As the plane climbed higher and higher, Ranie Schoenstein's breaths became faster and shallower. Tears streamed down her face. Other skydivers offered to go ahead of her, but no. Schoenstein's tandem master insisted that Schoenstein go first. To end the panic, she had to jump.
The engine roared like an old, loud lawnmower. Schoenstein's fingers dug into the tandem master's legs. The red light above the open plane door switched to green.
Schoenstein's face twisted into an ugly cry. Her chest heaved. All she could think was – Oh my God, what am I doing?
Nineteen years prior, when she was 35 years old, Schoenstein's boyfriend discovered a lump in her left breast. Next came a mastectomy and chemotherapy, followed by surgery a year later to remove growths discovered on her right breast. She lost most of her hair, and the boyfriend, too. But she survived. Schoenstein is cancer-free, but the experience changed her.
"Cancer is no longer a death sentence, but the fear that it's going to come back – you just never know," she says.
That fear sticks with her, a constant hum through the otherwise simple life of a single 54-year-old woman from Long Island, New York, who works as a teaching assistant for children with autism. Cancer is scary, and the fear is justifiable. But fighting cancer made her rethink all the things she's afraid of. Seemingly irrational things, like crowds. Spiders. And heights.
One Fear at a Time
Schoenstein has always feared heights. She suspects that the anxiety started when, as a young child, she and her family went to the top of the Empire State Building. Her father picked her up and held her by the waist so she could have a better view. Her feet dangling, she gazed down, down, down to the street below. Her mother panicked, and so did she.
All these years later, she was ready to let go of that fear. Her first attempt was unsuccessful. "I went on a hot air balloon ride and that was boring," she says. "I wanted to be scared. I wanted to do something once, and then never do it again."
So Schoenstein decided: To get over my fear of heights, I'm going to jump out of an airplane.
In the summer of 2015, Schoenstein soared 10,000 feet above Long Island. A very young, very handsome Greek man strapped himself to her back. "Put your head back on my shoulder," he said. "Do not look outside." And with one strong push, Schoenstein was in free-fall.
The jerk from the parachute release stunned her. She spun in circles – "That was not enjoyable," she says. On cue, she reached her arms out for the photographer to get the classic skydiving picture. She quickly pulled them back in. She sailed down to the earth, slower now. And over and over she thought – Oh my God, what am I doing?
And her mind went not to her cancer, not to her fear, but to her heartache. The jump, she realized, was not only about her fear of heights. A year before, Schoenstein had lost her beloved father. In his youth, Alfred George Schoenstein was a paratrooper for the U.S. Army. He served his country by jumping out of airplanes.
"I wanted to be brave enough to do what he did," Schoenstein says. "For me it was 'Dad, I'm thinking about you, and if you could do it, I can do it.'"
When Schoenstein finally returned to earth, she bungled the landing. She hurt her hand but that didn't matter – minutes before she had been a sobbing, petrified mess. And now, she was a cancer survivor who had jumped out of an airplane, just to prove she could do it.
"Whether the cancer will come back or not – you never know," she says. "So I don't wait for anyone anymore. I do what I want to do. I'm not rude about it, but if I get a bug in my head about something, I do it. This was one of those things."
What's next for Schoenstein? She really wants to get over that fear of spiders. She dreads snorkeling but wants to swim with sharks, feel them ram their bodies against the side of the shark cage. And she really, really wants to learn to do a cartwheel.
"I don't know why, but I have never been able to do a cartwheel. I'm not sure how I'll learn, but I know I'm going to try," she says.