When Kim Carlson moved to Anchorage from Nine Mile Falls, Washington in 1998, she had no way of knowing the twists and turns of fate that would send her plunging feet first into hypothermic water temperatures in Seward.
“My really good friend from pretty much elementary school all the way through high school tricked me into moving up here when I was 23,” laughed Carlson. “Of course, she only lasted a year and a half before she moved back to Washington – I pretty much got ditched – but I liked it here, so I stayed.”
But in 2005 Carlson received the phone call everyone dreads – her mother had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
“Initially my mom presented it like it was no big deal - like ‘oh I’m going to go a hysterectomy and go do chemo and it will all be fine.’ She was a mom and she didn’t want us to worry about her,” said Carlson.
As her mom’s cancer progressed and treatment wasn’t working, Carlson knew she had to pack her bags and move back to Washington. Once there, the year and half prognosis doctors gave her mom was met with the harsh reality of terminal illness and her mom passed away just months later.
“After my mom passed, I moved back to Alaska. I just couldn’t keep living in Washington anymore – there were too many painful memories for me there,” recalled Carlson who moved back to Anchorage in 2009.
Then on February 28, 2017 Carlson received another devastating blow. A routine mammogram had detected a lump that was identified as Stage 1 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. Like her mom, Carlson battled back and underwent a lumpectomy, did four rounds of chemotherapy and then six weeks of radiation.
“Honestly, the radiation was bad. My skin blistered and peeled. Like you’re literally cooking yourself from the inside out and it’s like getting a really bad sunburn over and over again,” explained Carlson. “It’s those little things about treatment that they don’t tell you about that are the worst – like how your hair is going to physically hurt really bad until it all falls out.”
Although nothing could have prepared Carlson for the pain of undergoing treatment, her annual participation in the Polar Bear Jump - which has participants leaping from the Seward Small Boat Harbor into icy winter waters to raise money for cancer research - may have helped shape her nerves of steel.
“My first jump in 2005 was ridiculous - it was really cold, and I was so ill prepared! I just remember walking around the docks with nothing on my feet but socks which were covered in snow and ice – my feet were totally numb before I even hit the water,” recalled Carlson. “My friends and I decided we wanted to swim to shore after the jump which would have been fine, except it meant that we didn’t have an official dock buddy to hold on to our stuff while we jumped. My friend who was supposed to watch my stuff met some guy and disappeared while I was in the water. I didn’t have any clothes, no room key, nothing to dry off with – like literally nothing. It took me three days to warm up!”
Despite a challenging maiden jump, something inside Carlson told her that she needed to keep coming back to the water every year.
“For me, it’s been a full circle kind of thing. I would probably never would have gotten my current job with the American Cancer Society if I hadn’t started doing the Polar Bear Jump. I met so many people through the jumps and I made friends with my current boss who was the one who told me about a job opening when I was having a hard time at my previous job. Then I was working for the Cancer Society when I was diagnosed – the American Cancer Society is a pretty understanding place to work when you’re going through something like that,” explained Carlson.
But it wasn’t just the relationships that Carlson formed while jumping that ended up having a major impact on her life.
“I've always been motivated to do the Polar Bear Jump for my mom and my uncle [who was diagnosed with prostate cancer] but then I had my own experience with cancer and have become even more appreciative of how important the American Cancer Society is. Basically, the research that they have done found the drug that I'm taking that will hopefully keep me cancer free,” Carlson said.
Always one to fight for what’s important to her, Carlson has worked hard to help fund the research that she attributes with saving her life.
“I mean, I've made a lot of my improvements since my very first jump when I had to write a check for $50 dollars to get to the minimum donation of $750,” said Carlson who has currently raised $7,775 this year. “I think I’ve raised around $60,000 since I started doing the Polar Bear Jump but I am always trying to set the bar higher and I am going to find a way to get to $10,000 this year!”
Carlson will be taking her 14th consecutive jump on Saturday, January 27. If you would like to donate or learn more about Carlson’s story, visit https://goo.gl/cJ8mmM.