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Unplugged in Alaska and the Yukon: The Electrifying Surge of Being Present

Originally Posted Sep 13th, 2017

Nancy M. Cappello, Ph.D. Founder & Director,
Are You Dense, Inc. &
Are You Dense Advocacy, Inc.
See Bio
Magnificent Polychrome Pass in Denali National Park

Leaving behind my laptop was a notable sign that I was serious in making our adventure to the Last Frontier and the Klondike free from life’s clutter. My husband, Joe, planned the 12-day trip as our 43rd Anniversary get-away. Joe recognized that for me to really ‘get-away’ I should be far from internet access. My typical day, when I am not on my phone or at a community meeting or event, I am buried deep in websites, emails and the social media frenzy, as we communicate our breast health advocacy mission that was birthed right out of the gate of my advanced-stage breast cancer diagnosis. So leading up to our departure, I was prepared for my escape from the internet world by saying adios to my laptop, its heavy adapter and my 32GB thumb drive. I was ‘leaning in’ full throttle with my head up and my phone down.

Prepared to fully participate in my unplugged adventure, I began Peter Jenkins critically acclaimed book “Looking for Alaska” as our airplane from JFK ascended to the first leg of our flight to Phoenix and then on to Anchorage with a total flying time of 11 hours. With a map of Alaska & Canada in hand, as I reviewed our itinerary with great anticipation which included multiple transports - a coach, two trains, a plane and a ship, I reflected on the enormous blessing of being healthy, which was not the case nearly fourteen years ago.

An unanticipated advanced-stage breast cancer diagnosis, within weeks of my 11th normal mammogram hit like a ton of bricks. It wasn’t until I questioned my team of physicians as to why I was diagnosed with late-stage disease, after recent normal mammography results, was the impact of my dense breast tissue and the challenge of mammography to ‘see’ cancer in dense breasts ultimately unmasked to me. My docs’ refusal to report a patient’s dense tissue led Joe and me to the Connecticut Legislature. Our goal was to get this critical breast health information to the patient, giving all women an opportunity for personalized screening. Fourteen years after my diagnosis, thirty-one states, have a density reporting law inspired by Connecticut’s landmark legislation in 2009. Insurance coverage for adjunct screening for women with dense breast tissue is also law in several states, beginning in Connecticut in 2005.

The “Last Frontier” and 49th State

After meeting with 37 other adventurers in Anchorage who would become our BFF’s by trip’s end, we boarded the McKinley Explorer, a 360 degree glass dome train for an 8 hour ride through the stunning Alaska wilderness to Denali National Park & Preserve, 6.2 million acres of wonderment. The Dome train had limited internet services, so I couldn’t even be tempted to peak at my phone.

McKinley Explorer Rail

By 7AM the following morning, 39 Adventurers, with a snack pack in tow, boarded the Denali National Park bus for a guided 7-hour tour into Denali, far from any cell tower, with the hope of ‘seeing’ the iconic mountain and wildlife. We were not disappointed as within an hour we had our first sighting of caribou. By the end of the tour, we encountered moose, grizzly bears and dall sheep, along with eagles and willow ptarmigans, the Alaskan state bird.

The bus ride on the narrow dirt road through the magnificent Polychrome Pass was not for the faint-hearted with its precipitous drop to the river beds below. Half-way through the trip, our ranger pointed out in the far distance where Denali ‘the high one’ was - albeit engulfed in clouds. As we traversed deeper into the depths of the park, Denali remained elusive. We later learned that 70% of the time Denali is hidden by clouds, a good analogy of hidden cancer on mammography in a dense breasts. I ended up purchasing a postcard.

Caribou grazing in Denali
      An exhilarating & bumpy ride through narrow rock-laden
paths and streams around breathtaking Healy and Denali

From Denali we headed by coach to Fairbanks for our international flight to Dawson City, Yukon to explore the fascinating Klondike Rush region where 100,000 prospectors migrated to in the late 1800’s. Our 737 was delayed for 3 hours as the Dawson airport was fogged in. It’s unplanned times like this that become memorable as we chatted for hours with our travel mates about our lives and adventures thus far. It was heartwarming to meet women from across the U.S. who knew they had dense breast tissue which led to conversations about personalized screening with health care providers.

We finally landed on Dawson’s unpaved airstrip to explore the historic gold rush town. After Dawson we traveled a full day by coach through the Yukon to Whitehorse, stopping along the way to remote places such as Moose Creek and Minto Resort. We would arrive back in Alaska the next day to board the cruise ship via the White Pass Train.

Plus 39 adventurers descend on Moose Creek
Our 39 Travel Mates at Minto Resorts, YT owned by the Selkirk First Nation
on the banks of the Yukon River with our phenomenal tour guide Seaira
A stop at Emerald Lake to view the blazing Fireweed, the official floral emblem
of the Yukon Territory
The White Pass Train from Fraser, BC to Skagway AK

Ah - the cruise! The early morning regimen of setting bags outside the door way too early and boarding the coach before 8AM was over. It was time to relax and explore the coastline towns of Skagway and Ketchikan. Cruising the remote Glacier Bay was electrifying as my senses of sight, hearing and smell were amplified as birds sang and glaciers calved. The spectacular gem-like colors from the snow-capped mountains, dense forests and azure sky and bay were breathtaking. I was in awe of the splendor before me; I was fully unplugged.

Margerie Glacier
A school of Porpoises enjoy the Ship’s wake as
we cruised the Inside Passge

Our cruise ended in the beautiful coastal city of Vancouver, British Columbia where we spent another day exploring before our long flight home. I was content as I soaked in the joy of being present that I never thought of plugging in.

Our first morning back in Connecticut, I sat on a rocking chair on our screened porch enjoying the glorious sounds of the birds and the magnificence of the surrounding woods. The intense soulful impact of being unplugged and present still lingered, unmoved by geography. Beauty abounds every day. Alaska and the Yukon adventure taught me that I just have to keep my head up to experience it.

Unplugged in Connecticut
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Please browse the website further to learn about dense breast tissue, use the available resources, read and share stories and consider making a donation to help expose this BEST-KEPT SECRET about the limitations of mammography alone to detect cancer in women with dense breast tissues.

Are You Dense, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) public charity. IRS Tax ID 26-3643216. All donations are tax-deductible as allowed by law.

  • Are You Dense? Fact #1:

    Breast density is one of the strongest predictors of the failure of mammography screening to detect cancer.

  • Are You Dense? Fact #2:

    Two-thirds of pre-menopausal women and 1/4 of post menopausal women have dense breast tissue. 

  • Are You Dense? Fact #3:

    Adding more sensitive tests to mammography significantly increase detection of invasive cancers that are small and node negative.

  • Are You Dense? Fact #4:

    Cancer turns up five times more often in women with extremely dense breasts than those with the most fatty tissue.

  • Are You Dense? Fact #5:

    While a mammogram detects 98% of cancers in women with fatty breasts, it finds only 48% in women with the densest breasts.

  • Are You Dense? Fact #6:

    A woman at average risk and a woman at high risk have an EQUAL chance of having their cancer masked by mammogram.

  • Are You Dense? Fact #7:

    Women with dense breasts who had breast cancer have a four times higher risk of recurrence than women with less-dense breasts.

  • Are You Dense? Fact #8:

    A substantial proportion of Breast Cancer can be attributed to high breast density alone.

  • Are You Dense? Fact #9:

    There are too many women who are unaware of their breast density, believe their “Happy Gram” when it reports no significant findings and are at risk of receiving a later stage cancer diagnosis.