From atop Mount Everest, a summit so high that he could see the curvature of the Earth, Sean Swarner radioed base camp on May 16, 2002, and asked his brother to call their parents and share the news: “Your son made it to the top of the world!”
Through tears of triumph, Swarner unfolded a silk flag printed with the names of dozens of cancer victims and planted it in the snow. “Every person who had ever had cancer, was battling cancer or didn’t win the fight with their cancer was right there with me,” says Swarner, a two-time cancer survivor who has climbed the world’s tallest peaks on six continents to inspire people afflicted with the disease.
“I’m eternally grateful for a third chance at life,” says Swarner, 32, who lives in Boulder, Colo. “I think I’m here to share hope and inspiration.”
Swarner’s fight for life began at age 13. While playing basketball at Willard Junior High School in Willard, Ohio (pop. 6,806), he jumped to make a basket and felt his knee snap. The next morning, every joint in his body was swollen.
“The long and short of it is the doctor said, ‘You’ve got more on your plate to think about than the knee,”’ recalls his mother, Teri. “He said we’d need to see an oncologist.’”
Sean was diagnosed with advanced-stage Hodgkins disease and his parents were told his prospects were grim. The teenager endured weeks of intense chemotherapy treatments that left him weak, bald and bloated.
“I’d been on the cusp of becoming a handsome young man,” Sean recalls. “Now I felt like a troll waddling out from beneath his bridge each morning, head shiny and thighs rubbing together.”
During his treatment, Sean’s father, Scott, gave him a bright green T-shirt with the message: “I Don’t Always Look Like This” printed on the front and “On Chemo” on the back.
After a year, when Sean’s cancer was in remission, he celebrated by packing up his get-well cards and running a 5K race. In a dreadful twist of fate, in 1990, a golf-ball-sized tumor was found in his right lung and he was diagnosed with a rare Askin’s sarcoma. Once again, Sean’s chances of survival were slim, but amazingly he conquered cancer a second time.
“I think I’m here because of the miracles of modern medicine, family support and prayer,” Sean says.
An inspiration to others
Having beaten cancer twice as a teenager, Sean planned to become a counselor for cancer patients. However, while studying at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville in 1999, he decided that he could be more helpful by serving as an inspiration to people with cancer.
In 2001, Sean set a goal to become the first cancer survivor to summit Mount Everest, the world’s tallest peak. “I wanted the highest platform to shout the potential of the human body and spirit,” he says. “I wanted to shout from the rooftop of the world that there is hope.”
That same year, Sean sold all his belongings and he and his younger brother, Seth, founded the not-for-profit Cancer Climber Association, which funds his climbs and helps other cancer patients realize their dreams. The brothers moved to Colorado, living in a tent at first while contacting companies about sponsorships. Sean trained by climbing the Rocky Mountains with 100 pounds of rocks in a backpack.
Despite his vigorous training, when Sean arrived at the base of 29,035-foot Mount Everest in 2002, he was humbled by the feat before him. For weeks, he acclimated to the altitude by climbing several thousand feet up the mountain during the day, then descending to sleep at night. He battled bone-chilling cold and 100-mph winds as he jabbed his ice axe into the snow to use as an anchor to keep from blowing off the mountain. He crossed crevasses several hundred feet deep on aluminum ladders lashed together. Each footstep became a life-or-death decision in air so thin that climbers often die from lack of oxygen.
On the final push to the summit, Sean was rewarded with a scene of unforgettable beauty. “The sunrise was gorgeous—orange, red, blue, purple—off to my right, and to my left there was nothing but stars at eye level.”
The flag, dedicated to cancer victims, wasn’t all that Sean left in Nepal. He visited the Bhaktapur Cancer Care Center where he met a teenage boy, thin and bald, and felt as if he were looking in a mirror. Sean unpacked his green “On Chemo” T-shirt, which he’d brought along for good luck, and gave it to the boy.
“I told him when he got better and his cancer was gone, he had to give the shirt to someone else.”
After conquering Mount Everest, Sean set his sights on scaling the “Seven Summits”—the tallest peak on each of the world’s seven continents—and planting a flag with names of cancer victims.
In 2003, Sean climbed Africa’s Kilimanjaro and Europe’s Elbrus; in 2005, he climbed South America’s Aconcagua and Australia’s Kosciusko. In January, he stood atop Antarctica’s Vinson. Sean shares his personal challenges and mountaineering feats when he visits hospitals and speaks to groups around the country. He also relates his story in a recently released autobiography, Keep Climbing: How I Beat Cancer and Reached the Top of the World.
“Sean is the most inspirational guy you’ll ever meet. He’s so humble and down-to-earth, yet has accomplished so much,” says Zac York, 19, who suffered a brain tumor at age 12 and was not expected to walk again.
Last summer, the Cancer Climber Association helped York buy gear and train for his goal of climbing 14,494-foot Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in California. Sean was beside him every step.
York, a freshman at the University of Arizona in Tucson, walks on crutches and bad weather cut his ascent short, but not his sense of accomplishment. “I spent a week in the mountains with the best people in the world,” York says. “Sean shows you that there’s always hope. Look at him—he’s scaling the world’s highest peaks with one lung.”
Sean has one more mountain to climb to complete the Seven Summits—North America’s Mount McKinley. He tried to reach the 20,320-foot Alaskan peak last year, but a 100-foot fall rattled him, scuttling his attempt. In May, he’ll try again in hopes of standing atop the mountain on the fifth anniversary of his Mount Everest summit.
He won’t be alone. In his chest pocket, Sean will carry a flag with the names of thousands of people stricken by cancer. It’s his way of encouraging others to climb their own mountains.
Visit www.cancerclimber.org for more information.