Jennifer Popa, a radiation therapist at Shore Cancer Center, was ready for a big adventure last year to celebrate her 40th birthday. She set her goal high - 17,600 feet high to be exact - as she flew across the globe to Nepal with her sights set to climb to the Mt. Everest base camp.
The trip was not only a bucket list opportunity for Popa – she wanted a positive outcome for others, as well. Popa investigated and found a number of groups traveling to the area, but one really connected to her: Radiating Hope. The organization was started by two Philadelphia radiation oncologists with shared common interests in mountain climbing, along with recognizing the need for cancer care in third world countries.
“That just spoke to me,” said Popa, who added that a portion of the cost of the trip goes toward cancer care in that country.
Popa, who lives in Egg Harbor Township, said she was able to tour the Kathmandu Cancer Center located in Bhaktapur, where thousands of cancer patients receive top notch treatment. She explained that the center treats more than 70 patients daily, with up-to-date technology and equipment. They operate from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily to meet the needs of the region, as the country of Nepal has only three cancer centers. Popa added that to care for the patients in the community, the cancer center must truly rely on the generosity of others to keep up-to-date. The center has IMRT (Intensity-modulated radiation therapy), VMAT (volumetric modulated arc therapy), total body radio therapy capabilities and more.
When she returned to Shore Cancer Center after her excursion, Popa wanted to see how she could do something to benefit the Kathmandu Cancer Center in their work. Popa approached her supervisor, Joe Johnston, administrative director of the Shore Cancer Center and Oncology Services, about contributing an unutilized Civco large water bath that was stored in the basement of the cancer center. Johnston was on board with putting the water bath to use in Kathmandu.
“We take a lot of pride in the care we provide our local community. This was an opportunity for us to support the global cancer community,” Johnston said. He went on to add that Popa had already made a significant contribution in joining Radiating Hope to benefit Nepal and that Shore Cancer Center’s donation is an extension and in support of her tremendous effort.
Popa explained that the water bath is filled with water which heats up a plastic mask of the head and shoulder area to make the plastic pliable. This mask is then laid on top of a patient as an immobilization device to keep him/her still and accurately positioned for their cancer treatment. “This is so beneficial to the Nepalese people, as head and neck cancers are extremely prevalent there,” said Popa.
Trekking to base camp is nine days up and three back down. Popa said the reason it takes so long to go up the mountain is so the climbers can acclimate to the elevation and avoid altitude sickness, which if severe can be fatal. “There is a cough that climbers develop at a certain elevation which adds to the difficulty of the climb,” said Popa. In fact, one of the climbers on her trek got so sick she had to be airlifted off the mountain.
Popa began her training months in advance of the trip, alternating from walking the Ocean City bridge with a backpack filled with physics books to using the gym’s Stairmaster and treadmill at its steepest incline to build endurance.
Once on the trip, Popa said it was simply incredible and she had to remind herself while climbing to look out and take in the beauty and majesty of the mountains. She snapped more than 1,000 photos with her phone to document her journey.
One thing she enjoyed leaving behind were prayer flags that are hung in honor of people fighting cancer. “As the flags blow in the wind, threads from the flags slowly unravel and blow away, with each thread representing a prayer of hope, strength and health for the person it honors,” said Popa.
So what is next for Popa, the now-seasoned climber and traveler? She has Mt. Kilimanjaro in her sights for later this year where she will once again be teaming up with Radiating Hope with a goal of raising money for cancer care in Tanzania.