La Jollan recounts 1,600-mile walk to survive cancer


For La Jolla resident Edie Littlefield Sundby, who was diagnosed with gallbladder cancer and given a three-month life expectancy 10 years ago, “battling Stage 4 cancer is like fighting a war.”

Her book “The Mission Walker,” an account of her experiences from the time she was diagnosed with cancer at age 55 until she completed the 1,600-mile El Camino Real, will be released July 25.

“My story is more than a personal story, it’s history, because as I’m walking, I’m experiencing everything that those explorers and men of the Sierras experienced (when they walked El Camino Real),” she told La Jolla Light.

El Camino Real is usually defined as the road that connects the old Spanish Missions in California from Southern San Diego to Sonoma. But there’s another, lesser-known part of the trail that starts in the Baja California city of Loreto and runs north to San Diego. Littlefield Sundby discovered that side of the trail, too.

“(In my book) I tell about Harry Crosby of San Diego, who Helen Copley commissioned to go to Loreto for California’s anniversary and find the old Mission Trail and photograph it, map it,” she explained.

“What I was attempting to do, just like Harry Crosby, was to follow Fr. Junípero Serra.” The Spanish Jesuit priest, Serra, is known as a driving force in the colonization of California.

All this walking, Littlefield Sundby related, she did with one lung. “I have one lung, and I need to walk very vigorously to keep it healthy,” she said. Her lung, one of many body parts she said to have lost to cancer, never stopped her from taking another step. As she tells herself in the book, “Edie, if you can move, you’re not sick.”

A healing miracle

Cancer came as a surprise to Littlefield Sundby. When she learned she had it in 2007, it had spread to several of her organs and the illness was in Stage 4, which usually is accompanied by the word “incurable.”

“I have no idea why I’m alive,” she said. She reported going through 79 rounds of chemotherapy and four major surgeries. “It’s been many months when I was very close to death, but many others when I’ve lived very vigorously, because I always walked. I never stopped moving since I was diagnosed,” she continued.

Littlefield Sundby is hopeful that a cure for cancer is forthcoming, “But a lot of the success with traditional chemo is still anecdotal, with immunotherapy, it’s anecdotal. I’m alive, but I’m anecdotal. Cancer is still a mystery with all our science and medicine.”

In this deeply spiritual narration, she often speaks of God. “I try to just do what I can, but trust in God that all will be well,” she said. “Because I’m dying, so what? Everybody is! I love life so much I want to live.”

Writing the walk

The idea to write the book came when the publishing house Harper Collins contacted her after reading her story in The New York Times. “A year ago, in May 2016, they wanted the book and they wanted to get it in 90 days,” she recalled.

“My husband took me to a little casita outside of Palm Springs, and I started to write. I wrote every day for 90 days. Just like walking, the book was the same way, I wrote every day, one word at a time, and God decided how long to tell the story. The story wrote itself pretty much,” she said. “They hardly edited a word of it.”

These days, when she’s in La Jolla, she said she takes walks along the Torrey Pines canyon, which is part of the Mission Trail. She takes care of business related to the book, she does interviews with reporters who want to know more about her.

She’s aware that she has incurable cancer and it may come back any day. “If cancer comes back I’ll accept it, deal with it, pray. I’ll be terrified. I will go inside my body and just ask my body to bear with me here, and it may not be up to it again. I don’t know. My spirit may be just ready to go and join my maker. It’s a life of unknowns and uncertainty, and I’ve become very comfortable with uncertainty.”

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Launch Party at Warwick’s: Edie Littlefield Sundby will present her book at a launch party, 11:30 a.m. Sunday, July 23 at Warwick’s Bookstore, 7812 Girard Ave. RSVP to