From the Deepest Valley to the Highest Peak: A Survivor’s View From the Top of The World
When asked by the New York Times in March 1923 why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, English mountaineer George Mallory famously responded, “because it’s there.”
Nearly eighty years later, Ohioan Sean Swarner also summited Mt. Everest; not because the mountain was there, but because he was. The survivor of two highly-lethal cancers during his adolescence, Swarner became the first known cancer survivor to ever climb to the summit of the world’s highest mountain.
“I’d done some research over the Internet and discovered that no cancer survivor had ever climbed Everest,” Swarner says. After cross-checking his findings with records kept by Elizabeth Hawley, the renowned chronicler of Himalayan expeditions, Swarner began training for the physically demanding climb with repeated treks up the 14,440 ft. of Mt. Elbert in Colorado with 100 pounds of rocks in his backpack.
Most climbers spend years training to build up the endurance required to climb Everest. Swarner, who has only one fully functioning lung, was ready after only eight months. “In high school and college, I was known as ‘Nature Boy,’” he says. “I loved being outside. I wanted to help people touched by cancer. This was a way to do it.”
Upon reaching the top of Everest – located 29,029 ft. above sea level – on the morning of May 16, 2002, Swarner buried a flag in the ice and snow with the names of over 100 others whose lives had been affected by cancer from whom he received support during his daunting journey. To his east was the rising sun, and to his west: a breathtaking star field stretched across the sky at eye level. Perched at the very top of the world and overcome by an indescribable range of powerful emotions, Sean Swarner had conquered the unconquerable, but he wasn’t satisfied.
“We used the Everest climb to raise funds, but we didn’t reach as many people as we wanted to,” he says nearly a decade later with a combination of lingering disappointment and steely determination. “For those who have survived cancer, it’s our duty and obligation to help cancer patients; to give them encouragement and hope.”
Resolved to share his remarkable story of survival and adventure with a larger audience, Swarner set out to climb all Seven Summits – the highest peaks on each of the planet’s seven continents.
He began in 2003 by reaching the tops of both Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa and Elbrus, the highest point in Europe. Two years later he battled arid winds to reach the summit of Aconcagua in South America. In 2006, Swarner climbed Kosciuszko, the highest elevation in Australia, wearing flip-flops. Later that same year he ventured across some of the most hostile terrain on Earth to scale Vinson Massif, the highest mountain in Antarctica.
Then, in 2007, after five years of climbing, Swarner reached the summit of Denali – the indigenous name for Mt. McKinley – in Alaska. Due to equipment failure and brutal weather, it took him three tries to tame Denali, but once at the top, Swarner became the first cancer survivor to plant a flag on each of the Seven Summits. The one he buried on McKinley included the names of over 300 fellow cancer survivors.
Swarner describes the climbs with a friendly, matter-of-fact cadence. There is no hint of arrogance or condescension in his voice. He knows that his most incredible feat wasn’t climbing those mountains, but getting to them in the first place.
In 1988, at the age of 13, Sean Swarner was diagnosed with late Stage IV Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. There is no Stage V.
A natural athlete who dreamed of one day joining the U.S. Olympic Swim Team, Swarner had displayed none of the typical indicators of cancer. With the exception of his maternal grandfather – a heavy smoker who died of throat cancer – the Swarner family had been completely cancer-free. “[The diagnosis] was a random fluke,” he remembers. “I was playing a game of pick-up basketball at school after lunch. I went for a layup and got a knee injury. It inflamed my entire body. We went to the hospital and that’s how they found it.”
The lethal cancer had quietly spread throughout Swarner’s entire lymphatic system. The doctors, who only gave Swarner three months to live, didn’t initially share with him the seriousness of his condition. “They told my parents, but they didn’t tell me,” he says. “I went to the hospital library to look up ‘Hodgkin’s Disease.’ That’s how I learned that I had cancer. I was so young when I got the first diagnosis. I didn’t understand the ramifications of having cancer. All I wanted to do was chase girls and play sports.”
Young Sean would get to do neither. Instead he went through a year of grueling treatment including radiation and chemotherapy; “all the really nasty stuff,” as he puts it. The side effects were severe and uncomfortable causing him to gain sixty pounds while losing all the hair on his body. The nausea was endless, causing him to throw up for up to 36 hours at a time. One of the drugs caused his eyes to roll up in his head. The strapping young athlete was unrecognizable.
