie’s health and spirits down, to no avail. “I’ve never really accepted the fact I’m sick or that I have cancer,” she says. "I keep telling Dr. Leis I think he's misdiagnosed me, and he just keeps laughing at me, but I think that's the key."

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Tags: Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, Dr. Jose Leis, Mayo Clinic in Arizona, Patient Stories

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