Pink Vail backer Mike Christenberry has spent his life fighting cancer, and winning
‘Every Cancer, Every Color’
The annual Pink Vail fund-raiser for the Shaw Cancer Center is set for March 16 on Vail Mountain. The event this year is dedicated to all those who fight cancer.
Over its history, Pink Vail has raised more than $4 million for the cancer center.
For more information, go to www.pinkvail.com.
EAGLE-VAIL — Talking about cancer usually involves a lot of numbers. Mike Christenberry only knows two.
“Alive is 100 percent; not alive is zero percent — there’s no in between,” Christenberry said.
So far, Christenberry has been at 100 percent, despite being treated 20 times for various kinds of cancer. He’s been fighting — usually with a smile on his face — since 1981. He has Gore-Tex where muscles should be, has had veins and arteries replaced, and has gone through more surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy than, well, just about anybody. He’s had cancer that only a handful of people in the world know about, much less know how to treat.
Christenberry’s life-long battle started when he was just 19 and living in his native New Jersey. He first fell in love with Colorado as a student at Colorado State University in the 1970s. In 1995, after more than a decade of remission, he moved to Summit County, then to Vail, to pursue the mountain life — work at night and ski during the day.
It was about the time Christenberry moved to Colorado that his second fight with cancer began. This was a tough one.
‘Nice knowing you’
Some friends heard the news and said, “It’s been nice knowing you.” Other friends, the really good friends, were more encouraging.
“This doesn’t define you,” they’d say, no matter the grim numbers associated with the disease.
That led to one of Christenberry’s mantras: “You create your own statistic.”
After surgery and treatment that included having the veins and arteries in his legs rebuilt, Christenberry was again cancer-free. Or so he thought.
Despite years of positive scans and blood work, cells continued to hide in Christenberry’s body.
Nearly a decade later, waiting to pick up his daughter, Grace, from preschool, Christenberry met Dr. Alex Urquhart, who was then new at the Shaw Cancer Center in Edward. Urquhart convinced Christenberry to come in for a CAT scan. There were spots on Christenberry’s liver, and further diagnostic work showed that colon cancer had spread to that organ.
The team at University Hospital proposed a course of treatment that involved multiple surgeries, months of chemotherapy, and no assurances that any of it would work.
“There were no statistics for my five-year survival,” Christenberry said.
But the sister of a childhood friend had grown up to be one of the world’s best-known cancer researchers, based a Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. After a couple of emails and calls, Christenberry had a list of the five top doctors in colon cancer. He posed a simple question to all: “If your brother was diagnosed … where would you send him?”
All five doctors replied with the same two names, both at Sloan Kettering.
The next week, Christenberry flew to New York for one surgery and an aggressive course of chemotherapy. That beat back the cancer.
For a while.
Fighting again — and again
In 2010, after coming back from a run — he’s always skied, run and hiked — Christenberry put his hands on his hips and felt a lump in his side. He called Sloan Kettering and was on the next plane to New York.
Doctors removed a tumor from his abdomen. Eight months later, the tumor returned.
This time, all of his abdominal muscles were removed and replaced with a sheet of Gore-Tex. Three months later, Christenberry was skiing bumps on Beaver Creek’s Birds of Prey run.
There have been other bumps and spots, including in his lungs. The last of the recurrences in his lungs were blasted away in 2016.
Through all of this, Christenberry kept working, kept active, and kept active raising his kids, Grace and Max, who’s now a senior at Battle Mountain High School.
Through it all, Christenberry came to rely on the people at the Shaw Center, as well as friends and neighbors. Not long ago, 25 people volunteered to drive him to the Denver area and back every day for 25 straight days.
People want to help, if you ask.
Christenberry continues to hike, ski and run. He’s a longtime massage therapist, and has also become a certified meditation instructor. Meditation has helped Christenberry with his own journey, and he believes it can help others. His meditation clients face struggles of their own, whether with medical or personal struggles.
“In our tiny town, there’s a plethora of things that hit us.”
Helping, and encouraging helpers, is why Christenberry is involved in this year’s Pink Vail fundraiser.
“Pink Vail is about the support that we can give that patients never necessarily see,” he said. “But the shared awareness is there, to build an army when the battle needs to be fought.”
Christenberry’s quick to smile and quick with a quip. But there have been plenty of times of self-doubt and plenty of fear. The only way through that is to work to keep negative people away and never stop moving forward, he said.
Right now, the work, the pain, the struggle are paying off.
On a recent hike with a friend up Lake Creek, the friend turned to Christenberry, gave him a hug and said, “Look at what you’re doing after all you’ve been through.”
“That’s why I went through it,” he replied.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-748-2930.
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