Gillian Lichota is the kind of woman who leaves a lasting impression. It isn’t just because she’s beautiful and fit, or that she’s an adventurous research scientist who’s traveled the globe studying the effects of climate change and promoting conservation. Rather, it has to do with her incredible courage in the face of unthinkable challenges and her bold intent to inspire others.
During the early weeks of pregnancy, Gillian noticed the sudden appearance of a rather large lump on her breast. Initially, she wasn’t alarmed. However, when she began to feel a burning sensation and noticed an odd dimpling in that area, she could no longer ignore the lump. She shared her concerns with her gynecologist, who immediately scheduled a breast ultrasound to examine the lump, followed by a biopsy.
The findings were shocking. Still in her first trimester of pregnancy, Gillian was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer. The diagnosis seemed as untenable as her options. She could undergo surgery to remove this aggressive pregnancy-related breast cancer, and risk losing her baby in the process, or delay the surgery and take the chance that the cancer would advance significantly. Gillian decided her unborn child deserved a healthy, cancer free mother and opted to have the surgery.
Wracked with fear and uncertainty
As she was wheeled into surgery, Gillian anxiously wrestled with the greatest fear and uncertainty of her life. She thought to herself: “This seems like an impossible mountain to climb. It’s difficult to see the summit. How am I going to do this?” It was then that she made a pact with herself to approach this “impossible mountain” one step at a time. After completing treatment, she vowed, she would find the biggest, most beautiful mountain and climb it, just because she could! First, she would have to endure all that stood between envisioning the goal and achieving it.
Soon after surgery, son Kailen was born, but Gillian’s experience as a new mother was hardly like that of most women. After undergoing chemotherapy while pregnant, and just four weeks after delivering her son, Gillian underwent three more months of rigorous chemotherapy that left the self-described adrenaline-junkyadventurer physically debilitated, emotionally and mentally.
“Women diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 50 face a unique set of challenges. We must also consider issues of pregnancy, fertility, and family obligations that come with having young children. Their careers are often interrupted, adding financial strain to the emotional burden of the diagnosis itself. Few resources are geared toward helping women like myself with their transitional reset and acceptance of their body,” says Gillian. “I could not have endured the pregnancy, surgeries, chemotherapy and first year of motherhood without the incredible support of my husband, Boe, and amazing community of friends.”
Partnering with her medical team on treatment decisions
Throughout her cancer odyssey she also leaned on her Kimmel Cancer Center health care team, particularly her oncologist Vered Stearns, M.D., whom Gillian says “is very much about empowering her patients with information and choice.”
“Dr. Stearns explained the latest research to me, but she left the final decisions up to me. She empowered me to make the choices that felt right for me,” Gillian says.
"Each woman has her own journey, and it is different"
Second chances and making every moment count
After completing her medical treatments and surgeries, Gillian worked to prove that wellness and illness can coexist on a continuum and to become an example for other young women affected by breast cancer. She trained and conditioned her body, mind and spirit to meet the goal she set out for herself before her first surgery. In the summer of 2015, Gillian summited Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest free-standing mountain in the world, reaching approximately 5,895 meters above sea level.
Despite fear and exhaustion— much like she faced when diagnosed with breast cancer during her first trimester of pregnancy—Gillian again overcame the daunting task before her. She conquered the summit. “After six days of climbing for approximately nine hours a day, and under the bright light of the full moon, we were finally approaching the summit. As we climbed the glacier to reach the summit, the sun was beginning to rise over Africa and everything was illuminated. I was dizzy, completely exhausted and in pain, but the beauty of it all was completely overwhelming,” she says. With a friend’s encouragement, and in spite of exhaustion, pain and frostbitten fingers, Gillian made it to the top.
“I rose to the challenge and did it. I made every moment count and never gave up. I closed one chapter of my life and opened another,” she says.
Overcoming fear and helping others
Breast cancer is particularly aggressive in young women, and Gillian’s cancer was no exception. In the spring of 2017, after five years in remission, the unthinkable occurred. Her breast cancer returned and, this time, it had spread. There was no cure. Still she was fueled by her passion for life and determination to rise above her situation. Purpose became her antidepressant. She knew she was in a unique position to help others. Gillian wanted a better experience for young women with breast cancer. She wanted them to thrive in mind, body and spirit. “I decided to once again do the thing I thought I could not do. I wanted to challenge old paradigms and change perceptions of what it means to have— and to live with —breast cancer,” she says. With this goal in mind, she started the iRise Above Foundation to directly benefit the health and wellness of women under age 50 who are diagnosed with breast cancer.
Her foundation’s mission is to surround young women with targeted, age-appropriate and connected health and wellness resources to enable them to rise above the residual effects of breast cancer, complete a life-changing mind-body-spirit expedition, and enjoy long-term survival.
Gillian’s future plans include tagging humpback whales in Rarotonga and leading other young breast cancer survivors on new adventures, including trekking through Nepal and the Himalayas to reach Everest Base Came, summitting Mount Kilimanjaro followed by a safari, and hiking, biking, kayaking and ice-climbing from Chile to Argentina.
“There is a fear associated with facing a new physical, mental and spiritual challenge, like climbing a mountain or trekking through a remote place in a foreign country, that is not unlike facing cancer,” she says. “Each woman has her own journey, and it is different. To step outside of her comfort zone to do something like this helps in healing and empowerment and offers confidence that she can rise in the face of adversity.”