What trekking with strangers in Italy

taught me about girlhood

By Michaelee Parr

In May 2024, a group of 15 women (plus one brave man!), many of whom were strangers to one another, embarked on an epic journey of over 100km of trekking in Italy’s breathtaking Tuscany region along the Via Francigena. Of course, a love of beautiful scenery, delicious foods and a sense of adventure hadn’t hurt, but what really brought them all together was the opportunity to spread awareness about breast cancer and fundraise for the National Breast Cancer Foundation. The team had raised an incredible $59,157 for breast cancer research and support for patients and their families.
Upon their return, the team raved about what a life-changing experience the trek had been. We spoke with Michaelee, one of the participants on this adventure, to find out more about just how this experience had changed her outlook on life, and what it had taught her about girlhood.

When the opportunity arose for me to join the NBCF Tuscany trek, I jumped at it. I’m an avid hiker, I love travelling, and trekking for a good cause was the cherry on top. I wasn’t one bit nervous before embarking on the adventure. Something in my gut told me that this was going to be a great time with an amazing group - and my gut was right! 

To set the scene, when I arrived in Tuscany, all of my senses were overwhelmed, in the best sense of the word.  I'd seen pictures before but I didn't know it would literally be 360-degree views of olive groves, vineyards and cobblestone towns. Walking into town together at the end of each day, we were greeted with the divine smells of truffles, olive oil, cheese and fresh pasta in the air. It was like what I'd imagined only 1000% more Tuscan somehow. Everyone on our team clicked instantly, and we all cheered each other through the ups and downs, which kept the mood high for the entire trip.

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What I couldn’t have anticipated though was just how much I would be changed through the conversations and experiences I had trekking alongside the other women in the team, many of whom were breast cancer survivors, and all of whom had incredible stories to share. I will carry these life lessons and the women who shared them with me for many years to come.

1. I learned that taking time for yourself and your friendships can get difficult as we age, but they are so important to hold onto. Particularly when women become mothers, balancing a career and family commitments means that even long-held friendships and defining personality traits of ours can fall by the wayside. For many of the women I trekked alongside, this was the first time in many years that they had done something for themselves, and witnessing just how much that meant to them was moving.

2. I was reminded that often as women, we put others first, and the toll that can take. At 65 years of age, it was Leslie’s first time travelling overseas. As a carer to her husband, and her mother and grandmother before that, she simply hadn’t had the time to step away. It was only after her recovery from breast cancer that she decided to travel. Even so, she only took her time off from being a carer because she was driven to participate in a trek for breast cancer. When I asked about her battle with breast cancer, she immediately diminished her experience saying, "I didn't have it as bad as others have" completely putting her situation aside for the sake of others. It was touching, but also eye-opening how women are constantly self-sacrificing for others.

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3. I learned that the value of female friendships never diminishes. Joining our group were two close friends, Fiona and Caroline, whose friendship spans decades back to their school days. Despite living many hours apart and not seeing as much of each other as they had in their youth, their deep bond remained and I saw how the “girlhood” reignited in them when they were together. Their friendship inspired me to continue investing in my close female friendships.

4. I learned how to detect breast cancer. Many of these women have had their own experiences with breast cancer and were eager to share with me what abnormalities to look out for, the importance of self-checks and regular screenings for early detection. These conversations are so important to have with your female friends and family, and I feel far more equipped after learning from them.

5. I learned the value of girlhood and supporting one another. Even though the median age of the group was women in their mid-50s, I kept referring to the group as "girls", and initially I couldn't figure out why. But I think it was the giggles, the excitement and the heart-to-heart chats, that reminded me of a group of girls reuniting for a holiday. The team were all so supportive of one another. One of the girls in the group, Jen, was so good at cheering for everyone that we nicknamed her the “pep rally squad captain”.

Even after spending all day trekking together, when we’d arrive into each town we enjoyed exploring the local areas, eating dinner, and souvenir shopping together. Despite our range of ages and backgrounds, we really just enjoyed each other’s company for the entire time we spent together. 

At the end of the trek, when we reached the 100km mark at the gates of Siena, we celebrated and cheered so loudly that the people in the town joined us. It felt like the perfect way to sum up what a celebration of life this entire experience had been. I’ve never experienced anything like it before - it was magical.

 

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