Words: Kim Kircher
The first snow of the season had already blanketed the Cascades when Shirley Sundt learned she had breast cancer again. The doctor felt sure chemotherapy could save her remaining breast. Shirley had other plans. “Just take it off,” she said. “I already bought my season pass.” Shirley’s multi-week ski lesson at Crystal Mountain started in a few weeks. She wasn’t about to miss it.
When Shirley first visited Shiga Heights Resort in her native Japan in 1964 after she married an American Air Force pilot, she wondered, “What’s so good about skiing?” It was cold, expensive, and it scared her to death. Her husband loved to ski, so she stuck with it. If nothing else, she figured she could spend time with him. Two decades later, the sport would save her life.
After moving to Washington with her husband in 1974, doctors diagnosed her with stomach cancer and told her she had just a few months to live. Determined to prove the doctors wrong, Shirley dug deep. Even though she was sick, and afraid she’d never enjoy the mountains again, she took to skiing with a passion.
“I don’t give up. Once the engine stops running, it’s hard to get going again,” says Shirley.
She underwent chemotherapy, surgeries, and a string of doctor appointments. Shirley found the best medicine was outside in the fresh air. Skiing at Crystal Mountain a few months after her diagnosis, Shirley decided to ski the black diamond moguls in Green Valley, a slope off the top of the mountain. The run had always scared her, but she figured if she didn’t try it that year, she might not get another chance.
Watching Shirley ski with her “girls group” of six women, all students from Cascade Ski School that have skied together every Thursday for 20 years, you would never know she has battled cancer three times. After beating the stomach cancer, Shirley was diagnosed with breast cancer twice. This last time Shirley claims she finally had her priorities right. Chemotherapy wasn’t going to save her remaining breast, but skiing would save her life.
Shirley won’t tell her fellow skiers how old she is. “They would expect me to act my age,” she says. Sworn to secrecy, I can only say that for a three-time cancer survivor in her ninth decade, Shirley Sundt still rips.