The incredible reason this veteran hiked nearly 40 miles through the Rocky Mountains.
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During a routine medical exam in 2015, army veteran Will Montgomery got a diagnosis he never expected.

The VA diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as a traumatic brain injury. He was retiring early from the Army due to an unrelated injury when his disabilities were discovered.

“I was shocked,” he explains. “I didn’t really think I had a problem.”


With so much loss around him, his initial struggles with depression and anxiety had felt like a normal part of military life.

“We all go to war, we all lose somebody that’s close to us. Some of us lose more than others,” he says.

And Montgomery’s losses had affected him far more than he thought. In 2011, a rocket attack on the base where he was serving in Iraq had claimed the lives of three of his fellow soldiers in 2011. And while he had survived the attack, he didn’t leave unscathed. The memories and trauma of those events would echo on.

Photo by israel palacio/Unsplash.

It wasn’t until he started to transition back into civilian life, though, that he realized just how much of an impact that trauma had on him.

“When you get out, you start trying to adapt into the civilian world, and people start to look at you like, ‘You’re not right.’”

Montgomery was struggling to relate to other civilians, who didn’t seem to understand him. He began longing for the camaraderie that he’d found in the military, but it was difficult to find. He was having thoughts of suicide and started drinking heavily to cope. This led him to isolate himself and even landed him in jail for starting fights.

“You just kind of feel like you’re broken at that point,” he says.

To make matters worse, in his home of Northwest Colorado, the nearest mental health provider that would take his insurance was nearly four hours away by car. While he was willing to make the journey, it wasn’t sustainable over the long term. And without access to reliable care, he faced an uphill battle.

That’s why he decided to reach out to the Denver Veterans’ Affairs office to ask for their help.

Images via Will Montgomery.

They connected him with an intensive, seven-week treatment program for veterans with PTSD where he was finally able to get the proper support he needed to better address his trauma. With the help of cognitive and occupational therapies, which taught him new coping and social skills, he began to see how he could find his place again in the civilian world.  

He sobered up and he started working out again, and, one day at a time, he began to rebuild his life.

“I wanted to change my path and be a husband and be a father again,” he says. Recovery wasn’t just about sobriety and therapy. It was also about finding his way back to himself.

“When I got out of the Army, I had to find a whole new identity of who I was. I felt like I lost me,” he says.

To rediscover his sense of self, he wrote down different affirmations on sticky notes, and put them all around his house: “I’m a father,” “I’m a husband,” “I’m successful," “I’m a veteran,”

“Just little things, so that when I walked around, it’s like, ‘That’s who I am,’” he explains.

Like many survivors, Montgomery had taken his diagnosis to mean that something was wrong with him but with time, he was able to push back against that assumption, realizing he was much more than a diagnosis. And through that process, he found his calling — by being visible, he wanted to show others that trauma survivors are much more than the labels that their doctors give them, too.

“Anybody with PTSD needs to understand that just because we have it, we’re not broken,” he says.

Passionate about fitness as part of his own recovery, he wanted to challenge himself physically, but he also wanted to be visible for other survivors who may be struggling in silence. That’s why Montgomery decided that he would hike around Colorado.

So in May 2017, Montgomery walked from Craig to Hayden, Colorado, 17.6 miles, to raise awareness for PTSD.

With the support of his local veteran organizations, his walk got the attention of community members, who were eager to help. While he hadn’t expected to raise money, people opened up their wallets, and he was able to raise a thousand dollars for a local veteran in need. He quickly realized he was onto something.

And that’s why, this last May, he did it again. Only this time, he pushed himself even further.

He hiked nearly 40 miles through Rabbit Ears Pass in the Rocky Mountains — which ranges from 6,000 to almost 10,000 feet in elevation — raising nearly 4,000 dollars for local veterans along the way. Joined by Army veteran Ryan Fritz and Tracy Santistevan, the hike even got the attention of local news media, who were inspired by their determination.

“[The hike] was actually nerve-wracking,” he laughs. “I was sore the next day, but I lived.” The hike took an entire day to complete, but it became a powerful symbol of perseverance for Montgomery and survivors like him.

To honor survivors, he carried 42 names with him in his vest during the hike. “These were people that either suffered from PTSD and died in combat, or … [survived but] don’t know how to cope with it yet,” he says. “Those are people I carried with me in my vest that day.”

And Montgomery isn’t stopping with just two hikes. He’s already planning next year’s hike, which he plans to make even more challenging by making his way across the entire state of Colorado — close to 200 miles — with a group of other advocates like him.

“The key is to get awareness out there,” he explains.

In true army fashion, Montgomery hasn’t forgotten his comrades. Looking to the future, he’s eager to do more to empower veterans and civilians alike.

For him, service to others is just the military way. “You made a bigger commitment than to just yourself,” he says. “We didn’t do it for us.”

That’s why he returned to college to get his associate’s degree in psychology, which he’s now using to establish a veterans support group in his local community. He also offers free fitness coaching to new army recruits to prepare them for basic training and as a next step, he plans to start a gym where he hopes to offer free gym memberships to veterans, as well as recovering addicts who commit to staying sober.

While his life changed forever the moment he was diagnosed with PTSD, his pain has given him an even greater purpose.

No longer letting his mental health diagnosis hold him back, he’s determined to use his experiences to lift up others. “[In the Army,] I wasn’t the leader who wanted my name recognized,” he explains. “I wanted my soldiers recognized.”

Everyone can all use a little lift at the end of the week, and we've collected some of this week's best stories to provide just such a pick-me-up. Here are 10 things we want to share, just because they made us so darn happy.

1. Introducing Lila, the U.S. Capitol Police's first emotional support dog.

After the traumatic experiences of January 6th, Capitol Police officers could definitely use some extra support. Lila, a two-year-old black lab, will now serve as the department's first full-time emotional support dog. Look at that sweet face!

2. Speaking of the Capitol, take a look at this week's gorgeous solar eclipse behind the dome.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the stunning "ring of fire" image on Twitter. Always a treat when nature gives us a great show.


3. Colorado sees its first wild wolf pups in six decades.

In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated in Colorado by trappers and hunters, with the support of the federal government. Whoops. This week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced the first evidence of wild wolf breeding in the state, a sign of hope for the endangered species. Read more about the discovery here.

Photo by M L on Unsplash


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Everyone can all use a little lift at the end of the week, and we've collected some of this week's best stories to provide just such a pick-me-up. Here are 10 things we want to share, just because they made us so darn happy.

1. Introducing Lila, the U.S. Capitol Police's first emotional support dog.

After the traumatic experiences of January 6th, Capitol Police officers could definitely use some extra support. Lila, a two-year-old black lab, will now serve as the department's first full-time emotional support dog. Look at that sweet face!

2. Speaking of the Capitol, take a look at this week's gorgeous solar eclipse behind the dome.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the stunning "ring of fire" image on Twitter. Always a treat when nature gives us a great show.


3. Colorado sees its first wild wolf pups in six decades.

In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated in Colorado by trappers and hunters, with the support of the federal government. Whoops. This week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced the first evidence of wild wolf breeding in the state, a sign of hope for the endangered species. Read more about the discovery here.

Photo by M L on Unsplash


4. 30-year-old singer with terminal cancer amazed and inspired with her performance on America's Got Talent.

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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."