by Sean Swarner
Sean Swarner was diagnosed with cancer. Twice. To celebrate his beating the odds he climbed the seven summits -– the highest mountains on each of the seven continents -– in honor of everyone touched by cancer. Here, he shares a part of that journey, excerpted from his book: Keep Climbing: How I Beat Cancer and Reached the Top of the World.
The silk-screened flag flaps in the stiff breeze at the top of the world. I can already tell that by week’s end, its edges will be tattered from the constant battering, looking worse for the wear but still mostly intact. In a few weeks it will be skeletal, a mere shadow of itself; in a few months it will be a little more than a stick in the snow and some frayed fabric.
But that’s ok.
This close to heaven, what are a few loose ends … right?
The funny thing is, even with all these months of preparation, training, and planning, I’d naively assumed mine would be the only flag up here. It’s not; the top of Everest is like one of those roadside shrines you see everywhere these days, where someone has died in a horrible accident. Only, instead of teddy bears and plastic daisies, you see prayer flags, pickets, and Perlon stacked in an un-ceremonial, if colorful, heap on the snowy, narrow summit.
I ignore the tackiness, the gaudiness, and admire the flag anyway. People climb Everest for dozens of reasons, but for me this is more than some mere personal odyssey. The flag, tattered though it soon may be, represents the hopes, the dreams, and in some cases the dying wishes of countless people diagnosed with cancer.
I know I’m one of the incredibly lucky ones.
It’s 9:32 AM on the sixteenth of May 2002, and I’m standing at the highest point on the planet. The summit of Everest: 29,035 feet. Below me is the globe, that thing you spin in elementary school, never looking past the big, red star that marks the capital of your home state.
That’s the view from the top.
The silk-screened flag flaps in the stiff breeze at the top of the world. Its sound is subtle, instantly recognizable, and reassuring. It brags, “You made it, Sean. You did it. You’ve made history. First cancer survivor to summit the world’s tallest mountain.”
Then it whispers, “And we climbed it with you, all of us. Every name on this flag, every person ever affected by cancer in any way; we’re here with you, here for you, right now and always.”
Then another eighty-mile-an-hour gust at the top of the world scatters the whispers to all four corners of the globe. I look around to see if anybody else hears it. Nothing.
I’ve overextended my stay. I look back at the flag, bearing the names of all those affected by cancer, dozens of them, hundreds, thousands, stacked one on top of the other like the climbers in their queue. The breeze picks up and the flag flaps; already it’s bending to the blur of the elements, its edges starting to tatter its ink starting to fade.
But that’s ok.
This close to heaven, what are a few loose ends, right?
When I was only 13 years old, I was diagnosed with Advanced Stage IV Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and given only three months to live. I went through a year of chemo, lost all the hair on my body, lost all my friends, gained 60 lbs, and when I was placed in remission, I had to start my life all over again. I lived life to the fullest by joining my friends playing soccer, swimming, football, cross-country, and track. It was a wonderful life, but it was short-lived. About 18 months in remission, I was going in for a check-up for the Hodgkin’s and in less than 24 hours they found a tumor on an x-ray, did a needle biopsy, took out a lymph node, cracked open my ribs, removed the tumor, inserted a drainage tube, and started chemotherapy. I was 16 and the doctors gave me less than 14 days to live. I went through three months of intense chemo, one month of radiation, and then 10 more months of chemo. The medicine this time around was so harsh, the doctors actually put me in a medically induced coma. I literally don’t remember being 16 years old.
When I was finally placed in remission, I celebrated and am still celebrating my survivorship by trying to give people something I never had … hope. I started trying to give hope to others at a very young age, when during my first cancer experience I was approached by the Make A Wish Foundation and my wish was to give it to others else so that they could enjoy something. To this day, I’ve been told I am still the only person who has ever given his or her wish to someone else. As an adult I wanted to help more than just one or two people. Because of my past and my goal of giving everyone affected by cancer hope, my brother and I founded The Cancer Climber Association, where we help others by sharing inspirational stories, giving survivors an opportunity to join us on a climb, providing a mobile camp for kids with cancer, and facilitating personal visits to patients by survivors.
At the end of the day, it’s about enjoying each day you have with the ones you love and celebrating life. Cancer may have been the worst thing that has ever happened to me, but it’s also ended up being one of the best things to have survived. My book is dedicated, to all those affected by cancer. I couldn’t have done anything without you … including climbing the highest mountain on each continent (the 7-Summits) and completing the Hawaii Ironman … all with only one functioning lung. Thank you for being my inspiration, my hope, and the driving force behind everything I’ve done in my life. At the end of the day, for anyone affected by cancer, it’s about cherishing the time with those you love and powering through every day. Embracing your survivorship is one of the greatest experiences you could ever imagine. It’s a new lease on life, and can be absolutely anything you ever wanted. Keep Climbing!
Stand Up to Cancer blog
July 13, 2012