When Carolyn Choate was in the midst of her fight against breast cancer, she turned toward the epics for inspiration.
"I thought, 'Wow, all these battles these males went through, if they knew what it was like to go through chemotherapy, now that's a battle,' " said the Harford County native.
Choate was working toward her master's degree in literature and writing when she had to stop because of her breast cancer diagnosis. She was given three years to live, but she never let go of the idea that she'd re-create a heroic epic through a female lens.
That was 14 years ago. Now, Choate is paddling 300 miles down the Delaware River in honor of the late Angela Brodie, a University of Maryland School of Medicine doctor who developed the life-saving drug that was used to treat Choate, who is now in long-term remission. She is raising money and awareness for breast cancer research, and working toward a $500,000 endowment in Brodie's name.
Choate started her kayak journey in New York on Aug. 10 and will complete it in Baltimore on Sunday. She's paddling with her daughter, Sydney Turnbull, and the two are closely followed by Gordon Jackson, Choate's husband, who is tracing a similar land route in a camper. Her younger daughter, MacKenzie, will greet them in Baltimore.
"I don't want to say it's easy, but it hasn't been like the battle of breast cancer," said Turnbull, 27. "It's fun, the sites are beautiful. … You can meditate while your mom is yelling at you to paddle faster."
Choate received her diagnosis in April 2003. Her cancer was estrogen-positive, the most common type of breast cancer, which grows in response to the presence of estrogen in the body. Choate's tumor didn't initially show up on a mammogram and was advanced by the time she received radiation, she said. A month after having a radical mastectomy and undergoing "very, very aggressive" chemotherapy and radiation, Choate still had cancer.
She was young at the time, 45 years old, and running out of options, she said. Doctors suggested the aromatase inhibitor Brodie developed.
"They didn't know at the time it would eventually be the gold standard that it is," said Choate, 59, who is a semi-retired on-air personality and television producer in Nashua, N.H.
The aromatase inhibitor blocks the production of estrogen, effectively shutting down the hormone that estrogen-postive cancer responds to. Its development was "equal to any advance in the treatment of breast cancer in the last 150 years," said Kevin Cullen, a professor of oncology at the UM School of Medicine. "The drugs she invented and the ones that followed are used worldwide by hundreds of thousands of women."
But the medicine that eventually saved thousands of lives, including Choate's, almost never saw the market.
"When she first took this approach, people didn't believe it," said Margaret McCarthy, chair of the pharmacology department at the School of Medicine. Brodie "just had to fight and fight and fight to get it recognized. It's really hard to break into an established world of science."
The alternative drug at the time was tamoxifen, a medicine that attaches to estrogen receptors in the cancer cells. But receptors are "wily," McCarthy said, and sometimes tamoxifen activates them instead of shutting them down.
Brodie's drug went largely ignored until she caught the attention of a British oncologist who began a clinical trial. The trial had profound effects, and the drug went to market in 1994.
Choate became "obsessed" with finding the person who created the medicine that saved her life, and eventually stumbled across a web page with Brodie's name. The two met in 2014 at the medical school, and Brodie showed Choate and her family the University of Maryland laboratory where she did her work.
"This trip, this epic voyage, mirrors her epic voyage to get it on the market," Choate said of Brodie, who died of complications from Parkinson's disease in June.
"She was amazing," McCarthy said of Brodie, whom she worked with for more than 25 years. "Kind and polite and calm but also ... steely, determined, tough as nails, driven and focused on work."
Choate was born in Havre de Grace and grew up in Bel Air, living in Maryland until 1980, around the time Brodie was developing her life-saving drug. When she returns to Maryland, she will first stop in Havre de Grace on Saturday before continuing on to Baltimore. In Maryland, she will be accompanied by members of local kayaking clubs, including the Chesapeake Paddler's Association, which will join her in Havre de Grace. The Orioles will honor her Monday.
Choate has along her journey visited institutions and organizations "for their positive contribution to the cancer community," she said. She stopped at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., where a new science center is under construction, and Trenton, N.J., to discuss the state's cancer registry program.
Choate has raised about $31,000 toward her $500,000 goal, including two $10,000 donations from Pandora jewelry and the Mary Kay Foundation and a donation from Harry Brodie, Angela's husband. Leo's Vacation Center in Gambrills pledged $1,000, said general manager Bob Wilson, after the store learned Gordon was traveling with an RV the store sells. Choate and Turnbull are traveling in donated kayaks as well.
This is not Choate's first journey into the unknown. She hiked across Santorini, Greece, to re-create part of Homer's "Odyssey" and trekked through Denmark, fashioning herself a female Beowulf fighting breast cancer instead of the fabled beast Grendel. And of course, Choate has battled cancer and become an advocate for those in "the club."
"It's a club nobody wants to join, but once you're in it, it's an obligation you feel to your very core to help people in it navigate it … and champion every angle you can find for those in the club," she said.