In March of 2007, she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. “There is no stage 5,” she says.
In an effort to regain her physicality, and clear her mind of the ravages of cancer, she decided to hike the more than 1,600-mile El Camino Real or “Mission Trail,” which was the impetus for writing her forthcoming book, “The Mission Walker.”
Before this idea could come to fruition, however, Littlefield Sundby would endure three major operations, more than 1 million milligrams of chemotherapy and see the aid of a “miracle drug,” Avastin literally change her exterior composition. She would have the majority of her right lung removed. In order to keep her lungs in good working order, she needed to walk. Perhaps not necessarily the desolate, perilous, narco-riddled trail (with little in existence in way of mapping), but Littlefield Sundby does not do things on a small or normal scale.
Onset of medical issues
After experiencing debilitating pain in her stomach, which she first noticed returning from a volunteer trip to India when her daughter, Stefanie, went to lay in her lap. She figured the pain had to be some form of parasite, and continued on with her daily life. It was not until she joined her sister, Juanita, on a 600-mile road trip to visit an elderly uncle that she decided to get checked out.
“I had been ‘arrogantly healthy,’ so had not been to the doctor in more than 20 years. I took great care of myself, and have a high immune system,” which Littlefield Sundby attributes from going barefoot on the Oklahoma cotton farm where she grew up. “The last time I was at Scripps, my kids were born.”
Littlefield Sundby found a doctor at Scripps that would take on new patients, but his first available appointment was nearly three months away. As she listed her symptoms to the doctor’s physician’s assistant, it was decided that she should come into the office right away.
After an initial check up in March 2007, they had her come back the next day for an abdominal ultrasound, which did not cause much alarm for her. It wasn’t until the examination, which had gone from idle talk of the best yoga teachers and studios, to “See that?” and “Look closer at this” by medical staff. They asked her to come back the next day for a pelvic ultrasound and CT scan, of which she began to worry.
Following the results, the next morning her doctor, Dr. Murad, was surprised to see her by herself.
“Where is your family?” he asked.
She explained that her husband, Dale, was in a remote area of the Ukraine at the time, working on setting up a company they had just formed. Two of her children were away at college, with Stefanie taking a gap year from school and working in the area.
“You need to call them immediately and have them come home,” Murad said. “I’m sorry Edie, but you have cancer.”
Dale hopped a 50-plus-hour flight home to be with his wife, emailing and researching the entirety of the trip. The kids came home from college. Prior to telling her family her diagnosis, she did her own research.
Despite her initial reaction, which entailed an extreme loss of breath and disbelief, she simply inquired “Where?”; “How much?” and “Has it spread?”
Murad explained that they believed the source to have been her gallbladder, but there were also tumors in her liver and other organs. She also had a 17-centimeter mass (roughly the size of her entire abdomen) within the peritoneum.
“I somehow got from the office to my car and got in to drive home,” writes Littlefield Sundby in “Mission Walker.” “But I soon found myself pulling over to the side of the road under a shade tree, next to an old mission bell hanging from a rusted pole curved at the top... I knew this news was devastating, but I’d been a fighter my whole life. It was time to gather forces. Surrender was not an option. I was not going out without a fight.”
Stopping by that mission bell, of which she had been fond of her whole life, would ultimately provide the La Jollan with a mission of her own: to walk the Camino de Real, often known as “The Mission Trail,” which stretches from Southern Baja California to Sonoma.
El Camino Real, help from vaqueros
After two major surgeries, where the doctors went in to remove as much cancer as possible, she was responding well to treatment, much to the shock of her doctors (some of the best in the world). Despite the odds stacked against her, Littlefield Sundby began to doctor shop to find surgeons to perform treatment. After surgeries, when the cancer would “come back,” she would look to her solutions.
“In my mind, I had already accepted death,” said the author. “By the time my second and third surgeries became an option, I was already seasoned in how to deal with this terrible cancer.”
Her third major surgery involved having the majority of her right lung removed. Following a few months of recovery, she was up in Sonoma hiking the end of the Mission Trail. She came to learn more about the trail when she discovered that Helen Copley had sent map maker Harry Crosby in 1967 (until around 1974) to map the trail in celebration of the anniversary of California’s colonization by Jesuit Spanish missionaries.
Since Southern Baja California is sparsely populated, the town of Loreto in particular, Littlefield Sundby found a small company that provides vaqueros or “cowboys,” to take them on short desert trail outings. These vaqueros are direct descendants of those who colonized California, so know the trail, the terrain and are basically making everything they own from scratch.
“Initially, the company informed me that they could only provide vaqueros for a certain distance of the trail,” said Littlefield Sundby. “Regardless, I was out to do my mission walk, so I flew from Tijuana solo to Loreto. Once I arrived, the vaqueros were amazing. Despite the tour company saying they could only take me so far, the vaqueros networked with others that knew the trail, often ‘passing the baton’ at different destinations. They were truly my angels on the trek: making sure that I was okay physically, protecting me in narco-territory, and finding other vaqueros when they couldn’t find a trailhead.”
She says that she was conflicted about publicizing these vaqueros of Southern Baja. While they operate on as little as $5 U.S. a day, and could use a bump in business, she didn’t want to infringe on their lifestyle.
Littlefield Sundby’s faith, instilled by her mother (for whom the book is dedicated) at an early age, as well as the support of her loving family and world-class medical specialists ultimately has aided her in her journey. It is her fighting spirit, however, that has led her to conquer cancer’s grasp.
Of her time in the desert, she says things “Come full circle. There’s so much mystery, yet I felt so connected with God, life and my family. I am so instilled with faith, for it has been my anchor and my compass.”