“All of the sudden I was sixty pounds overweight; losing my friends and my life, but I stayed positive,” he says. “Like with anything, you play the cards you’re dealt. Family, prayer, and humor got me through it. Modern medicine got me through it. A lot of elements played into my survival. Is it prayer? Is it medicine? They all work together. Without any one of them, I wouldn’t be here.”
The older of two boys, Swarner relied on the support of his parents and younger brother, Seth, to whom he remains extremely close. “I kept apologizing to my brother, because my parents’ focus was on getting me better. It was tough.” After nine months of treatments, Swarner was placed in remission and given a second, unlikely chance at life.
Then, twenty months into remission, Swarner received another diagnosis that seemed impossible. His doctors, during a routine checkup, had found a golf ball-sized tumor in his right lung. Not only was he once again facing a life-and-death fight with an aggressive cancer, it was a completely different cancer – Askin’s Sarcoma – seemingly unrelated to the Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
“It was more aggressive than the first cancer,” he says. “The doctors, literally, gave me fourteen days to live. It was more dumb luck. If I hadn’t suffered the knee injury, they wouldn’t have found the first cancer. If I hadn’t had the first cancer, they wouldn’t have found the second cancer.” Able to joke about it now, the 16-year-old Sean took the news a bit differently. “Once they told me it was cancer again, I took my IV, went back to my room, buried my face in my pillow and cried my eyes out.”
As painfully and debilitating as the treatments and side effect from the first cancer were, the treatments for the Askin’s sarcoma proved to be even worse, requiring three months of radiation followed by ten months of chemotherapy. Swarner says of the severity, “the doctors didn’t want me to remember the treatments, so I was placed into a medically-induced coma during each of the five-day cycles. I lost sixty pounds, looked emaciated, and my muscles atrophied.”
But he survived.
“Surviving those two cancers back-to-back was the statistical equivalent of winning the lottery four times in a row with the same numbers,” he says with a laugh. “Of course I never play the lottery, because I never get one stinkin’ number!”
Forever shaped by his experience battling with both Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and Askin’s sarcoma, Swarner had no interest in being defined by it. “I was born in a small town in Ohio. Everyone there knew me as the ‘cancer boy.’ When I went off to college, I wanted people to know me for who I was, not what I’d been through. I didn’t want pity; none of the ‘poor Sean’ stuff.” With the exception of his roommate and swim team coach – whom Sean’s parents had secretly told – nobody at college knew Swarner was a cancer survivor.
After graduate school, that all changed. Swarner is much more open – and talkative – about the experience now, having made a career of helping others face the same battle he did as a child. In 2001, along with his brother, Swarner founded the Cancer Climber Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to giving cancer patients the tools needed to overcome cancer with the right attitude and to come out on the other side with a more positive outlook on life. The CCA provides adventure sports grants and is raising funds to conduct an interactive mobile camp that visits hospitals throughout the United States.
“I see life through a different set of eyes than most people,” Swarner says with a conflicted sense of gratitude. “If it’s 2:20 on a Thursday afternoon, and I want to grab a beer, I grab a beer. So many people live by their jobs and allow themselves to be confined by culture beliefs. There’s a difference between being alive and living. There are so many people who pride themselves on never missing a day of work but have never take a vacation. Go to Africa, go to Europe, go out and see some things in the world.”
Having traveled to over 50 countries and spent the past decade studying religions and cultures throughout the world, Swarner is a firm believer in his own advice.
Even after having conquered the Seven Summits, he still remains active. In 2008, Swarner completed the Ironman Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii. It was only the third triathlon he’d ever done (the second was the qualifier). In the coming years, he has plans to reach both the North and South Poles while continuing to lead an annual expedition up Kilimanjaro.
To cancer patients, Swarner gives the sort of advice you’d expect from a seasoned mountain climber and world adventurer: “The human body can survive for roughly 30 days without food. The human body can live for three days without water. But no human alive can survive for more than 30 seconds without hope, because without hope we have nothing.
“Keep climbing. Never give up. That’s our motto.”
Category: Survivors in the News
Tags: Askin’s Sarcoma, Cancer Climber Association, CancerForward Survivor in The News, medically-induced coma, mountaineer, Mt. Everest, Sean Swarner, Stage IV Hodgkin’s Lymphoma